LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When Indiana opened Big Ten play with an ugly loss at Michigan and then delivered a lifeless second-half disappearance at Wisconsin, the scouting report on the Hoosiers was firm:

This team was on the fast track toward finishing in the bottom four of the league.

Couldn’t shoot. Couldn’t make free throws. Gave up too many three-pointers. Lacked a leader.

Odds are there were more items on Archie Miller’s list of Things To Fix. In fact, Miller called his team “soft.” Several times.

Miller has fixed many of the flaws. Not all. But most.

Indiana dispatched Illinois, 78-68 , Wednesday night at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for the Hoosiers’ second three-game winning streak in the Big Ten. IU limited Illinois to .919 points per possession as the visitors missed 15 of 19 shots from distance and made less than 41 percent of their shots.

At 8-7 overall, the Hoosiers are seventh in the league, 15-12 overall. They have already won more league games than last season. They can finish with a .500 record or better record with one victory in their final three league games.

Miller has stopped describing his team as soft. In December, Indiana did not rank among the Top 200 teams in the nation in defensive efficiency on Ken Pomeroy's basketball analytics web site. After Wednesday's game, IU improved to No. 51 in that category. A year ago, IU was 104th. 

Indiana has moved ahead of Butler, Wichita State, Duke, Xavier and others in that defensive metric.

“It’s been a work in progress,” Miller told the Big Ten Network after the game. “But we haven’t changed. We haven’t went away from our stuff.

“Usually with the repetitions and the coach-ability of your team, you’ll get better. That’s a credit to our guys. They’ve worked really hard to put themselves in a situation here at the end of the year where we have some confidence in our defense, especially at home.”

I haven’t found a website with a projected bracket for the National Invitation Tournament, but odds are Indiana is in the discussion, especially if they finish seventh in the league. And, as the joke goes in Bloomington, this season Indiana will not turn down an opportunity to host an NIT game.

In early January, not many observers were predicting 9-9. The smart money was on 6-12. Maybe 7-11. This was a team that lost home games (obligatory weekly mention) to Indiana State and Fort Wayne by 20.

On a night when Indiana stopped itself with 18 turnovers and Illinois averaged nearly a foul per minute in the second half, Indiana overcame a slow start with a balanced attack (five guys scored at least 11 points) and solid bench play (Josh Newkirk, Justin Smith and Aljami Durham combined for 38 points).

Juwan Morgan delivered another solid game, contributing 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks.

“He’s a very underrated defender,” Miller said. “He defends big guys and he defends away from the basket. He blocks shots.

“Does a lot of good things for our team. By far and away I think he’s one of the best players in the conference and he’s one of the reasons that we’re continuing to play well.”

Illinois pressed the entire second half. It worked. Indiana turned the ball over 10 times. It also created issues for the Illini. They committed 17 fouls in 20 minutes. That led to Indiana shooting 24 free throws and making 18 in the second half. IU finished 20 of 29 for the game.

That number is notable for this reason. When the teams played at Illinois last month, IU went only 16 of 29 from the line and lost, 73-71.

One more home game remains for the Hoosiers – Feb. 23 when Ohio State visits. The Hoosiers face consecutive road games with Iowa (Saturday) and Nebraska (Tuesday) before staging Senior Night against the surprising Buckeyes, who lead the Big Ten with a 13-1 record.

Regular season play in the Big Ten concludes a week ahead of other Power Six leagues because the league is squeezing its conference tournament into Madison Square Garden in New York City in two weeks. Miller might have his team in position to enjoy the trip.

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