Justin Smith scored the Indiana Hoosiers’ first points of the season a minute into their 98-65 opening night win over the Western Illinois Leathernecks by stealing the ball away from forward Ben Pyle and taking it the rest of the way for a dunk.
It was a sign of things to come as Smith stole the ball two more times in the first half and capped each one with a dunk.
“I feel like I’m at my best in transition,” said Smith after the game about his biggest strength, “so being able to create turnovers and really get out and run, use my athleticism to really benefit our team.”
Smith methodically and smoothly poured in 24 points, which tied his career-high. He was both under control and in-control the whole game, a vast improvement from his sometimes wildly inconsistent play through his first two seasons.
The Hoosiers will need players like Smith (8.2ppg last season) to step into much bigger scoring roles than they previously had after losing their top two scorers from last season in Romeo Langford (16.5ppg) and Juwan Morgan (15.5ppg).
Smith wasn’t the only one who looked ready to take a big leap in their junior season. Al Durham, coming off a knee contusion that forced him to miss Indiana’s exhibition game against Gannon, went a perfect 7-of-7 from the floor (including 3-of-3 from deep) as he finished with 21 points and posted a game-high +37 differential in 27 minutes of play.
Durham (8.3ppg) was named one of the two team captains along with Devonte Green (9.4ppg), who missed the season-opener with a hamstring injury. Both are the two highest returning scorers from last season and are expected to have huge roles both scoring and leading the team, the later of which impressed Indiana Head Coach Archie Miller after the game.
“Al (Durham) is an important part to what we do. I think he did a nice job, obviously, with our team in terms of leading them. But I think you can tell, he’s very comfortable right now in how we’re playing and he’s got to stay with it and I think that as we get some other guys around him and continue to get a little bit more experience he’ll have some help.”
Experience and building chemistry will be a huge focus for the Hoosiers moving forward with their non-conference schedule, especially for a team that saw four players play for at least 15 minutes during their IU debuts.
Highly-ranked freshmen Trayce Jackson-Davis and Armaan Franklin both started the game and each were major contributors as Jackson-Davis had 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 blocks while Franklin had 5 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Meanwhile, after missing all of last season, Jerome Hunter finally played his first minutes for the Cream and Crimson as he had 7 points in 16 minutes. Joey Brunk, a transfer from Butler, also got the start in his Indiana debut and provided 11 points and 7 rebounds.
The Hoosiers will have a chance to build off the strong start they had Tuesday night with a relatively soft November schedule before the competition level heats up drastically starting in December with a clash against Florida State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. But for now, it’s all about finding a groove and Indiana has started the season off on the right path.