If you’re still trying to figure out what this IU men’s basketball team’s identity is as at this point, you might as well give up.
There’s plenty of adjectives to describe the Hoosiers’ season thus far — inconsistent, frustrating, wacky and more than anything, unpredictable.
Yet when freshman guard Rob Phinisee forced Michigan State junior guard Cassius Winston into a difficult, fading jumper that clanked off the rim with just seconds left to play in IU's 63-62 home victory over No. 6 Michigan State on Saturday, it did prove something about this IU team.
This is a different team than we’ve seen all Big Ten conference season.
This team actually cares.
The rest of this season isn’t about the Hoosiers’ NCAA tournament hopes that are still hanging on by life support. It’s not even about finishing with an above-.500 record, now at 15-14 overall with two more regular season games to go against Illinois and Rutgers.
Those things will come in IU’s pursuit of what the rest of this season really means.
The Hoosiers are attempting to nix that identity as that IU team. You know, the one that came into the season with high hopes, with a blend of veterans and a heralded recruiting class and started the year off so strong with exciting wins over Marquette, Louisville and Butler.
Then they were the same Hoosiers that were humbled in the Big Ten, wasting away at the bottom of the conference standings as they let one quality foe after another chomp a bite out of both their declining record and their dwindling confidence.
Yeah, that IU team wasn’t very good. Those Hoosiers were on the fast track to fizzling out as another lost group of souls that end the year without leaving any considerable mark on what would only be considered a lost season. The kind of year that gets shunned by a fanbase that refuses to stand for such mediocrity.
On Saturday, IU showed it didn’t want to be that team anymore.
From sophomore forward Justin Smith having a breakout game to Phinisee looking like himself from earlier in the season, dogging Michigan State’s backcourt all day with superb defense that came to a head with his final stop on Winston, this was the version of the Hoosiers that was expected when this year began.
If anything can be confirmed about IU’s essence as a competitive basketball team at this point in the year, it’s that it comes down to a matter of desire.
Saturday was a prime example of how this is the kind of team that if it wants to show up and play like one of the best teams in the conference on a particular day, it has the ability to. If it decides being embarrassed by conceivably less talented Big Ten teams has become exasperating enough, it knows where to find the hypothetical switch to flip.
This isn’t saying everything about this team has been automatically fixed. That’s like Kevin Bacon yelling “all is well” in the parade scene at the end of "Animal House" as chaos ensues around him.
He got trampled and flattened by a group of hysterically screaming people at the end of that scene.
You’ll get trampled by this team too if you get your hopes up. As good as IU was this week, it’s evil twin could show up next week. It’s unadulterated mayhem really.
Saturday showed it’s time to embrace that chaos though because it seems like the Hoosiers want to be the “good Hoosiers” again.
We just have to wait and see how long that desire actually lasts.