Indiana men’s basketball returned to Bloomington after an eight-day home-game hiatus to square off against Michigan State Sunday morning. The Hoosiers walked out of a rocking Assembly Hall with an 82-69 win – their third straight and 13th overall.
The contest was chock-full of surprises. From a snowy noon tipoff to the expedited return of once-injured graduate forward Race Thompson and a slam dunk from a Hoosier 3-point specialist, there’s no way that any Indiana follower could’ve had all that on their bingo card.
A dog fight from start to finish against a well-coached Michigan State team, though? Now that’s to be expected.
In characteristic December, early-January form, Indiana got off to a slow start. Michigan State built up a 21-14 lead through the first 10 minutes of the first half led by senior forward Joey Hauser’s dominant double-digit scoring performance.
It was as physical and aggressive an environment as there is in the Big Ten. A flagrant-1 foul on Indiana graduate forward Miller Kopp and a vocally-unhinged Tom Izzo on the Michigan State sideline epitomized the tensions early on, and the intensity levels certainly weren’t dropping any time soon.
Indiana wasn’t out of the game by any means, though. Senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis was 2-8 from the floor, but many of his misses barely rimmed out of the hoop. The Hoosier defense started to lock in, and Michigan State’s offense started to grow desperate.
Despite the deficit, it seemed as if Assembly Hall would erupt after one electrifying run, shot or play. Jackson-Davis answered the call.
As sophomore guard Tamar Bates grabbed an offensive rebound, threw it up the court to a leaking Jackson-Davis and the All-American took two steps through the lane, the entirety of Assembly Hall knew it was in for something special.
When Jackson-Davis slammed the ball through the rim, staring down a helpless Hauser on his descent, that was all it took.
The crowd erupted, jumping into each other and throwing into the air anything that they could find – balloons, empty cups or newspaper pages that read "Sparty’s over!"
But the party was just getting started for the Hoosiers.
Four minutes after his first slam, Jackson-Davis hit the Spartans with a left-handed rack attack that resulted in a three-point play.
Jackson-Davis, with his eyes narrowed and mouth shut, walked away from the basket with a glaring sense of swagger. His stoic stare after a soul-shaking dunk was indicative of one incredibly reassuring thing:
The Hoosiers were playing like their old selves.
The confidence that Jackson-Davis – who finished with 31 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks – and the rest of the Hoosiers exuded against the Spartans was reminiscent of preseason championship clamor and early season games. Nothing like the energy of the Sunday matinee had been exhibited to that degree in a conference game thus far. But a big-time game against an always-challenging opponent yielded the perfect opportunity for Indiana to prove something, both to an oscillating fanbase and to itself.
“It's literally what we do it for, all the work we put in as individuals and as a team up to this point,” Bates said after the game. “That's what you play college basketball for. We look forward to every game, but especially when we have a really good opponent coming in, everyone raises their level of play.”
Bates had a star-studded outing as well, finishing with 17 points on 5-6 shooting from the 3-point line. His ambitious deep shots were second only to Jackson-Davis' dunks in terms of igniting a run and carrying momentum.
Kopp even got in on the action after a scrappy performance all game, notching himself a one-handed slam in the half court set. By the time Indiana’s staple shooter raised the roof with over nine minutes to play in the second half, the game – from a mental standpoint, at least – was sealed.
"It's competition, man,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said. “Both teams are competitive. Any time you play an Izzo team that’s well-coached, they play hard, and they push you to play hard. If you don't, you lose.”
Five dunks, two technical fouls and 40 thrilling minutes later, Indiana is back in contention to reach the top of the Big Ten. The Hoosiers showed absurd levels of intensity and confidence, and if their character development continues to trend in a similar direction, the rest of the season very well might be full of new, exciting surprises.