IU had no business being so close to victory Saturday night. None.
Yet the Hoosiers only lost by three points in a 63-60 loss to No. 5 Michigan State, despite shooting nearly 29 percent from the field.
This was the same team that walked out of East Lansing, Michigan, two weeks ago with a 28-point embarrassment on their shoulders. It could’ve been that ugly once again, but IU made the right plays at the right time and managed to outmuscle the mighty Spartan squad who outplayed the Hoosiers in every possible way back on Jan. 19.
The Hoosiers took it to the Spartans in unlikely ways because of the effort and grit they showed on a poor shooting night.
Senior forward Freddie McSwain played the best game of his career at IU and looked like the superior player down low against Spartan sophomore Nick Ward.
Ward was a headache the last time the two teams met, scoring 18 points to compliment 13 rebounds against Hoosier forwards. IU had no answer for Michigan State’s big man down low, and Ward made the Hoosiers pay time and time again.
The script was flipped in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
McSwain made his second career start Saturday night and had Ward on a leash for almost the entirety of it.
Michigan State sophomore forward Miles Bridges had a quiet seven points, and had limited looks at the basket because of IU’s tough defensive effort.
Who could’ve seen that coming?
Just like the rest of his teammates, McSwain had everything going for him except his shot. The six-foot-six forward grabbed 16 rebounds against one of the toughest frontcourts in college basketball, despite being outsized. It just looked like he wanted it more than everyone else.
So did the rest of the Hoosiers, and that was the difference from a blowout loss at home and a half-court heave away from going to an overtime period with the No. 5 team in the country.
IU Coach Archie Miller has been pacing the sidelines along the scorer’s table all season long.
Every game he demands the absolute most from his players. Sometimes he gets it, sometimes he doesn’t. His influence was evident against Michigan State and was the main reason IU was in the game for the entire 40 minutes.
Any time a Hoosier showed lack of effort, Miller was there to pull them out of the game at his will. Anytime a player made a significant mental mistake, Miller was there to yank whoever didn’t meet his expectations.
He did all he could to put his team in the best position to win the game. His players brought the fight necessary to win against a top-five team, and it wasn’t the first time, either.
The same profile of effort, toughness and energy was brought against Duke, Louisville and Purdue. All of these opponents were on the ropes against this squad, but talent was a little too much to overcome.
Looking at the big picture, that’s OK.
This team isn’t loaded with star-studded talent, yet they’re still in good positions to win games against opponents who have the advantage over IU.
The Hoosiers are doing all of the right things off the ball to win close games against tough opponents. The problem is the one facet that doesn’t reach the level of everything else.
One night it’s free throw shooting. On another, it’s defense and rotations. On Saturday night that facet was shooting. It was the one element of IU’s game that wasn’t up to par, and the Hoosiers paid for it.
Even without the talent of blue-blood programs, IU seems to be in winning positions in games where its toughness and desire to win is unmatched. IU has all of the role pieces it needs to win close games like this one. What it is lacking is that pop of a player who can add flashiness and flair.
Add a sprinkle of that talent to the team, and who knows what can happen?
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