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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Indiana forward Justin Smith and the Hoosiers have won four straight games thanks in large part to finally having a fully healthy roster.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 1:00 am

Healthier Hoosiers hitting stride

Depth vital factor during late surge to get NCAA bid

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Big Ten Tournament

Indiana vs. Ohio State

Where: United Center, Chicago

When: 12:30 p.m. Thursday

Records: Indiana (17-14), Ohio State (18-13)

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 1250 AM, 102.9 FM

Depth was always going to be a strength for Indiana this season. It just took three months longer than expected for that strength to manifest itself on the court.

“When you have depth and you have competition level that I think we can have, every day you're going to have to earn (playing time),” Hoosiers coach Archie Miller said a month before the season. “That's how teams really grow.”

Before the season began, it seemed Indiana might have as many as 12 or 13 players in contention for playing time, a situation that would put pressure on everyone to improve and earn their roles. Then, the injuries began.

Zach McRoberts has missed five games with a lingering back injury; Devonte Green missed four games with a thigh injury and three more for a suspension; De'Ron Davis was limited because of his Achilles tear last season, then sat out four games with an ankle injury; Rob Phinisee was an early-season revelation, then missed three games with a concussion; redshirt freshman Race Thompson sat 22 games because of a concussion in November; highly touted freshman Jerome Hunter missed the entire season because of a leg injury for which he had surgery; fellow freshman Jake Forrester saw his development slowed by an ankle problem.

Every team goes through injuries, but the depth and breadth of the Hoosiers' pain problems have been a running subplot in a season that didn't turn out the way many envisioned it. A common theme during Indiana's stretch of 12 losses in 13 games in January and early February was a lack of game-ready players to fill gaps off the bench if starters struggled or got into foul trouble.

Now, however, the Hoosiers are near full strength. Only Hunter remains on the sidelines, and Indiana is finally getting to make full use of the loaded roster that some projected was capable of winning a Big Ten title. Not coincidentally, IU's level of play has soared in recent weeks, with four straight wins to end the regular season leaving the Hoosiers (17-14) on the cusp of an NCAA Tournament bid as they open the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday against Ohio State. 

Miller's preseason formulation of the manner in which depth can impact a team's competitiveness has proven true as IU has gotten players off the injured list and on the court. By all accounts, practices have been spirited and have produced high-level basketball with everyone fighting for playing time. 

“We're able to compete more,” sophomore Justin Smith said of recent workouts. “We're able to go at each other, which I think is why it's translating so well to the games. I mean, we're really getting after each other and we're putting ourselves in game-like situations, and we see that's translating, so it's been a big help.”

Smith has seemed to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of that increased competitiveness in practice. The high-flying forward has averaged 14 points during Indiana's four-game win streak, more than five points above his season average of 8.7. 

Beyond individual improvements, however, the added depth has allowed Miller to play players in roles that are better-suited to their skills. For example, Juwan Morgan is back to playing his natural power forward position after spending much of the brutal midseason stretch looking slightly out of place playing center against talented Big Ten big men in Davis' absence. 

Playing in familiar roles that maximize their abilities has helped the Hoosiers' young players gain confidence quickly and that has led in turn to a more cohesive unit.

“At the (beginning of the season) we saw a good team that we could play a lot of different combinations with but that got derailed with injuries and we (hadn't) been able to find that chemistry,” Miller said. “Now, we have become a deeper team here as of late and we've had some more guys get in the game which helps with morale.

“Without question if you've watched us play in the last couple of weeks you would see a good team which is playing hard.”

Indeed, one of the keys to Indiana's success over the last six games – four wins and two heartbreaking losses against ranked opponents – has been a surge in energy and intensity that is obvious even to the untrained eye.

The Hoosiers are clearly playing much harder than they did during the middle of the season and it has made them a dangerous dark horse entering the Big Ten Tournament.

Getting healthy didn't cure all the problems that ailed Indiana, but it laid the foundation upon which this late-season turnaround has been built.

“Confidence is such an amazing thing to watch come and go,” Miller said. “I think right now our team has as much confidence as we have had all season.”

dsinn@jg.net