Indiana desperately needed a win after dropping three straight Big Ten games and falling to 4-5 in the conference.
The Hoosiers played well on the road against Illinois, but couldn’t cash in on the effort and left Champaign with a lot of questions hanging over the season.
Iowa is probably the last team that Indiana would have wanted to play in this scenario, with Mike Woodson entering the game 0-4 against the Hawkeyes as the Hoosier head coach. As we wrote in the preview, this isn’t a great defensive squad for Iowa, but they’ve been able to hit uncanny shots for years on end when they step on the court against Indiana.
Unfortunately, this game started to look uncomfortably like last January’s matchup in Iowa City. The Hoosiers got out to a great start in that game before losing Race Thompson to an injury and losing all momentum in the process en route to a 91-89 loss.
Tonight though, Indiana was able to survive the cruel, cyclical nature of Big Ten basketball and multiple injuries to gut out a huge win at the midway point of conference play.
Here’s Three Things we learned:
Anthony Leal had career-highs in points (13) and rebounds (7) in what was easily his most impressive and important performance in an Indiana uniform. There’s simply no way Indiana wins this game if Leal doesn’t come off the bench ready to contribute.
While the scoring breakthrough came as a bit of a surprise, Leal has quietly been earning a role this year with his leadership and steadiness on a young roster with a lot of new pieces. After seeing just two minutes per game last season, he’s crept up to 9.1 per contest entering tonight’s game.
When Trey Galloway and Xavier Johnson started to struggle against Iowa’s press, Leal was there to literally direct traffic and point to the spots that his teammates needed to get to on offense.
Leal was tabbed as something of a shooter coming out of high school, but tonight was the first time in the last two seasons that he got multiple attempts up. He made three of his four shots from deep tonight, helping Indiana space the floor and run a balanced offense.
It’s going to be hard to keep him off the court going forward, especially if he plays this aggressively on offense. His leadership and poise have been exactly what Indiana has lacked, so the scoring is the cherry on top.
Just three minutes into tonight’s game, Indiana lost its leading scorer in Malik Reneau, who went off with an apparent ankle injury. He initially returned to the sideline, but headed back to the locker room only to return with crutches and an announcement that he’d be out for the rest of the game.
Then Xavier Johnson went down with an arm injury that did Not Look Good, at all.
Mentioning this is not likely to talk any Indiana fan off the ledge, but it’s really been a Cursed season for Indiana as far as injuries go. Kel’el Ware made a solid case for the argument that Indiana could have won at Illinois if he had been healthy, and even he appeared to be in pain for much of the second half.
At this point, all Indiana fans can do is hope that the injuries aren’t serious. Reneau was able to walk off under his own power before getting crutches, but Johnson was visibly in a lot of pain. The last thing you’d want to see for a guy with his injury history.
Despite the injuries, despite the officiating, despite the recent history against Iowa, Indiana came out victorious tonight. Down two starters by the end of the game, the Hoosiers held a good offense to just 68 points when KenPom projected them to score 82.
A lot of this came down to bench play. Anthony Walker, Gabe Cupps, C.J. Gunn, and Payton Sparks all gave Indiana valuable minutes tonight, even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it. This on the heels of a 0 point bench performance in Champaign.
With the status of Reneau and Johnson uncertain, the rest of Indiana’s season depends on the Hoosiers’ ability to play with this energy going forward. It hasn’t always been pretty, but I’d say the last four halves of basketball have been some of the hardest Indiana has played this year.
Nothing embodies this more than Kel’el Ware’s performance tonight. He was in obvious pain, but put up a double double and grabbed some massive rebounds that kept Indiana in the game through some Iowa surges.
All this from a player whose toughness was in question before this season.