With Indiana basketball heading into a crucial stretch of the season, the frontcourt has started to round into form, playing its best basketball of the year.
When the college basketball season started, Archie Miller knew that he finally had the depth and talent in the frontcourt to compete in the Big Ten. However, after an inconsistent non-conference slate for the group, they are finally starting to round into form for Indiana basketball.
As it stands now, the starting frontcourt not only combines for 46 percent of the team’s total points (34.5 ppg), but also 50 percent of the total rebounds (20.2 rpg). Why is that so important and telling of Miller’s team and ultimate success this season?
In Archie Miller’s first two seasons as the head coach for Indiana, the Hoosiers ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in rebounding, a stat that Indiana dominated for almost all of the last decade – spent 2011-2016 in the top-5. At 40.0 rebounds per game, IU ranks fourth in the conference now, and the increase from one year to the next is directly attributed to two players.
After Joey Brunk transferred from Butler, there was a lot of hope that he would bring that toughness and effort that the Hoosiers have sometimes lacked. Not only has he brought that, but also a rebounding level that not many may have expected. Averaging just 6.6 rebounds per game, he has found his groove in the last month, seeing that number increase to 9.6 per game in the past seven contests – with five double-doubles.
With the Hoosiers rarely running many plays through Brunk, his ability to find ‘easy’ buckets for a team that has struggled mightily on the offensive end, his nearly four offensive rebounds per game has been a huge contributing factor.
“The thing that’s never left him [Brunk] is his motor. On the offensive glass, he’s working very, very hard. This will be a big week for a guy like Joe as we get ready to handle their size,” Said Miller on his weekly radio appearance. “We knew we needed another guy, more size, more energy, more motor. Joe’s brought everything and then some. He’s not stayed the same. Not one week.”
Despite Brunk’s success, it has been freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis who has stolen the spotlight. Ranking amongst the top in the country in his offensive rating and player efficiency, Jackson-Davis also leads the Hoosiers in both points (14.2 ppg) and rebounds (8.2 rpg).
The lefty big has continually been a force in the paint for Indiana and though he is still learning to work his way through the gauntlet of the Big Ten, and having his ups and downs, he still remains one of the most effective bigs in the conference.
Though Indiana has had some issues keeping Jackson-Davis involved in the second half in Big Ten games, it is something that remains important moving forward with his big-play ability ready to strike at a moments notice, headlined by his five 20+ point games and six double-doubles.
The often forgotten member of the starting frontcourt has been Justin Smith. The junior forward has definitely had his inconsistencies throughout his Indiana career up to this point, but this year he has shown to not only be a leader at times but also someone the Hoosiers can rely on.
Smith, who has always been a bit of a ‘tweener’ when it came to his position, seems to have found a comfortable spot on the wing at the small forward slot. With his size and athleticism, and the ability to utilize the paint to his advantage, he has become a go-to player on multiple different occasions. Whether it be the 18 points he scored against Northwestern to keep the Hoosiers away from a major upset, or the 15.5 points per game average against Nebraska so far this year to give IU a season sweep, and two wins that could have easily gone the other way, he has stepped up in big moments, something he shied away from in the past.
Not only is he showing up in wins, but also in losses. When Indiana seemed all but done, and quite honestly put together the most disappointing performance this year at Rutgers, Smith was the one who kept IU in the game and kept fighting to at least give the Hoosiers a chance near the end.
The frontcourt has all had their individual games when they have shined, but haven’t done it all together, at once, until last Saturday against Nebraska. The trio combined for 49 points and 25 rebounds, all scoring in double-digits.
Moving forward, while the backcourt is what will take Indiana to the next level, the frontcourt is what will keep Indiana afloat and making progress throughout the final month of the regular season.