BLOOMINGTON – Take care of the ball.
That will be Indiana's main focus tonight against a Jackson State team that has yet to win this season. The Hoosiers committed 27 turnovers on Sunday against Louisiana, an unfathomable number against a team that was not particularly good defensively. Indiana simply through the ball out of bounds or to the other team so many times in that game, blowing past its stated goal of no more than 12 turnovers per contest.
Coach Mike Woodson half-joked after the game there would be plenty of running in practice Monday in order to put the turnover issue at the front of his players' minds. It's likely there was a significant focus on it in film study Monday, but it's hard to imagine Woodson running his team ragged in the middle of a stretch of two games in three days.
Still, it would be nice to see the Hoosiers take a step forward in their ballhandling. They turned the ball over 15 times in each of their previous games against St. John's and Northern Illinois, so it's not as though avoiding turnovers has been a strong point for Indiana this season, but the Hoosiers at least seemed much more locked in on offense against the Huskies and Red Storm. Maybe Louisiana's pitiful performance on offense – 19% shooting and 25 straight misses in the first half – made the Hoosiers somewhat lackadaisical on the offensive end in their own right. Regardless, that will be the area of focus for Indiana tonight.
Maybe the most important news in that regard came in a statement from a team spokesman prior to the game: backup point guard Rob Phinisee will miss a second straight game with a leg injury. That means most of the minutes running the offense when starter Xavier Johnson is off the court will go to sophomore Khristian Lander. Lander was a revelation Sunday, scoring nine points, dishing a career-high six assists and grabbing six rebounds, but he also committed four turnovers, throwing the ball out of bounds twice and committing an offensive foul. Woodson said he liked Lander's performance, but needs to get him to take more pride in taking care of the ball. Lander has had a promising start to the season and it's possible he could steal minutes from Phinisee even when the senior returns from his injury, but to do that he has to show he can run the offense without giving the ball away.
Jackson State comes into this game off a loss to Marshall on Sunday, so the Tigers are also playing a second game in three days. They are the defending Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champions and they won the conference last season despite starting the year 0-5 in non-conference play, so they're no stranger to slow starts. Jackson State opened its season with a 71-47 loss to Illinois and it won't be shocked by the level of talent Indiana brings to the table, but it might struggle to score against the IU defense. The Tigers try to slow the ball down and limit possessions, but it has not made the most of its own offensive possessions this season, shooting just 39.8% from the field and 40.4% from 2-point range, the ninth-worst figure in the country. The Tigers are, however, hitting a very respectable 38.8% of 3s, so the Hoosiers will have to stay up on their man on the perimeter. Jackson State is led by 6-foot-7 forward Jayveous McKinnis, who averages 12 points and 10 rebounds. He'll have to deal with Race Thompson's tenacious defense tonight.
The Hoosiers should win this game relatively easily, even with Phinisee out. But these low-major early-season games are less about simply putting another tally in the win column than they are finding ways to improve and gel as a unit. That's especially important for an Indiana team that has so many new faces. Showing genuine improvement after a sloppy performance against Louisiana would be a positive sign.