BLOOMINGTON — At its best throughout the 2018-19 season, Indiana proved it could compete with, and even beat, some of the top teams in college basketball.
The Hoosiers amassed six quadrant one wins in the NET rankings, more than some teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. There were two wins over rival Michigan State, a thrilling double-overtime win at home against Wisconsin, non-conference wins against Louisville and Marquette.
Yet, as IU’s season ended at 19-16 with a 73-63 loss to Wichita State on Tuesday night in the NIT quarterfinals at Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall, a question remained. How could a team that knocked off Michigan State twice lose 12 of 13 games from early January to mid-February? Four of those losses were by five points or less and one more, against Iowa, was in overtime. But the stretch included a 23-point home loss to Michigan, a 15-point home loss to Nebraska and a 21-point loss at Minnesota.
Injuries and poor perimeter shooting played a role. Starting point guard Rob Phinisee missed five games in early January after suffering a concussion, while junior guard Devonte Green also missed time with injuries and a three-game suspension before emerging late this season.
“Some guys finished really strong,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “Some guys didn’t finish as strong. But at the end of the day, there’s now a clear picture on what has to be done with them as individuals and as players to get better to help us be better in a lot of areas.”
While senior forward Juwan Morgan scored inside and freshman guard Romeo Langford attacked the rim regularly with success, Indiana could never get on track from outside. The Hoosiers finished the season ranked 13th in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting accuracy at 31.2 percent.
“Shooting from the 3-point line is the No. 1 reason in many ways that our team could not get over the hump so many times,” Miller said. “You’ve got to be able to make shots in the Big Ten because they’ve turned it into a half-court league, and you have to be able to stretch games out and break them open when you have opportunities.”
For Miller, who is 35-31 in two seasons at Indiana, the offseason will present a chance to continue to build his roster. Help is on the way. Indiana already has two players signed for 2019: three-star guard Armaan Franklin and five-star center Trayce Jackson-Davis. The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Davis, who was scheduled to play in the McDonald’s All-American game Wednesday night, is the son of former Indiana Pacers forward Dale Davis.
Miller and his staff could add more high school signees and transfers when the spring signing period begins next month.
IU will lose Morgan, senior forward Zach McRoberts. senior guard Quentin Taylor and senior forward Evan Fitzner. The Hoosiers could also end up losing Langford, who sat out IU’s three NIT games with a back injury and is mulling declaring for the NBA draft. Langford, who led IU in scoring at 16.5 points per game this season, is projected as the 14th overall pick in the first round to the Boston Celtics in NBADraft.net’s latest 2019 mock draft.
To Miller’s credit, IU maintained its defensive edge through its season-long shooting struggles. As the defense stepped up late in the regular season, the Hoosiers went on a run, winning their final four regular season games before falling to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, a loss that dashed any last NCAA Tournament hopes.
“With the new coach coming in, I know it was hard for him, guys he didn’t recruit,” Morgan said. “Just trying to start a culture of just hard work and doing all the dirty work and I think guys really picked that up, I think especially going through what we went through this year and still have a chance to make the tournament. So I think that just speaks to the resiliency of the guys coming back.”
IU junior forward Da’Ron Davis admitted as practices tailed off last January, the results showed on the court.
“It starts in practice,” Davis said. “That halfway point your body starts to break down a little bit and practices start to be a little lighter. I just feel like as a senior I’ve got to come into practice knowing that OK, now we’re in the second half of the season, just because practice is a little shorter, doesn’t mean that we don’t have to go hard. So I’m going to stress that, just because practice is an hour-and-a-half today, to still dig in.”
As one of IU’s key pieces returning, Davis intends to use the next few months to continue to develop his game.
“This is my first time going into an offseason not hurt or not late to something,” Davis said. “So I’m really going to take advantage of that. We have a certain amount of time we have to be off so I’m really going to try to get my body right and try to work from now until the start of the season or when we have to be back for summer school to really develop my body so I can play fluid, all year.”