Column: Loss to Kentucky provides hope for the Hoosiers
By Nathan Hart
Remember it, store it away and be ready to bring it back in Big Ten play.
IU showed enough at Rupp Arena on Saturday — despite the 81-62 final score — to give IU fans hope that the Hoosiers can compete against any team in the Big Ten.
This is not a moral victory-type game. The nine-minute stretch at the end in which IU went ice-cold on offense showed the difference between a top-25 team and the Hoosiers.
IU should be disappointed it lost a game it easily could’ve won through 31 minutes.
Across the country and in the Big Ten, there are teams more talented than IU that should expect to win when playing IU.
And for IU to compete for so long in a hostile environment against a more talented team means something.
Don’t let the score deceive — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a closer 19-point game. It was a six-point game with four minutes to go.
The real question is, which part was the fluke — the first 31 minutes or the last nine? And if IU’s early-game success against the Wildcats wasn’t a fluke, then where did that come from?
Nothing about IU’s early-season stretch showed the team’s ability to stop a big man — heck, even Ferris State’s Justin Keenan had his way with IU in an exhibition game.
IU limited Terrence Jones, UK’s freshman forward bound for the NBA, to 10 points and eight rebounds. That scoring total was one point above his season low.
IU needed a makeshift lineup with several players — Jordan Hulls, Maurice Creek and Derek Elston — in foul trouble and junior guard Verdell Jones hobbled with an apparent ankle injury.
How did the team respond? The Hoosiers frustrated Kentucky, forced bad shots in the first half, got UK out of its rhythm and played at IU’s pace.
IU’s lone senior, Jeremiah Rivers, played like it with key defensive stops, although his stat line — like it has all season — didn’t show much.
For a while in the second half, IU answered every UK challenge. Three times in a
three-minute span, IU hit clutch 3-pointers to squelch Kentucky momentum. But then sophomore guard Maurice Creek missed two consecutive threes, and IU no longer had an answer.
Again, I don’t want to over-praise this IU team. The Hoosiers still lost by 19, they still fell apart at the end and they still have work to do to win any Big Ten game.
Take the Rupp Arena experience and transplant it to Michigan State’s Breslin Center in January or Ohio State’s Value City Arena in February.
Those two games — and a handful of others in the Big Ten — will come with the same expectations from the outside: IU’s got no chance.
Just as IU had little chance against Kentucky.
Maybe the justification is right. IU won’t last in a big game, this game was too similar to last year (a one-point game at halftime), Kentucky is working through its own issues, etc.
But IU came in with a plan, executed and stayed competitive. Take out the nine-minute lapse in half, and the game stays competitive to the end.
While this potential upset never materialized, IU showed enough Saturday to give fans hope against the top talent in the Big Ten.
That was not the case for the past two years, and Rivers said he can tell a difference.
“We know what we have to do to finish off games,” Rivers said. “We know we can play with the best of the best. For us, it’s something we don’t have to think about anymore.”