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DUKE 91, INDIANA 81: Three observations from the magical evening that almost was

Indiana gave #1 Duke all they could handle in Assembly Hall but, in the end, came up just short

Duke at Indiana image Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This wasn’t supposed to be a game.

Duke, fresh off their victory at the PK80 over the holiday weekend against some of the country’s best competition, was supposed to come into Assembly Hall and take care of business from beginning to end. Indiana, after all, is in a phase of transition under a new coach, and is a mere three weeks removed from getting run out of its own gym by Indiana State.

Many, myself included, laughed at the 8.5 spread at tipoff, and didn’t give this Indiana team a chance.

And yet tonight, our young Hoosiers took punches and kept coming.

They withstood the force that is future lottery pick Marvin Bagley III. They stayed diligent when it looked like Duke was ready to pull away. They (DARE I SAY IT) took care of the ball for most of the evening… and they made the country’s #1 team sweat for 36 minutes.

I’m not one for moral victories, but as Archie Miller looks to establish a new era of basketball in Bloomington… this is a loss within which IU fans should find more than just a little silver lining. Because for the first time, inside a raucous Assembly Hall, we could see the team Miller is building—one that will be staunch defensively and make opponents earn every shot, that will turn their defense into easy offense, and that will have the potential to be more than just the sum of its parts.

In the end, Duke finished this one the same way they finished Portland State, Texas, and #7 Florida: they just overpowered their opponent and found a way to win. It’s what great teams do. And make no mistake—this is a great team.

But as we gaze up at the scoreboard, and the lights flicker to illuminate a 10-point defeat for the Hoosiers, we know that doesn’t tell the whole story. Indeed, with all of college basketball watching—and with even the most passive Hoosiers fans tuned in to see what this new era may promise—Archie Miller had his team ready to go, and went pound for pound with the best in the land from start to near finish.

Here are some things I noticed:

1. A glimpse into Archie Miller’s defensive strategy. Archie Miller’s complicated, adapted man-to-man offense hasn’t exactly had a smooth entry into Bloomington. But tonight we finally saw the pieces starting to come together, and got a peek at what will most certainly be the bedrock of Indiana basketball teams under Miller.

The Hoosiers were active defensively—especially in the first half—and not only forced the ball around the outside to prevent Duke from easy penetration inside off the dribble, and BY THE GRACE OF ZEUS GOT OUT TO CHALLENGE SHOOTERS, holding Duke to just 3-17 from beyond the arc. They turned deflections into fast-break points on the offensive end and played what I thought was their best perimeter defense of the season.

2. Losing the interior battle. Coming into this game, it was clear the battle down low was going to be a problem for the Hoosiers. Bagley and fellow freshman Wendell Carter Jr. both ended the night with double-doubles, and though Carter fouled out late in the second half—he made his presence felt with a game-high 12 rebounds, including 5 offensive boards for the Blue Devils. Bagley, meanwhile, was once again sensational—going for 23 points on 10-15 shooting, along with 10 boards and a slew of highlight plays that just made you throw your arms up and question what YOU were doing with YOUR life at 18.

Early foul calls against De’Ron Davis limited Indiana’s best interior player, though the Hoosiers denied the ball inside nicely for much of the game and played well with Davis on the bench. In the end, however, these talented freshman big men were just too much for Indiana to overcome.

3. Missed opportunities from long range. Holding Duke to such a low three-point percentage would have no doubt felt a bit sweeter if the Hoosiers had been able to capitalize on the other end of the floor. Indiana shot just 5-21 from beyond the arc—including just 2-10 in the first half—and seemed to brick one open three after another.

No Hoosier hit more than just a single three-pointer, and while fans can take solace in the fact that the offense will give Indiana open looks even against the toughest competition... somehow that just makes this one sting more.

It will be easy to ask “what if” in the days following this game—what if Indiana had shot better from behind the arc? What if they had hit key free-throws down the stretch? What if a few arguable foul calls early on against Davis go the other way? These hypotheticals are natural, and necessarily cathartic, following an evening in which the Hoosiers came so close to a season-defining upset… only to come up just short when it was all said and done.

But with two winnable games against Michigan and Iowa to open conference play for the Hoosiers, they’ll have no time sit in the emotion of this loss - and nor should they.

No, this game won’t erase the issues that have plagued Indiana throughout this early season schedule. There will surely be more games in which they allow 40%+ from behind the arc, more games where they turn the ball over at an alarming rate, and more losses that should have been wins. That’s just how things go for a young team.

But if this game should have taught us (and Indiana, themselves) anything, it’s that they have the ability to play 40 minutes of focused, active, and elite basketball—and that if they buy into Archie Miller’s system, there’s potential for a solid season in Bloomington.