An enlightened night of basketball, where Indiana was everything that it wasn’t last season
There were lobs, dunks and blocks, highlights from every facet of the game. But perhaps the best representation of Indiana’s brilliant night wasn’t filled with flash and grandeur. It was simple, fundamental basketball, executed to perfection.
With just under 10 minutes left in the second half and Indiana already holding a 35-point lead, Northern Illinois put on a full-court press. The first option wasn’t there for Jordan Geronimo, who was passing the ball in. He remained patient, though, waiting for Tamar Bates to cut toward the baseline. Bates caught the ball and, as a double team converged, he calmly flipped the ball to Rob Phinisee, who was cutting down the middle of the floor. Phinisee took one dribble and fired a dart to Trey Galloway in the corner, who knocked down a 3-pointer.
On Friday night, Indiana was everything that it wasn’t last season. They played with poise, they played with energy, they played with physicality. The ball moved with pace on offense. They used their length and athleticism on defense. The result was an 85-49 victory over Northern Illinois in a game that Indiana dominated from start to finish.
Everything, it seemed, was in unison.
“I just thought tonight it was a total team effort,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said. “I thought everybody that played tonight gave us effort and did exactly what we asked them to do, which was kind of nice to see.”
Friday’s performance was a glimpse of the dynamic style of play on both sides of the floor that Woodson has been envisioning since he took the job at Indiana. He has made it clear he wants to set a foundation on defense. He drilled it so much early in practices that he didn’t allow his players to switch, forcing them to stay in front of their man.
Northern Illinois entered Friday coming off an upset win over Washington in which they shot 52 percent from three and guard Trendon Hankerson had 28 points. On Friday, Indiana held NIU to just 18 percent from three and 30 percent from the field. Hankerson shot 1-of-8 from the field. It was a product of Indiana’s communication and versatility. For instance, in the first half, center Michael Durr switched onto a guard on the perimeter but was able to hold his ground.
“I thought we did a great job on their perimeter play because they’re so good in terms of penetrating the basketball and making plays off the bounce,” Woodson said. “And I thought we did a great job in moving our feet and keeping them in front of us.”
Offensively, it wasn’t only that Trayce Jackson-Davis played like an All-American, but also the fact that there were complementary pieces around him. In 26 minutes, Jackson-Davis had 19 points, seven rebounds and seven blocks. But there was also Xavier Johnson, who efficiently commanded the offense, scoring 13 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and dishing out three assists. Race Thompson notched a double-double in just 16 minutes. The Hoosiers totaled 37 bench points.
Also as important, the formula in which Indiana’s offense needs to operate was successful. There was constant movement on the perimeter. Johnson maneuvered pick and rolls, many of which led to easy buckets. Shooting, a longstanding issue for Indiana, and one that is necessary for Woodson’s open style of offense to work, was at a respectable 48 percent from the field, 35 percent from deep and 77 percent from the free-throw line on Friday. If Indiana can sustain or improve its perimeter shooting, opponents will have to pick their poison of whether to double-team Jackson-Davis and risk leaving someone open on the perimeter or gamble with single coverage. Even in the first two games, it has paid off with more than one lob to Geronimo.
“All that stuff happens naturally,” Geronimo said. “It’s not like, (there are) set plays for that kind of stuff. But just knowing each other, our tendencies and knowing how we play and what we do. And that’s the chemistry we have.”
It was also clear that Indiana was simply playing with more energy, something that Woodson has constantly preached and something that Indiana lacked last season. In the first half alone, Geronimo went spilling onto the floor for a loose ball. Thompson kept offensive possessions alive by sheer will. Jackson-Davis was shoved to the floor because he was beating his man down the court.
“I always tell these guys whatever minutes you get, you make it the most important minutes to help us win basketball games,” Woodson said. “And that’s what they’re doing right now.”
More than anything, Friday night delivered some validation. Woodson took over the program this spring yet has already seen his players quickly grasp concepts. Moreover, this is a team that hasn’t spent much time playing together. Six new players are on the floor this season. Two of those — Tamar Bates and Durr — have been sidelined with injuries.
Yes, this was against Northern Illinois, a team that Indiana should dominate. But what was more notable was the fashion in which they did it. There have been hints of what Indiana can be — the two Bahamas victories and first half against Eastern Michigan. But Friday was a complete performance. If this is just the beginning of Indiana’s development, there is reason to be optimistic about the outlook of the season. Now 2-0, that development will get its first true test against St. John’s on Wednesday.
Huddled with his players in the locker room after the game, Woodson finished his postgame comments with two words.