BLOOMINGTON – Indiana's games so far this season have followed a fairly consistent formula: the Hoosiers struggle a little early, pull away in the second half to win and Archie Miller says the team's defense has to be better after the game.
That was what happened tonight when the Hoosiers, who led by only seven at halftime, found another gear in the second half and ran away with a 91-65 win over North Alabama. The Lions stayed close in the first half in large part by shooting 7 of 10 from beyond the 3-point line. After halftime, they went 0 for 4 and Indiana pulled away.
"I think Indiana changed," North Alabama coach Tony Pujol said of what was different in the second half. "That’s the thing about Coach Miller’s teams, they’re going to make adjustments. I think our guys struggled a little bit with the physicality down low and unfortunately shots weren’t going down, and (we got) away from what we wanted to do from a defensive standpoint."
While some might be disheartened by Indiana's performance in the first half – and to be sure there was plenty to be disappointed about; most of North Alabama's 3-pointers were wide open – I'm choosing to take a glass half-full approach after this one. The fact that the Hoosiers' were able to take the defense up several notches in the second half suggests that the team's issues on that end of the floor are more about their relative inexperience rather an actual dearth of defensive ability. That lack of experience can be remedied with more games and work in practice and Indiana has the athletes necessary to eventually be very good on the defensive end. The question is whether the Hoosiers can improve quickly enough to shut down Big Ten teams in January and February. If they play like they did in the first half tonight, they'll get run off the court in a few games.
Still, seeing the improvement game by game is the important part and there were signs of improvement tonight, on both ends. Trayce Jackson-Davis continued his progression early in his freshman year, going to the basket over and over again and drawing eight fouls on North Alabama. He hit 14 of 15 from beyond the 3-point line and posted his first career 20-point performance. Miller wanted him to be more aggressive offensively and he went out and did it. It seems that the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball is not even scratching the surface of the player he can become.
Like everyone else, he has room for improvement on the defensive end. Miller has already asked him to do a lot, guarding three different positions (3, 4 and 5) and still coming over for shot-blocking on the weak side. It's a tough assignment for a player who was in high school six months ago, but Miller has confidence in the freshman's ability to handle all of it.
"The transition, it's been pretty difficult," Jackson-Davis said. "At the same time, I think Coach Miller believes in me and that I'm athletic enough. I'm just going to try to do my best to guard my guys."
Some of the best news from tonight is that Indiana's depth appears to be for real. Miller said the coaching staff is comfortable putting all 10 scholarship players (not counting Devonte Green, who remains out with a hamstring injury) on the court and counting on them to be able to execute within the team's offensive and defensive concepts. That will be luxury during Big Ten season, when players inevitably get banged up or fatigued and need rest.
The two best examples of that depth are Jerome Hunter and Damezi Anderson. Both of them scored in double figures tonight for the first time in their Indiana careers and they both flashed workable outside jump shots that could be extremely important for Indiana going forward. Hunter finished with 12 points, scoring in a variety of ways and hitting a 3-pointer and another long jumper. He's an athletic forward, almost 6-foot-8, and Miller has been drooling over his versatility since high school. Anderson was recruited as a shooter and as a freshman he couldn't shoot. That was a problem and it seemed like he lacked confidence. After he didn't play at all against Portland State, it was fair to wonder what his role might be this season. Tonight, he showed his potential, scoring 10 points in 19 minutes and nailing 2 of 3 from beyond the 3-point line. His shot looks much smoother this season and he seems to have his confidence back.
"Just a lot of repetition with it," Anderson said of how he found his groove from 3-point range. "Just made sure I'm working on it and getting comfortable to how I used to shoot before I even touched (the ball) here at Indiana. I just had to get my flow back together and my jump shot back together."
Hunter and Anderson (along with Al Durham's improvement from a season ago) are a significant part of the reason why Miller said opponents can't just pack five guys in the lane against the Hoosiers like they did last season. This Indiana team presents opposing defenses with matchup problems because of its size and versatility and with some outside shooting finally in the fold it will be tough to stop IU when its firing on all cylinders.