BLOOMINGTON – Indiana's ceiling came into view today for the first time.
For the first time this season, the Hoosiers made some shots from 3-point range – Armaan Franklin knocked in five 3s and Indiana made 11 of 19 during one particularly blazing stretch – and that shooting performance, combined with the stifling defense that has been its signature all season, helped IU breeze past an overmatched North Alabama team and win 87-52 at Assembly Hall after a slow start.
As expected, the Lions had nobody who could dream of guarding Trayce Jackson-Davis one-on-one, so they mostly sat back in a tightly-packed zone and dared the Hoosiers to hit from the outside. Indiana responded by starting 1 for 8 from 3-point distance and letting North Alabama hang around and even cut its lead to single digits at 24-16 with less than six minutes to go in the first half.
Then, Franklin hit a 3 with 3:45 to go in the opening half. Trey Galloway followed with another and then it was Al Durham's turn. By the start of the second half, the Hoosiers couldn't miss from outside and they turned a 16-point halftime advantage into a 39-point lead in the blink of an eye.
"I think the big key was rhythm," coach Archie Miller said of Indiana's shooting. "I think the shots were in rhythm. The attacking, the zone, the ball was getting to the right spots and it was coming out, our movement as the ball came out was good. Our passes were sharp. In the first half, the quality, the rhythm of the shot was not it. We had much better chemistry on offense in the second half. The shots were coming off inside-out action against the zone which is what you want."
Almost everyone got in on the act. Rob Phinisee made two 3s early in the second half, Jerome Hunter made one, Anthony Leal added one for his first basket at Indiana and Leal's fellow freshman Khristian Lander made two in a row after struggling all season with his jumper. Shooting is contagious and the Hoosiers caught the bug in the second half. Whether that holds against better competition remains to be seen, but it was an encouraging sign that could help Indiana gain some confidence. All season (and for the last three seasons, really), shooting has been the key to unlocking Indiana's offensive potential. If the Hoosiers can do anything close to what they did today on a consistent basis, they'll be more than competitive in the Big Ten.
"In the second half, guys opened the floor up and were able to take advantage of the zone with some assists and being able to make a couple (shots)," Miller said. "I was telling these guys the other day, if we start to develop more of a rhythm, catch-and-shoot mentality, where our guys are confident and the ball's going in, we're a tough cover. We really are."
Franklin was the catalyst for much of the shooting barrage and he continues to be the most improved player on Indiana's roster. After coming in as something of an afterthought in a 2019 class that also included five-star recruit Jackson-Davis, it's obvious that the Indianapolis native is gaining confidence by the game. He's gotten significantly stronger, he's a bull on defense and his court vision has improved. If he's hitting 3-pointers at a respectable clip, he's an All-Big Ten-type guard.
"I give Armaan a lot of credit," Miller said. "He continues to evolve as a player for us. I was really happy for him to see the ball go through the net. He has worked hard on it and I think that is going to be the Armaan we get used to seeing, consistently knocking the open ones in. When he has that, with the way he is defending and the way he is creating, he is turning into a terrific player early in the year for us."
It wasn't an entirely rosy picture for the Hoosiers. They turned the ball over 18 times against a team that has no business forcing that many from a Big Ten opponent. That has to be fixed or conference foes, not to mention Butler in the Crossroads Classic on Saturday, will eat the Hoosiers alive. IU has too many good ball-handlers to be giving the ball away that often. Indiana also missed 13 free throws, costing it chances to extend its lead in the first half.
Still, it was an encouraging performance in many ways. The Hoosiers rebounded better – winning the battle of the boards 47-34 – and continued to defend at an elite level, frustrating the North Alabama offense all afternoon. Even better, IU was able to work on its depth for the first time since the season-opener against Tennessee Tech, giving big minutes to Leal and Jordan Geronimo, both of whom had gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle in the last few games as better opponents forced Indiana to shorten its bench. It was also nice to see Lander finally knock down some shots, which could get his confidence level back up after a couple of tough games in Maui and against Florida State.
With six games under their belt, the experimentation stage is essentially over for Indiana. From here on out, every opponent is a potential NCAA Tournament team and the youthful Hoosiers will have to grow up quickly. They glimpsed their ceiling today, now they have to reach it.