BLOOMINGTON – On the court at Assembly Hall tonight were the player who is probably going to win Big Ten Player of the Year and a player who performs like the Big Ten Player of the Year once every couple of weeks. The former, Iowa's Luka Garza, who scored 38 points and dominated every facet of the game most of the night, was nonetheless unable to carry his team past the latter.
That latter player is Indiana guard Devonte Green and on the nights that he is in rhythm and feeling confident, there is maybe no more explosive guard in college basketball. It happens frustratingly infrequently, but it happened tonight and he poured in 27 points, including a 7-for-11 performance from 3-point range to lead the Hoosiers to a 89-77 win over the No. 21 Hawkeyes. It was a win Indiana needed as badly as any in the Archie Miller Era and Green rode to the rescue, turning his best game since he had 30 points in a Dec. 3 win over Florida State.
"We needed it," Miller said of Green's performance. "We really needed it. Our team needs some type of confidence boost in big games. And when he's played well, we've played well. And we've got to bottle it and figure out a way how to keep him rolling, not to get 27 every night, but I will say this – consistency.
"Can we get two, three, four games in a row, where we have a guy playing outstanding basketball? And tonight he was one of the best players in the country."
Green's brother, Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green, was in attendance and although the younger Green said it didn't really affect his mindset going into the game, Miller joked afterward that he asked the two-time NBA champion whether he might be able to miss the remainder of the pro season to keep coming to IU games. The elder Green apparently said that wouldn't be possible, but Miller is holding out hope for some inspirational pre-game FaceTime sessions.
Miller made plain after the game that although Green is the type of scorer and creator that can raise Indiana's ceiling to the level of one of the best teams in the conference. He laid down a challenge to the guard to string together several games in a row where he makes a significant impact, where he keeps the confidence going from game to game. The senior guard had a stretch like that last year from the Big Ten Tournament through the NIT, but this year his tantalizingly spectacular performances against Florida State, Maryland and others have often been followed by days where he is a ghost on the court. That has to end for Indiana to reach its potential.
"Devonte is a unique guy," Miller said. "He really is. He's a smart guy. He's got a good IQ. And when he's engaged he's really good. When he gets lethargic, down on himself or starts to look around, funny, I think you can see a different player out there. But we don't have time for that right now and I think he realizes that. In talking this week, we don't really have time for him to be feeling this thing out. He's got to hit the afterburner here and try to push through for us.
"He doesn't have that fire where he just comes flying out the next day like, 'Here I come.' I wish he had that. When he does, puts some things to the side and says, 'All right, it's about winning and the team, I've got to come to practice and work.' I can tell when he's looking to play well."
There were a lot of similarities between tonight's win and the win over the then-No. 17 Seminoles in early December. Both times, a Green shooting barrage carried the Hoosiers to a huge victory. Against Florida State, however, it felt as if Green alone had taken over the game in a way that was likely unsustainable. Tonight was different and it offers a different promise. This was an all-around win for the Hoosiers. Sure, Green was magnificent and deserves all the praise he'll get, but Trayce Jackson-Davis was a monster underneath, Race Thompson continued his transformation into a Horace Grant-like scrapper that does all the little things well, the Hoosiers shot 32 free throws, ran the court at every opportunity, won the rebounding battle decisively and made 11 of their 21 3-point attempts.
Almost none of those elements had been present during Indiana's four-game losing streak (Thompson was literally not available after taking a hard fall against Michigan State and missing the next three games) and all of them returned tonight. Of course, some of them were more likely to happen against Iowa (the Hawkeyes sit back in a matchup zone and give up a ton of 3s as a result), but it was encouraging to see Indiana return to the formula that helped it start 15-4 and had Hoosiers fans dreaming of a run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Tonight was the game Indiana absolutely needed to have if its tournament dreams were to remain alive and I will admit I wasn't sure if this group was up to the task against an Iowa team that is demoralizingly efficient on offense. The Hoosiers, with a significant push from Green, proved they have some fight left.
Now the challenge becomes stringing performances of this kind together. Green isn't going to score 27 every game and Indiana isn't going to make 52% of its 3s every night, either. The Hoosiers have to find a way to grind out some wins on the road, where they play four of their next five games. The home stretch is here and the Hoosiers are alive.