It’s no secret that Indiana men’s basketball is projected to contend for the Big Ten crowd this upcoming season. Those predictions only really started pouring in after star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis announced his intentions to return to Bloomington.
The reason why is obvious. Last season’s heavyweights like Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State lost a good amount of firepower to the NBA Draft process and transfer portal. Meanwhile, Indiana lost a single starter from last season’s lineup and replenished its bench losses with a vaunted recruiting class.
Returning experience sounds ideal, but you have to keep in mind that the returning experience in question went 9-11 in the Big Ten last season and ranked tenth in points per game with 70.8, which drops to eleventh with 67.2 against conference foes.
So, where’d all these expectations come from? Well, Indiana was a team that really came together down the stretch last season, especially when it comes to guard play.
Mike Woodson’s NBA system puts a lot on the shoulders of a team’s point guard, and it took Xavier Johnson some time to settle in. After he did, he quickly became one of the top guards in the Big Ten.
A rip and tear run through the Big Ten Tournament delivered Indiana its first NCAA Tournament bid since the Tom Crean era. The wheels fell off against St. Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament, but there was something there for the Hoosiers.
Remember, preseason No. 1 North Carolina faced blowout loss after blowout loss in the regular season last year before everything finally came together down the stretch. Am I saying Indiana is the same team or capable of similar feats? No, but you have to take into account what a team is in the last few weeks for a glimpse of what it may be.
Let’s bring this back to Jackson-Davis. Indiana’s star big is out to cement a Hoosier legacy at a program crowded with players of yore. He brings size, speed, athleticism and creativity around the rim to lead the Hoosiers in scoring, but his job has been made more difficult for his entire career at Indiana because he’s had next to no help from the perimeter.
Jackson-Davis’ mere presence on the court forces a defense to account for him in the middle, which naturally opens up opportunities beyond the arc.
For three years now, Indiana has failed to fully capitalize on what Jackson-Davis brings to the table. The Archie Miller era yielded no reliable shooting and last year’s leading shooter, Parker Stewart, returned to UT-Martin this past offseason.
Stewart, while valuable for his shooting ability, wasn’t able to create his own shot. The same can be said for Miller Kopp, who knocked down some key 3-pointers during Indiana’s NCAA Tournament run.
Indiana tried a few things, with Race Thompson drifting out to the perimeter for a few shots here and there to keep a defense guessing. That, uh, never happened in any other year and was quite the sight. Thompson’s focus this offseason has been improving his perimeter shot, which could make him an ideal 4 for Trayce’s 5.
That’s better than nothing, but still doesn’t come close to maximizing Jackson-Davis. So, who can truly step up?
Here’s what Mike Woodson said back at Indiana’s media day when he was asked for players who could help from the perimeter:
“I’d like to think Miller having a taste of what Indiana basketball is all about now, I think he’ll be a lot better this season. Xavier showed that he could make them. I think some of the freshmen that we’re bringing in will be able to knock some of those down. Race kind of picked it up from previous years, a guy who really wasn’t allowed to shoot them. He made some for us last year. I think we’ll be okay in that regard this year. It’s not like we’re not working on threes. We shoot them every day. We shoot free throws every day. It’s just when you get to a game situation, you’ve got to feel comfortable and ready to knock them down. That’s my job, to relax them and get them in that position.”
So, there you have it. Largely the same group of guys as last year who’ve been working on their shot and getting open throughout the offseason.
We’ve already touched on Thompson and Kopp though.
What’s more intriguing is the nebulous answer of the incoming freshman class of four. There’s forwards in Malik Reneau and Kaleb Banks and guards in Jalen Hood-Schifino and C.J. Gunn. All of those guys, with the exception of Hood-Schifino, will see minutes in relief.
Logan Duncomb will likely sub in for one of Jackson-Davis or Thompson, most likely the former with the potential for Reneau to see some time.
The Hoosiers’ situation at the 3 will be an interesting one. Woodson’s answer makes it seem as though that’s Kopp’s spot as a starter, and he settled in as a shooter during Indiana’s run. Behind him, Indiana has options. Those minutes could go to Geronimo, who has a good amount of experience, or a freshman like Banks or Reneau.
I can see Banks seeing some minutes there as he bulks up for future play in the Big Ten.
With all of that in consideration, the most likely option from the freshmen that Woodson mentioned is Hood-Schifino, whose potential seems through the roof. On top of that, he can create his own shot.
He’ll in all likelihood be playing alongside Johnson, taking Stewart’s spot at the 2. He has some work to do on his 3-point shot, but it’s reportedly okay and shouldn’t be an issue while not necessarily shining through as a strength. Johnson took and made a few shots from the point himself last season and can be relied on to continue doing so.
Throw in Gunn, a known shooter at the in-state high school level, and that’s two options from the freshmen that we at least know about so far.
Outside of that, Indiana will need something down the roster. It’s got to get some shots out of guys like Tamar Bates, Geronimo, Trey Galloway and maybe even Anthony Leal.
Woodson’s gonna work on getting those guys ready and experimenting with lineups that work and we’re only gonna know what that looks like once Indiana takes the floor.
We can only speculate now. We’ve just gotta wait and see.