Matt Painter doesn't have Archie Miller to kick around anymore
When Indiana fired Archie Miller last March, the move was met with a mixture of bemusement, consternation and mild indignation throughout college basketball media. It was evidence of a widespread delusion within the Hoosiers fanbase.
Who did the Hoosiers think they were shelling out $10 million just to buy out their thoroughly pedestrian head coach?
“This isn’t the ’80s, man,” was the general gist. “Nobody gives a damn about Indiana!”
“Indiana, I guess they think that Coach Knight is walking through that door.” — Mike Wilbon
“I don’t think there’s a reasonable person who follows college basketball closely who doesn’t believe this is a massive job inside the sport, but what I don’t know is how reasonable the IU faithful are about what they are now within that game.” — Scott Van Pelt
Indiana shelled out all that money to rid itself of Miller for a number of reasons.
There were no NCAA tournament appearances in 4 years, though the 2020 cancellation robbed him of a sure bid. It didn’t help that he never posted better than a .500 record in Big Ten play. And maybe those things wouldn’t have been damming enough to end his tenure if not combined with the ugliest number of them all: an 0-7 record against Matt Painter and Purdue.
Even if Miller had been something as meager as 2-5 against the Boilermakers, it might have been enough to buy himself a fifth year in Bloomington. But his 0-fer continued a streak started under predecessor Tom Crean, and when you added all those things together it reached the level of unacceptable.
Painter entered Thursday night’s game as the effective deedholder to Assembly Hall. The Boilermakers had 9 straight wins in the series — the longest such streak since 1935.
The Chicago Cubs won a World Series more recently than Indiana had beaten Purdue in basketball. Even though that sentence doesn’t carry the same heft it used to, it’s been awhile.
But now Indiana finally has a coach who isn’t having any of that.
Mike Woodson steps in and steps up
When Woodson was announced as Miller’s successor, those who questioned Miller’s firing were doubled over in laughter.
Getting rid of Miller to bring Brad Stevens home to Indiana would have been a worthy coup. Or maybe landing an old master like John Beilein. Perhaps a clear-cut up-and-comer like Alabama’s Nate Oats.
But Mike Woodson?
Woodson brought zero collegiate coaching experience to the sidelines. The college game hadn’t been on the NBA-lifer’s radar since the Knicks drafted him out of IU in 1980.
For many, it was seen as a pathetic gambit to reconnect the program to Bob Knight. There has been a fracture within Indiana’s fanbase since the sunny Sunday afternoon in September 2000 that Knight’s behavior finally got him fired.
Bringing the Hoosiers family back into the same huddle after 2 decades frankly wouldn’t have been the worst reason to hire a coach. But it also would have been a meaningless gesture if it didn’t result in the thing that brought all those people together in the first place — winning lots of basketball games.
Namely, games against Purdue.
Woodson’s first signature moment
Though Woodson has Indiana playing well in his first season, the Hoosiers had nothing close to a signature win for their new head coach.
The opportunity stared Indiana in the face with a trip to Wisconsin in early December.
The Hoosiers, who haven’t won at Kohl Center since the month it opened in 1997, built a 22-point lead against what was still thought of as a very deliberate Badgers offense. Woodson was going to show less than a month into the gig just how different he was than Miller and Crean.
Of course, what instead resulted was a rehashing of all the old nightmares. The Badgers stormed back to win. At the time, few realized how explosive they are on offense. This was Indiana, same old Indiana.
A road loss at Penn State that dropped the Hoosiers to 1-2 in the Big Ten gave a stronger sense of unease. Maybe this is what Indiana is now.
Perhaps all those critics aren’t haters. What if they’re just right? Converting Keith Smart’s shot off of VHS onto digital might be the best thing that could happen to Indiana basketball in the 21st century.
These are the things that run through your head — until you see the Hoosiers actually beat Purdue for the first time since January 2016.
It wasn’t just that the Hoosiers did it, but how.
Many view this Indiana team as a one-man gang, and Trayce Jackson-Davis is that gang. Everything runs through him.
But not Thursday night.
Perhaps putting too much pressure on himself given the stakes — he was eyeball-to-eyeball with a winless career against the Boilermakers — he was in foul trouble early. Indiana played the final 14 minutes of the first half without him. Somehow a 4-point deficit turned into a 9-point lead in the process.
Jackson-Davis played haltingly in the second half, only giving the Hoosiers 4 points when he averages 20 a game.
Yet Indiana didn’t need his 20 points.
Somehow Rob Phinisee had them in storage, waiting to unload on the Boilermakers. The senior guard had never hit 20 in his 4 years as a Hoosier. But when the team desperately needed someone to step up and turn a bad page in program history, Phinisee was there.
And so too was Jackson-Davis, who finally made an impact by hitting both of his free throws with 5 seconds to go, helping seal the 68-65 win.
A needed moment
Does it compare to Christian Watford’s buzzer-beater against Kentucky?
But perhaps Thursday night’s win can serve as the springboard to something more impactful. That dramatic win over the top-ranked Wildcats in 2011 fished the Hoosiers from the lowest depths of program history back to a place of respectability.
Trouble is, they’ve remained in a place of respectability ever since. It’s nice not being underwater, but it still isn’t anywhere near the mountaintop. No one fears coming to Assembly Hall. (Other than John Calipari, that is, but that’s another story for another time.)
But following a dramatic win in his first game against his rivals from West Lafayette, Woodson has Indiana 12-0 on Branch McCracken Court.
Maybe, just maybe, Woodson has the Hoosiers poised to turn Assembly Hall back into one of the Big Ten’s best home-court advantages.