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COLUMN: IU basketball showed growth in loss at Michigan



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Senior forward Juwan Morgan drives the ball against Illinois on Jan. 3 in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Morgan had 25 points in the loss to No. 2 Michigan on Jan. 6. Alex Deryn Buy Photos

Don’t lie to yourself — you knew this one could have gotten ugly. 

Now, dig even deeper into your consciousness — you probably even expected it to go downhill rather quickly.

And honestly, who could blame you for thinking that way. 

On the road at No. 2 Michigan and without its starting point guard, the Hoosiers really had no business hanging around with the juggernaut that is the undefeated Wolverines.

Early on, it looked like that narrative was playing itself out, too. 

Shades of the Hoosiers’ blowout loss at Duke University earlier this season started to creep back and plague them like an unwanted disease in the first half. Both senior Juwan Morgan and freshman Romeo Langford got whistled for two early fouls, and IU fell behind by as many as 19 points in the first frame. 

It looked like everything was about to collapse and the Hoosiers wouldn’t even get the chance to put up a fight in the process.

But it didn’t fall apart and IU did find a way to claw back, even if it wasn’t done so in the most efficient of fashions in an eventual 74-63 loss.

Morgan did what he does best in the second half — carry his team. He came alive by bullying Michigan’s defenders in the post, which sparked the Hoosiers early in the half as they came out as the much more energetic team on the court.

They axed that lead down to seven and even though it was the faintest of the kind, IU provided some hope after it seemed so unattainable in the first half.

That was what Sunday’s game was all about.

It wasn’t necessarily about earning the win. The Hoosiers just needed to show they could fight.

They didn’t do that a month ago at Duke.

When they were down big in Raleigh, North Carolina, they were down for good. There was never hope. Not even in the least bit.

That’s why Sunday was still impressive even in defeat. By all accounts, the Wolverines are in the same tier as the Blue Devils. Yes, Duke has Michigan bested when it comes to pure, unadulterated talent but Michigan beats teams with its air-tight system, ripened intelligence coupled with supreme awareness and its unmatched efficiency.

Michigan utilized all of that against IU in the first half, much like Duke did with its flying trapeze show led by the freakish ring leader that is Zion Williamson. 

Yet the difference was the Hoosiers responded this time, even without a true point guard like Rob Phinisee on the floor.

Of course there’s still criticism to be taken away from a loss. If some of IU’s long defensive stretches hadn’t petered out or if IU would have converted on more of the easier bunnies near the rim in the first half, this game might’ve have gone a little differently near the end.

And with every game against high-level teams like this, there’s another critique that I always harp on and maybe it’s just a case of me expecting too much.

But coming into this season, I fully believed this was a team that even when players might be down with injuries, could seriously give any team in the country a run for its money, at home or on the road. Being at this juncture in the season, it’s a bit disheartening to be satisfied with just competing or fighting back rather than truly ever having a shot at winning. 

Be that as it may, that is all moot at this point.

Let’s go back to your consciousness one more time and dig even deeper than before.

You might have felt the same way about this team as I did at the beginning of the season or you might have been a bit more realistic. Either way, I think a lot of people expected the roster to be a little more well developed by now. It doesn’t really matter. There’s no denying this is a much better team than the one that stepped on the floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Nov. 27, especially when Phinisee is healthy.

Regardless, it’s still OK to be satisfied with just competing with the Wolverines because it’s starting to become apparent where on the spectrum of good teams IU is now.

Now it’s all about growth, which IU showed plenty of Sunday.

It’s all about building toward becoming that team you might have foresaw them to be.

Maybe their performance against Michigan showed they’re on the right track.

Maybe it’s just taking a little longer to get there than expected.

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