BLOOMINGTON — New Albany native Romeo Langford scored 22 points in a double-overtime win against Wisconsin on Feb. 26 to start Indiana's four-game winning streak and had another 20-point outing vs. Rutgers on Sunday but he averaged just 9.5 points in victories over Michigan State and Illinois that were sandwiched between those.
As the Hoosiers head into Thursday's second-round game in the Big Ten Tournament against Ohio State — the ninth-seeded Hoosiers (17-14, 8-12) and eighth-seeded Buckeyes (18-13, 8-12) tip-off at 12:30 p.m. in Chicago's United Center — it's obvious that the players who complement Langford and senior Juwan Morgan have regained health and produced more consistent results.
Sophomore forward Justin Smith is shooting 50 percent and averaging 14 points during the winning streak.
In Devonte Green's last three games, the junior guard is averaging 13.3 points, 3.3 assists and two steals. He's also shot 55 percent from 3-point range to take over the team lead at 37 percent.
Freshman point guard Robert Phinisee's play at both ends has been instrumental. He topped his 11-point, four-assist performance against Wisconsin with 17 points and five assists in the victory over Illinois.
Smith, who will be playing in his hometown, said the Hoosiers' practice atmosphere with everyone at full health is a big reason for their recent surge.
"I'd say they're a lot more competitive. We're able to compete more. We're able to go at each other, which I think is why it's translating so well to the games. I mean, we're really getting after each other and we're putting ourselves in game-like situations, and we see that's translating, so it's been a big help," said Smith, who is averaging 8.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. "But for me the last couple weeks has been really about just getting back to playing my game and doing what got me here. I think I kind of lost sight of what I was able to do well last year and leading up to last year. And now I've really started to go back to doing what I know how to do and what I'm good at."
PLAYING WITH POSTSEASON URGENCY
Second-year IU coach Archie Miller described Thursday's matchup as a "championship game" for the Hoosiers, whose NCAA Tournament bubble hopes would seemingly require at least one victory this week.
For Smith, the Hoosiers have an entirely new outlook and are living in the moment.
"I would say just getting the opportunity for me to be able to play in my hometown, and then being able to compete, and really all — everything that's happened in the past is kind of off the table, and so it's kind of like a new season," he said. "It gives everybody a new shot, a new opportunity to really do whatever they want to do when it comes to the postseason. So we're looking forward to starting it off with a bang and doing what we know we can do."
Like other bubble teams, Indiana has been playing with a postseason urgency in recent weeks. Will that continue as the Hoosiers are aware their NCAA credentials could still use a boost?
"Yeah, I feel like it fuels us, gives us something to work for, like a goal," sophomore guard Al Durham said. "But I mean, like any team, we all want to make the tournament, especially for our seniors that haven't been there since freshman or sophomore year. ... We just are working every day to get to that point, and we're just going to take one game at a time and take it each war at a time."
Junior forward De'Ron Davis agrees.
"We've been playing with our backs against the wall," he said. "I feel like we're not really focused on if any other teams have wins or losses, or what their schedule is, or what they need to do to get to the tournament. I feel like this whole week and the last two weeks, we've just been focused on us and how hard we go in practice and how hard we play. We hear people talking, and it's all over social media, but we don't really pay attention to it. We just focus on what we've got to focus on and the next game and each war."
When breaking down how the Hoosiers have been able to recover from a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games to head into postseason play on a four-game winning streak, IU's strength-of-schedule — which ranks 13th in the country, according to the Sagarin Ratings — is a good starting point.
The Hoosiers' confidence has been able to recover because of their success against quality teams throughout the season.
"The quality of the teams and coaches, you just knew every single game you had to find a way to be on top of it," Miller said. "We obviously experience our share of bad moments, but we also had our good ones. Very few teams can find a way to figure that out and we did. Like I said, confidence is a scary thing. It goes away really fast but it can also come back really fast. For us, we are as confident as we have been as a group in a while."
Miller's squad beat No. 23 Marquette by a 96-73 margin; beat Butler 71-68 and topped Louisville 68-67 in the non-conference portion of its schedule. Those wins, in attention to their regular-season sweep of No. 6 Michigan State and their two-OT triumph of No. 19 Wisconsin, should help the Hoosiers' cause.
"Our resume is still unfinished but has greatly improved from three weeks ago, but mostly because of how we scheduled the non-conference and who we beat," Miller said. "I think there are only 18 teams in the country that can claim six Quad 1 wins and I believe 22 of our games are in the Quad 1 or Quad 2, and that's a huge schedule to be playing against. When you start to get to the nitty-gritty at the end and teams are trying to decide based on 12 teams, or eight teams, to make up four spots, at the end of the day they are going to say, 'Did you beat anybody in the tournament? Can this team legitimately go to the tournament and win a game?' I think that our resume speaks loud about what we are capable of doing at one point, and now what we are capable of doing again. You win one or two at the Big Ten Tournament, where you are obviously beating good teams, so to me it's all in front of us. Everything everybody wanted from our program is still there and we have to feel good about that right now."
MATCHING UP WITH THE BUCKEYES
The Hoosiers had opportunities, but came up short in Assembly Hall against Ohio State by a score of 55-52 on Feb. 10.
"We are going to have to be better in a couple areas as we go to Chicago and focus on ourselves, but the big thing for us is when we play a team like Ohio State is you're going to have to be a tough-minded group — not give up second-chance shots and you can't get rattled through the course of the game," Miller said. "We're going to have to dig in and look at game one and really dig in. We're a different team and I'm sure they're different in ways, but the current state of our group is that we're excited play."
Kaleb Wesson, 6-foot-9, 270-pound post presence, had 10 points, three assists and a couple blocks in that game. The 15-points-per-game scorer missed the last three games of the regular-season due to injury, but is expected to play Thursday.
"He's such an unbelievable presence, in terms of being able to play around him," Miller said. "He's a big body that creates angles and flips his hips. He's a true low-post player with really good technique and feet. And he has great touch around the basket. The key for him is obviously staying in the games. When he has been in foul trouble, that has changed their team. In our game, he didn't pick up very many fouls and he was out there. The way they tended to try to use him in our game was to try to have him not guard on the perimeter and keep him in the paint. He was always around the rim and made things difficult on us."