Credit - IU Athletics

It’s a New Day in the Paint at Indiana

Cody Zeller came back to Bloomington on Tuesday to take a look at the new locker room at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall and the new player lounge that bears his name.

A lot has changed since Zeller left Indiana for the NBA in 2013.  IU’s home court got a makeover and a new name, the new locker room, and that lounge to name a few.

One thing hasn’t changed much.

Indiana has never had a more talented big man playing the five since Zeller left, and more often than not it hasn’t even had a five playing the five.

Whatever direction you think the game of basketball is evolving towards, there is a certain reality in the Big Ten.

Caleb Wesson, Jon Teske, Luka Garza, Xavier Tillman, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Mike Watkins, Matt Haarms, Daniel Oturu –are prime examples of that reality.

Not necessarily a “whose who” of college basketball, but these are folks that can do a lot of damage against undersized competition.  And certainly not guys that you want to have 6-foot-8 Juwan Morgan guarding in the post.

And yet for the most part since Zeller left Indiana, that has been the Hoosiers’ reality.

You could go all the way back to the 2007 and 2008 teams.  Those were a couple decent to really good IU teams — but they were D.J. White foul trouble away from complete disaster down low.

2009 through 2011?  Let’s just don’t, okay?

Tom Pritchard was a popular player in 2012 and he had some size, but Indiana didn’t want to go too long without Zeller that year.

In 2013, there was no one else on the team ready to play the five beyond Zeller.  The Hoosiers couldn’t afford to give their big man much of break.

The next two seasons it got downright silly.  2014 saw Noah Vonleh playing out of position, Hanner Mosquera Perea not panning out, and Luke Fischer transfer.

The most memorable thing about the 2015 season may have been Collin Hartman playing center for a meaningful stretch of the season.  At times it worked as Hartman redefined the “stretch-five,” but Indiana was severely compromised on the defensive end of the floor.

Things got better the next two years as a young Thomas Bryant was able to man the paint.  The Bryant – Max Bielfeldt combination in 2016, while not elite, provided a much needed physical presence.  And what do you know — surrounded by a talented core, that team won the Big Ten.

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The best part about the 2017 team may have been its size in the paint.  While very young, the combination of Bryant and freshman De’Ron Davis at least allowed Indiana to match up with most teams and not get beat up in the post.  Other issues derailed that season, including the preseason loss of center (or was he a shooting guard?) Hartman and the midseason loss of OG Anunoby.

Any temporary riches in the paint quickly vanished the next season.  2018 saw Davis go down with a torn Achilles tendon, and suddenly Morgan and 6-foot-6 Freddie McSwain, Jr. were manning the post.

And of course this past season saw much of the same, with Davis injured and/or on a minutes restriction.  During his senior day speech Morgan could only playfully joke about spending so much of his career playing the five.

But it is no joke — in order to compete at the top of the Big Ten, you need need multiple big, physical, imposing fives to patrol the middle.

While there are most certainly other deficiencies to address for the 2019-20 Hoosiers, size in the paint does not appear to be one of them.

At 6-foot-10 and 255 pounds, Davis goes into his final offseason at Indiana healthy and ready to get himself into peak physical condition for his senior season.  He’ll turn 23 in November.

New commit Joey Brunk stands at 6-foot-11 and weighs 230 pounds and he will turn 22 in November.

Credit – IU Athletics

Freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis is 6-foot-9 and is likely to be pushing 240 pounds by November.  He already has a stout frame and strong lower body that isn’t easily moved in the paint.

And don’t forget about Race Thompson, who showed everyone, that even when not physically at his best, he could defend an elite Big Ten post player like Ethan Happ.

Davis, Brunk, Jackson-Davis, Thompson.  These guys aren’t the “whose who” of the Big Ten either, but there’s a difference between being long and being big.  See: Evan Fitzner, Jake Forrester and Clifton Moore.  Great length, but unable to play big — which means unprepared to play in the B1G.

As we’ve all learned in recent years — things change, injuries happen, you name it and we’ve seen it.  But right now, Indiana looks the best prepared that it has been in more than a decade to compete physically in the paint.

The biggest challenge individually might be the minutes distribution, as none of the big men, save perhaps for Thompson, have yet shown an ability to stretch the floor.  That might make it difficult to have more than one of them on the court at a time.

But that’s a player issue.

From a team perspective, Indiana finally has the bodies.  Capable bodies.  However the minutes are assigned, IU should be able to have a fresh and talented actual five on the floor at all times.

That’s something that everyone at or near the top of the Big Ten has had in recent years.  It’s why a team like Minnesota, who shot three-pointers as bad as Indiana this past season, still managed to make the NCAA Tournament.

They may have other flaws, but as it stands now, finally, nobody is going to be manhandling Indiana in the paint in 2019-20.

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