BLOOMINGTON – In a game in which most eyes were likely focused on Indiana's newcomers and the promise they bring with them, it was a pair of the Hoosiers' most experienced players that led Indiana to a resounding season-opening victory.
Juniors Justin Smith and Aljami Durham combined for 45 points (a career-high-equaling 24 for Smith), making a statement that both players have improved significantly in the offseason and are ready to carry the load for the Hoosiers on nights that the youngsters play like youngsters.
That wasn't really the case on this night. Trayce Jackson-Davis had a fine debut, scoring eight points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking four shots (including a highlight-reel swat in the second half that demonstrated his otherwordly athleticism), while Armaan Franklin chipped in a team-best eight assists without a turnover. Really, Smith and Durham exploded because they're both talented players who can play that way on any given night. They had the hot hands and Indiana rode them to a 98-65 win over Western Illinois in the opener of the 120th season of Hoosiers basketball.
Both juniors' performances highlighted why they will be so important to Indiana's fortunes this season. Durham went 7 for 7 from the field and 3 for 3 from beyond the 3-point line, giving Indiana a credible outside threat when Robert Phinisee (and, later this season, Devonte Green) are off the court. Durham's shot is one of the prettiest on the team and he's capable of running the offense and pushing the ball up the court.
Smith, meanwhile, put on the type of performance that Indiana can only hope becomes routine for him. He was a monster on the defensive end, getting into passing lanes all night and starting fast breaks. He hit the glass, knocked down a 3-pointer and generally flashed the all-around excellent player Indiana has been wishing he would grow in to. It's only one game against a less-than-impressive opponent (without any player who could dream of guarding him), but Smith seemed bought-in on both ends of the court and ready to be a difference-maker.
"He changed the game for us in the first half with his defensive intensity," coach Archie Miller said of Smith. "He was able to get out and make some plays, gave us a cushion, gave us confidence, gave us some momentum. And that's what older guys do, the way the most experienced guys play."
The two main takeaways for Indiana from this game were depth and pace of play. One of the Hoosiers' main strengths this season appears to be its depth and its ability to put any one of 10-11 players on the floor and be confident that they can contribute. That will be a luxury when the rugged Big Ten season hits and it certainly helps that the newcomers, including redshirt freshman Jerome Hunter, seem ready to step into the spotlight immediately. It was also a welcome sight that the sophomore Phinisee, who had been limited in practice in October, played 18 minutes tonight and looked comfortable, finishing with 14 points and three assists. Having him ready to go and getting him back on the floor with Durham (Miller said the pair had barely shared the court in practice at all because of injury issues) will go a long way toward settling Indiana's backcourt rotation. Devonte Green remains out, but for now the Hoosiers have plenty of ball-handlers and Durham and Phinisee provide just enough outside shooting.
The surplus of available players also allows Indiana to play the way it wants: fast. The Hoosiers' plan to get out in transition and push the ball at every opportunity to try to create easy baskets. That's absolutely crucial for a team that still isn't loaded with long-range shooters. Indiana got 31 points on fastbreaks today (nine of Smith's 11 baskets were layups or dunks, for example) and many of those were the result of live-ball turnovers created by an active Hoosier defense that overwhelmed the Leathernecks. Having so many capable players means Indiana can play that way for 40 minutes and not worry too much about its best players getting worn down. In the middle of last season, when the Hoosiers were in the throes of their long losing skid in January and February, that was far from the case. This Indiana team plans to play up-tempo all the way through and it has the horsepower to do so.
"Right now we have a stable of guys that I feel like if they're in there they can put pressure on the rim," Miller said. "If you put pressure on the rim and your guards are doing a good job of advancing the ball and pushing it, I think that's what you're seeing right now is a team that's trying to continue to push the pace. We're getting a lot up the floor, which is a good sign, and that's got to be a part of what we're doing. We can't play sort of trudging through the mud, we got to get going."
Western Illinois coach Billy Wright, a friend of Miller's and a former state-championship-winning high school in Indiana, summed up succinctly what makes Indiana formidable.
"Their toughness, their physicality and their versatility," said Wright, who coached at Pike. "I think they can play small and play big. I think the young guys are coming along really well. It’s not easy playing freshmen at any level, especially in the Big Ten. So, I think they’re doing the right things in the off season to get their team ready."
It wasn't a perfect performance – Miller said he wasn't impressed with his team's defensive play outside of Smith – but it gives Indiana a lot to dream on. This team has talent and plenty of it. We'll find out over the next couple of months whether that talent can form into a coherent whole and make a run in the Big Ten.