BLOOMINGTON – The 120th season of Indiana Hoosiers basketball starts tonight. It's a potential turning-point season for the Indiana program, which has missed the NCAA Tournament in three straight years without any sanctions on the program for the first time since the early 1970s.
Coach Archie Miller has presided over two of those seasons and his seat is getting warmer as Indiana fans grow impatient. He has a talented recruiting class set to come in in 2020 and potentially another in 2021, but the Hoosiers need to show at least some improvement this season if Miller is going to convince fans that he is the long-term answer on the sidelines.
To that end, Miller has assembled a team that features plenty of talent to go with plenty of question marks. Some of those questions include: how good can 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball Trayce Jackson-Davis be in his first year of college basketball? How much can fellow freshman Armaan Franklin provide off the bench? Can Devonte Green be a go-to scorer? Is Justin Smith finally ready to make a leap?
Perhaps the most important question is: can the Hoosiers stay healthy? Injuries to Romeo Langford, Jerome Hunter, De'Ron Davis, Robert Phinisee and others partially derailed Indiana's tournament hopes last year, contributing to a season-killing stretch of 12 losses in 13 games in January and February. The injury bug has already bitten Indiana this season, with Phinisee, Green and Aljami Durham missing time in preseason practice. Green won't play in the game tonight against Western Illinois, while Phinisee is doubtful to play after Miller said he "hasn't been part of what we're doing" in practice. Durham didn't play in the exhibition game against Gannon, but seems ready to contribute tonight, calling himself "100%" following Monday's practice.
That means that the Hoosiers will use much more of Franklin tonight as they try to patch together a point guard rotation from the freshman and Durham. Indiana will likely go with a bigger lineup at times – Miller has emphasized that size will be a strength for the Hoosiers this year, with a roster loaded up on players 6-foot-7 or taller – and sophomore Damezi Anderson will likely get significant playing time, as well. Anderson was a disappointment as a freshman last season after starring in South Bend in high school, but he seems to have made a leap and could be a hugely important outside shooting presence for Indiana with Green out.
Even with the injuries, this is not a game the Hoosiers should struggle to win. Western Illinois has never played in the NCAA Tournament and has not won more than 12 games in a season since 2012-13, including a 10-21 mark last year. There are plenty of Indiana connections among the Leathernecks, however, including top scorer Kobe Webster, who was a standout at Park Tudor in Indianapolis. He averaged 17 points per game as a sophomore last season, but he is only 6-0 and 160 pounds and might struggle against the Hoosiers' size and athleticism. He did shoot 41.3% from 3-point range last season, which was a strength for the whole Leathernecks team. They ranked 15th in the country in shooting percentage beyond the arc in 2018-19. The only path to a Western Illinois win in this game is if it begins to rain 3s on the Hoosiers, a la Indiana State in the season-opener two years ago. A loss in this game would be disastrous for Indiana, which is trying to get off to a fast start with a soft early schedule.
The Hoosiers are back tonight. After an offseason of recriminations about went wrong last year, Indiana has a chance to once again stake its claim as one of the top teams in the Big Ten. An easy season-opening would be a good start.