BLOOMINGTON – Rebounding is the key for Indiana.
Coach Archie Miller has made that much clear since the first game of the season against Tennessee Tech. The Hoosiers have some talented rebounders: Trayce Jackson-Davis, Race Thompson, even guard Armaan Franklin is chasing the ball off the glass more aggressively this season, but Miller is unsatisfied with his team's performance on the boards. When the Hoosiers get into Big Ten play, they'll need to embrace the physicality of the league and figure out a way to win the rebounding battles if they are to win consistently in arguably the nation's best conference.
Today's game against North Alabama shouldn't be particularly stressful for the Hoosiers. The Lions, in just their third season as a Division I program, have only played one Division I opponent this season – Troy – and lost 62-57. When they came to Assembly Hall last season, the Hoosiers emerged with a 91-65 victory. This is a tune-up game for better opponents down the road, the final game of Indiana's regular season against a team that isn't from one of the major conferences. As such, it's a chance for the Hoosiers to continue to develop as a team, to improve their effort and physicality on the glass and see if someone, anyone, can begin to hit from the outside consistently.
Although Indiana has won three games and lost two so far this season, the situation has been similar in wins and losses: Jackson-Davis dominates down low, but Indiana's guards give him precious little help in the scoring department because of an inability to hit shots from the outside. That was the same issue that pervaded the team for much of last season – although the Hoosiers began to find some shooting late in the campaign – and it needs to change for Indiana to have any chance at all to compete in the loaded Big Ten. For now, the Hoosiers are shooting an abysmal 28.8% from beyond the arc, even worse than last year, after an offseason spent emphasizing pace and space on offense. It's hard to create space for Jackson-Davis to operate when opposing teams aren't scared of Indiana's shooters. With North Alabama featuring no one on its roster taller than 6-foot-7, I wouldn't be surprised if the Lions tried to double team the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball every time he touches the ball and dare Indiana to hit outside shots. Such a strategy would help Jackson-Davis work on his passing game, but it could also help North Alabama hang around if the Hoosiers can't hit from outside. Coming into today, Rob Phinisee and Jerome Hunter are both knocking in better than 44% of their 3-pointers, but Franklin is shooting a grisly 16.7%, Trey Galloway is at 14.3% and Khristian Lander is making 15.4%. All three of those players are better shooters than they've shown this season and Indiana needs them to step up.
The Lions have played two games against lower-division opponents, so it's necessary to take all of their stats with a grain of salt, but they seem to have star in sophomore forward Mervin James. The 6-7 James is averaging 18 points and 6 rebounds while shooting 75% from the field and 60% from 3-point range. Jackson-Davis or Thompson will likely draw the assignment of slowing him down and he'll be facing an Indiana defense that is a far cry from that of Carver College (enrollment, and I am not kidding, 37 students). Miller has consistently praised the Hoosiers' defensive intensity this season and IU has held opposing teams to 26.2% shooting from beyond the arc and 37.6% overall.
Indiana should win this game without much trouble. In a game against a lower-level opponent like the Lions, the Hoosiers will be focused on themselves and improving in the areas that Miller has identified as deficient to this point in the season. The Big Ten opener is only 10 days and Indiana has the Crossroads Classic against Butler in only six days. Today is an opportunity to grow before the schedule gets more difficult.