The bright lights of New York City await IU.
For the first time in conference history, the Big Ten Tournament will be played at Madison Square Garden, one of the most iconic venues in basketball.
“New York City at this time of year, when March is coming around – there's not a better place to be in terms of the buzz with the media,” IU Coach Archie Miller said. “The games at Madison Square Garden, it's a fantastic place to play. I can see why our commissioner and our league work so hard to be able to get in there. It's monumental to be able to play in Madison Square Garden.”
The tournament offers the Hoosiers an opportunity to earn a National Invitational Tournament bid, and possibly an NCAA Tournament bid, if IU wins the Big Ten Tournament. It’s another chance for this team to continue to build its identity under Miller, who has begun laying the blueprint for the program this season.
While the record of 16-14 doesn’t reflect the amount of growth this team has undergone this season, this team has come a long way in a few short months.
After losing to Indiana State and Fort Wayne in non-conference play, many wrote this team off, but the Hoosiers rallied around a new defensive identity and earned the six seed for the Big Ten Tournament.
“To me, our team has improved as much as any in the conference over the last six weeks,” Miller said. “You know, I think we're moving into this postseason hungry to play. I think these guys like playing with one another. I think they have enjoyed, sort of, the grind, and it doesn't feel like a team that's on a negative.”
It’s been a process to get this team to this place.
Every single player on the roster had to learn the new offensive and defensive system of Miller, while also adapting to losing three players – James Blackmon Jr., OG Anuonoby and Thomas Bryant – to the NBA who could have played a huge role this season.
Over the course of the season, it has become apparent that this team has learned what Miller has been teaching them, even if at times, its bad habits return.
“I think it's really come about as far as what he wants for us on defense and offense,” junior forward Juwan Morgan said. “And I think, just absorbing all that stuff, it's easy for us to echo that out to the rest of the team. Because at first it was just Coach telling us what we needed to do and us trying to figure out how to do it in different ways, but now just all of us absorbing what he's been teaching.”
However, as far as the Hoosiers have come since Miller called them soft after losing to Indiana State by 20 in the opening game of the season, they have few marquee victories to show for it. IU’s best win in the regular season was over Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. The Irish will likely not even make the NCAA Tournament.
It was a regular season of missed opportunities, as IU had a chance to knock off Duke, Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State, but failed in the closing minutes. If the Hoosiers advance to face Purdue Friday night, they will have another chance to notch that huge victory.
With all those close losses, IU has learned a lot this season. They've shown the fight Miller wants from his team.
“We're in a good place,” Miller said. “This team's been unique all year. There's been a lot of ups and downs. There's been some disappointments along the way. But there's always been constant improvement. There's never been a time where our team has taken a step back, you know, throughout the course of taking some punches along the way.”
Since IU fell to Ohio State in double overtime Feb. 23, the Hoosiers have had a chance to regroup and refocus before arriving in New York City. They took the weekend off from practicing after a grueling, condensed Big Ten schedule.
“We were beat up,” Miller said. “I know every team in the league as we finished was going down some type of stretch. We were an exhausted group, not so much physically but mentally as well. It was a hard grind to get through January and February.”
With IU rested and ready to take on the Big Ten Tournament, it will be up to the Hoosiers to prove just how much they’ve improved this season. It’s not March yet, but this tournament is all about surviving and advancing.
“At the end of the day, we want to continue to play for as long as we can at the highest level that we possibly can,” senior guard Robert Johnson said. “So I think it all comes down to making the most out of everything we do day by day.”
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