Hickey: For Indiana, a fitting hurdle awaits in path of Big Ten Tournament final
CHICAGO — lndiana’s season appeared to be the furthest thing from championship-caliber the last time Penn State appeared on its schedule.
The Hoosiers went to Happy Valley and got straight-out whooped in every facet of the game. The Nittany Lions out-shot them, out-hustled them and ran ’em straight off the floor in an 85-66 blowout.
At the time, it seemed to tell us a lot more about Indiana than it did Penn State. The Hoosiers, who dropped to 1-4 in the Big Ten with the loss, were simply not a good basketball team.
Penn State was better than usual, but it was still Penn State. Maybe this would be the win that helped keep them eligible for the NIT at the end of the season.
Those storylines did not end up playing out over the rest of the season.
For Indiana, the loss was a call to arms.
The Hoosiers have rarely resembled the team that went to Bryce Jordan Center in the ensuing 2 months. They’ve gone 13-4 since, and they’re usually winning games with a defense that allowed 18 3-pointers to the Nittany Lions.
“We’ve just got to listen to Coach Woodson and our defensive philosophies,” said forward Trayce Jackson-Davis. “Guard the 3-point line, and stay ahead of them on drives.”
“I just think these guys are committed, man,” head coach Mike Woodson said. “They have that no-quit mentality, and that’s the kind of team that you want. It’s easy to get down and then throw in the towel and say, ‘Hey, we’ll get the next one,’ but this team hasn’t been that way.”
And the Penn State team that made Indiana look so bad? Turns out the Nittany Lions are pretty darn good. Both of these teams are in the Big Ten semifinals for good reason.
But the Hoosiers have a shot to reverse their previous outcome due to the growing impact of Jordan Hood-Schifino.
The other hyphenated star shines
Trayce Jackson-Davis has spent 4 years establishing his star power in Bloomington. Hood-Schifino has needed just a few months to become an impact player.
Of course, he wasn’t even expected to be that player yet. Indiana’s offense was Xavier Johnson’s show until Johnson was lost for the season with a foot injury against Kansas.
“He has still a ways to go, but the fact that nobody says anything about us losing Xavier Johnson — that was huge, and it just threw [Jalen] right to the wolves basically,” Woodson said. “He had to grow up awfully fast. And in doing that, he’s been great for us, man. He’s done a lot of great things for us to put us in this position.”
Friday night’s 70-60 semifinal win over Maryland provided a multitude of Hood-Schifino moments.
The most obvious of those moments was his cold-blooded 3 as the shot clock wound down with 2:06 left in the game. Maryland had cut Indiana’s lead down to 6, and seemed to have a late-game rally cooking.
Hood-Schifino’s shot removed Maryland’s will entirely.
“I saw [that poise] in high school. High school is not college,” Woodson said. “But it’s been a nice carryover.”
A more subtle example of that poise, not to mention some veteran gamesmanship, took place in the final minute.
Jackson-Davis was fouled underneath Maryland’s basket. But by the time the teams got down to the opposite free-throw line, Hood-Schifino inserted himself at the line.
One of the officials alertly put the kibosh on that move. But for a freshman to want to be the guy taking the most important shots at that moment of the game, and trying to pull a fast one to do so, speaks volumes about his competitiveness.
It seems perfectly appropriate that Michael Jordan’s retired No. 23 looms in the background above the basket where Hood-Schifino attempted this body swap.
But the most impressive thing Hood-Schifino did on Friday is actually visible in Maryland’s box score.
Terrapins point guard Jahmir Young, a second team all-Big Ten selection, was just 1-for-10 from the field in the second half. The only make was when the Terps screened Hood-Schifino away from him.
Young missed every single shot he took in the second half while guarded by Hood-Schifino.
Of all the previous sentences written here, that final one is the most important.
Defense has been Indiana’s greatest area of growth since getting embarrased by Penn State in January. And if the Hoosiers advance to their first Big Ten title game since 2001, it will be the reason why.