BLOOMINGTON – Indiana's season-opener against Morehead State tonight ended in an 88-53 Hoosiers victory in which IU shot 61% while the Eagles managed just 37% and turned the ball over 21 times.
Looking at only those numbers, it would be difficult to predict that midway through the first half the game was tied at 21 and fans in Assembly Hall, hoping to see confirmation this Hoosiers team is ready to take a leap back into the national conversation after a string of lean years, were more than a little restless.
The Eagles tied the game on a 4-point play when IU guard Xavier Johnson undercut Morehead State's Mark Freeman shooting a 3-pointer – Johnson insisted Freeman had kicked his leg out to the side and did not seem entirely wrong – not only giving the Eagles a momentum-creating play, but putting Johnson on the bench for the rest of the half with two fouls. At that moment, the lineup on the floor for IU was four backups – Jordan Geronimo, Malik Reneau, Trey Galloway and Tamar Bates – and freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino.
That group saved the day over the next several minutes.
Geronimo and Reneau combined to score nine consecutive points over a 1:56 stretch, part of a 13-0 run which gave the Hoosiers a double-digit lead it never relinquished. It was an early demonstration of what the Hoosiers have been saying all offseason: This team is deep.
"As a team I feel like and we feel like we have 10 starters, 11 starters, 12 starters, so when that second group comes in, there should be no drop off," forward Race Thompson said. "Malik has been playing great. (Geronimo) has been playing great. And (Hood-Schifino) is running that second team. I mean, just really feels like we got ten starters out there, and we've seen it since we've been practicing in the summer. Should be fun."
Woodson demonstrated his faith in that second unit when he left it in as the game was getting a little too close for comfort (though it was not as though the starters had been playing particularly well at the outset). It's possible the coach wanted to take the opportunity against a lesser opponent to see how the backups handled themselves in a relatively big moment. They responded with the spark the Hoosiers had been missing, not only scoring repeatedly in the lane, but also forcing a string of turnovers on defense.
"It's really important for us coming in to have no drop off," said Geronimo, who had 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting despite throwing a fastbreak dunk off the back of the rim in garbage time. "It's important for us to come with our energy, and when energy is applied it's always going to show on the court. We went on a run. Got some stops, some easy points. That's what you need when you come off the bench, to have that pop to keep you in."
Indiana mostly increased its lead after that galvanizing run, though a 30-foot Drew Thelwell 3-pointer for Morehead State at the first-half buzzer left the crowd groaning as the teams went into the locker room with Indiana up just 12 against an Ohio Valley team which lost its top five scorers from a year ago.
There were some positive moments in the second half, when the Hoosiers held the Eagles to just 24 points on 33% shooting and steadily ballooned their lead regardless of which lineup Woodson had in the game. A particularly alluring stretch came in the early portions of the second stanza, when fifth-year senior Miller Kopp drained a pair of 3s in a 1:47 stretch to push the margin to 20 and force Morehead State to call a timeout. Before the Hoosiers returned to their bench, Bates turned and waved his arms at the roaring crowd, imploring it to get louder. That such a moment was necessary against an overmatched (on paper) opponent like Morehead State is somewhat concerning, but it was a fun moment for the large crowd nonetheless.
The problem is Kopp's pair of 3s in that short span accounted for half of Indiana's total long-range output for the night. IU went just 4 for 11 from deep and one of the made 3s banked in out of the hand of Bates at the end of the shot clock. Woodson did not seem particularly perturbed by the lack of 3-point attempts because Indiana was able to mostly have its way inside.
"This is no knock against them, we were a bigger team," the second-year Hoosiers coach said. "Our strength is playing inside-out. I mean, it's no secret. I'm not trying to hide that. And they doubled some and we were able to get the ball out to some of our guys to make shots, and Miller made a couple in transition, which we were capable of doing that as well."
"When you got good looks, I expect you to make them," he added. "I mean, (Kopp) made two big ones to kind of expand our lead, but I think all the guys that are shooting the 3-ball on our team can make it. That's just how I feel after watching them the last 4 1/2, five months."
The best news for Indiana on opening night concerned its highly-touted freshmen: Hood-Schifino and Reneau. Hood-Schifino ran the offense relatively well and his court vision and creativity appear elite. It's also been encouraging to see him knock down a string of long jumpers across the exhibition games and tonight's opener. Reneau was the star of the second half, getting essentially whatever he wanted down low and finishing with a game-high 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting, plus five rebounds and two blocks. There are still questions about whether he has the high-level athleticism to be a true difference-maker against better teams, but his footwork is extremely polished for a freshman, he has terrific touch around the rim and he plays very hard. Put simply, he's fun to watch and he should be able to spell Thompson and Jackson-Davis at minimum.
I've been saying this since he got here, you can't speed him up," Thompson said of Reneau. "He gets to his spots. I mean, I got to guard him every day, so it's fun to compete with him in practice every day, pushing each other. He has really, really good footwork, really good ball fakes."
If one were looking for reasons to be concerned about Indiana after tonight, there were plenty from which to choose. The Hoosiers were often less than crisp with their passes, missed too many point-blank shots at the rim and went just 12 for 21 from the foul line. On defense, their rotations weren't particularly clean, they gave up too many open 3s and their close-outs were extremely poor at times. They were bailed out on that end of the floor in no small part by a Morehead State team seemingly intent on throwing the ball to its opponent.
But there were some positive signs – the performance of the freshmen and the entire second unit among them – and it's clear Woodson is going to use these early games as glorified scrimmages in which he will test out a variety of lineup combinations to determine which players work best together. Such is the advantage of so much depth.
"As a coach I'm still learning, and you are liable to see a lot different lineups based on the talent we have," Woodson said. "All I'm telling our guys is just be ready to play, because if I see you not giving it to us, then I got to go somewhere else and get it."