BLOOMINGTON – There have been some positives and some negatives to take away from Indiana's first two games of the season. Obviously, the biggest positive is that the Hoosiers are 2-0, although that is no great indicator of where the rest of the season is going because the competition has been less than impressive. That will remain the case tonight, when Indiana takes on North Alabama, a team that is in just its second season of Division I basketball and went 10-22 in its inaugural campaign at this level.
Still, these games against lesser opponents are not without value for the Hoosiers. They provide young players, especially Trayce Jackson-Davis and Armaan Franklin, the opportunity to adjust to college basketball without putting extreme pressure on them to perform immediately. There will be plenty of time for pressure and expectations in December and January, when the competition jumps considerably. Jackson-Davis in particular has already shown why he was a five-star recruit and the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball, posting a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double against Portland State in just his second college game. Against low-major opponents such as the Vikings and North Alabama, there are few if any players capable of matching TJD's athleticism, which gives him a chance to take over games. Coach Archie Miller wants him to be more aggressive and "forceful", similar to how he tried to get fellow five-star recruit Romeo Langford to impose his will on games when the innately unselfish guard would rather have let the ball come to him. Expect Jackson-Davis to be more aggressive in looking for his shot as he gains confidence.
The one aspect of Indiana's performance that really must improve compared to the first two games is its defense. The Hoosiers have given up an average of nearly 70 points per game in their first two matchups. Obviously, some of that too-high total is due to Indiana's commitment to playing up-tempo basketball and creating turnovers, but there have still been too many missed rotations and easy layups in each of the first two games. Miller wants more "toughness" from his team on the defensive end and we've seen Miller-coached teams coalesce on that end of the floor as seasons wear on. The defensive end has been a point of emphasis in practice since the 85-74 win over Portland State and we'll see if that emphasis has borne some fruit tonight. It should be noted, however, that building a defensive-oriented team is not done with just a few practices and toughness on defense will be a season-long project.
As for tonight's opponent, North Alabama has already played one high-major team this season, falling to South Carolina 77-55 in its season-opener. This is not a game the Hoosiers should have difficulty winning and it should be another opportunity for Indiana to show off its depth and play 10-11 players before garbage time. Damezi Anderson and De'Ron Davis combined to play just four minutes against Portland State and I expect to see much more of both of them tonight. Miller spoke repeatedly in the offseason about the importance of Anderson making a leap and providing a true 3-point threat, but the South Bend native did not see the court at all against Portland State. Davis is being brought along slowly so as to keep him healthy for the rigors of the Big Ten season, when Indiana will need his rebounding and interior passing ability.
We won't learn much about this Indiana team from the final score of this game, but it will be another opportunity for Indiana's young players to learn and grow and for the veterans to settle in with a new group. Bigger games are coming, but these early-season games are important for team development.