Two games into the 2009-2010 season, we’ve learned little about the Indiana team that should blossom into a respectable squad once conference play rolls around in late December. Sure, the Hoosiers have won two games comfortably, but it’s hard to judge progress against the likes of Howard and USC Upstate. We know IU is better — but how much better? Our understanding of this question will come more into focus Thursday when IU takes the floor with Ole Miss in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Tip-Off Classic in Puerto Rico.
Plagued by an injury bug that claimed guards Chris Warren, Trevor Gaskins and Eniel Polynice for the season, Andy Kennedy’s admirable coaching job in 2008-2009 led Ole Miss to seven conference wins and a 16-15 record. Warren and Polynice have both recovered from left knee injuries and are joined in the backcourt by sophomore guard Terrico White (pictured), who is projected as a fringe lottery pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.
White emerged as Kennedy’s best player as a freshman and averaged 18.4 ppg in conference play on his way to being named the SEC freshman of the year. “Rico,” as he’s called by his coach and teammates, hit close to 50 percent of his two-point attempts as a freshman, but shot just 63 percent from the foul line. Expect Jeremiah Rivers to draw this assignment.
Did anyone else get a minor chill seeing Doc Rivers in Assembly Hall? I can’t explain this at all. I don’t really like Rivers. I’m not sure he’s a great NBA coach so much as a decent NBA coach who happened to luck into Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen at the right time. And after the Bulls-Celtics series last spring, I’m kind of predisposed to hate everything to do with this current Celtics team.
And yet there I was, getting all goosebumpy as John Laskowski nervously interviewed Rivers at halftime. Rivers talked about his son, Jeremiah, his (Doc’s) excitement on his son’s announcement that he was considering Indiana as a destination, and his desire to just be a parent during IU games. He even had the IU hat on. It was pretty cool. And it was probably the most noteworthy thing about IU’s relatively lackluster win over USC-Upstate Monday night.
This year’s Hoosiers present a weird paradox. They’re not last year’s team, as much as Devan Dumes might wish they were. They’re definitely better — you can see the heightened level of play almost immediately, from Rivers to Christian Watford (man, is it nice to have an athletic big man with touch in an IU uniform again) to Derek Elston to Maurice Creek, who might just become my favorite player on this year’s team.
But this year’s Hoosiers are not a good team. There is a long way to go from “better than 6-25″ to “good.” And so while last year a win like Monday night’s might have been cause for minor excitement — IU led by 20! IU scored 69 points! — this year, it feels harder to process. So, am I supposed to be excited that IU seems borderline competent again? Or should I be depressed by the fact that an 18-turnover game at home against USC-Upstate has me considering excitement? See what I mean?
Watford continues to impress. He’s been billed as a guy that can do it all, and this game really highlighted that: he got boards, hit shots, created in the lane, got some steals, a block, and he even brought the ball up the court on one occasion. For the night he had 17 points, 10 boards, two steals and one block. He’s not a dominant player yet, but he has the tools to develop into one.
Elston was a lot of fun to watch tonight. He showed off his range with a 3-ball, and on another one that he missed in the second half, he did a good job of following his shot, which led to a board and a bucket for him. (This is something I don’t remember Matt Roth doing once last season.) Elston also had a nice tip-in follow on a miss from Verdell Jones. He’s got a nice nose for the ball, works hard and is a polished player for a freshman. I’m really liking his game thus far.
THE BAD: THE FIRST HALF, TURNOVERS AND FREE THROWS.
This game had shades of last season, as the Hoosiers racked up 18 turnovers, and only went 16-of-30 from the line. The beginning of the game was particularly rough; the Hoosiers never built any momentum or rhythm and let the Spartans hang around. It was a very sloppy affair. It’s clear Jeremiah Rivers is a terrific passer, but he was a little off this evening as he had four turnovers. It was almost as if he was trying to do too much. IU isn’t going to turn the ball over like this all season, but heading into their first real test of the year against Mississippi on Thursday, it’s a little worrisome.
THE UGLY: DEVAN DUMES.
I feel bad for Dumes. Last year, outside of Tom Pritchard, he was expected to be the man on offense. But this year, with an influx of talent around him, Dumes has to swallow his pride and assume a new role, and it’s not something I’m sure he’s going to handle particularly well, at least to start. With more size on this team, he looks smaller out on the court now, too. He’s still going to pop when he has the chance, but tonight was a particularly rough one for him: in 20 minutes, he had four turnovers — a few that were real ugly — and shot 1-of-6 from the field, 0-of-3 for behind the arc and 0-of-1 from the line. He did have five boards, however.
This is but one game, so it’s a small sample size. Dumes has plenty of time to find his mark.
It wasn’t pretty, but Tom Crean and the Indiana Hoosiers won for the second time in four days, laboring past USC-Upstate 69-61 Monday night in Assembly Hall.
IU committed 18 turnovers and hit just 16 of 30 free throws, but Christian Watford’s 17 points and 10 rebounds pushed the Hoosiers (2-0) past the Spartans. It was the second straight double-double for the freshman from Birmingham, Alabama.
“The first thing I would say is welcome to the wacky world of freshmen and sophomore predominant basketball,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “That’s where we are at and we have a lot of learning to do.”
Three Hoosiers — Maurice Creek (14), Verdell Jones (13) and Derek Elston (10) — joined Watford in double figures. Jeremiah Rivers added two points, four rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Indiana led 60-40 with 7:57 remaining, but USC Upstate (0-2) closed the game with a 21-9 run.
The Spartans, playing just their third season in Division I, were led by Mezie Uzochukwu’s 14 points.
Pick to click: Watford
Crean on Puerto Rico: “We are getting ready to play some high level guys when we get to Puerto Rico. It’s going to be a really good test for us to see where we stand. If we don’t match-up and play with that will and that fire and we are not as physical as them, we will get embarrassed.”
Pritchard struggles: Plagued by foul trouble, the 6-9 sophomore scored four points and didn’t record a rebound in just 10 minutes.
Dumes struggles, too: Indiana’s leading scorer last season logged 20 minutes, but hit just 1 of 6 shots and committed four turnovers. Dumes finished with two points and five rebounds.
Up next: Ole Miss in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Monday AM Update: Evan Daniels of Scout.com is reporting that Will Sheehey has committed to play for Indiana and will sign a Letter of Intent on Tuesday.
Here’s what Daniels had to say when we asked him about the impact Sheehey will have at IU: “At 6-5 Sheehey is a guy that will be bring athleticism, toughness and an ability to score from the wing position to the table for the Hoosiers. He’s made strides in his game and he really turned some heads as the early signing period was ending.”
A coach not involved in his recruitment offered the following comments about Sheehey to Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich: “Whoever gets him is getting a kid who has a chance to be a really special player. He’s freaky athletic. He can shoot. He’s a really good player.”