Just 2:37 into Indiana’s season opener against Eastern Michigan, all the questions were answered.
Parker Stewart was making it rain 3-pointers, the defense was pitching a shutout, and a Trayce Jackson-Davis layup gave IU an 8-0 lead and forced a timeout by Eagles coach Stan Heath.
Indiana fans were Googling Final Four tickets during the break.
The delusions of grandeur continued into the second half, but eventually a certain reality unfolded over the final 14 minutes of the game. This Mike Woodson era of IU basketball is no overnight sensation.
Stewart’s two 3-pointers in the first 119 seconds of the game were as many as the Hoosiers would make the rest of the way. A shutout that lasted for the first 7:21 would transition to 62 points over the final 32:29 for EMU, or a 76-point per-40 minute pace over that latter span. And Final Four tickets were already listed for sale on the secondary market.
The thing no Indiana fan was hoping to relive under Woodson was ineffective 3-point shooting, but the Hoosiers were a paltry 4-for-24 from behind the arc. Whether it was new faces like Miller Kopp or Tamar Bates, or returning veterans with new roles like Race Thompson, no one was able to connect from deep after Stewart’s early bombs.
Thompson is under the microscope a bit because he plays the power forward spot, a role that Woodson wants to move out to the perimeter to space the floor better. There is a belief within the program that the redshirt senior forward can make threes, but he came up empty in the opener with an 0-for-4 night.
“I shot some threes and I felt confident about them but they didn’t go in,” Thompson said. “I’ll keep shooting them because I believe that (they’ll go in), coach believes it, our teammates believe it, so I think it’ll be good.”
Thompson had plenty of company on his off shooting night from behind the arc despite Stewart’s early connections.
But even with the poor shooting there were other issues on both ends of the floor that allowed EMU to all but erase Indiana’s 21-point lead.
For all of the preseason talk about playing up-tempo offense, Indiana seemed more content to play methodically in the half court, at least relative to expectations. They scored just nine on the break, and even when running their offense they didn’t seem to always be moving with purpose. Playing fast offensively isn’t confined to the fast break, and Indiana’s film study highlighted a lack of half court intensity.
“I thought there were times where we did a good job at it (playing fast) and it showed, we scored points and then again there were times in the game where we got a little bit slow and we needed to speed up our pace a little bit even when we got in the half court we weren’t sprinting around on our cuts, we weren’t sprinting in the ball screens we weren’t coming out of the ball screens we were just kind of out there not going through the motions but just not going to speed we need to go,” Thompson said.
Still, Indiana’s average possession length in the game was 16.2 seconds, which stands No. 100 nationally. If that figure held up for a season it would be IU’s shortest average possession length since 2013. The true test will be when Indiana plays as fast as it would like, does the offense become more or less efficient. On Tuesday IU scored just .9 points per possession, a figure far worse than any season-long average since 2010 and in-line with their late season struggles in 2020-21.
Playing faster offensively in all aspects has been a point of emphasis since Tuesday night.
“We’ve watched film, we talked about that yesterday, and we’re probably gonna talk about it today,” Thompson said. “I think we’ll be better at that on Friday.”
But whether or not IU is better on the offensive end, the Eastern Michigan comeback could have been avoided with a more consistent defensive effort. After being shut out early in the game, the Eagles scored more than a point per possession over the final 33 minutes.
Woodson hinted after the game that a letup was the problem. That seemed to be the case watching the game live, and Thompson confirmed it after watching the film.
“I think that we went up by 20 and we got just a little bit comfortable and they hit a couple shots and the next thing you know it’s a 10-point game and we really had to step it up a little bit,” Thompson said. “I think that that’s really what it was got a little bit stagnant and comfortable and we can’t do that. When we get the lead we gotta keep the lead.”
Thompson believes leadership on the floor, and constant reminders to maintain intensity on defense will produce better results on Friday night against Northern Illinois (7 p.m. / BTN Plus).
“I think to play defense for the full 40, we gotta lock in and continue to talk to each other and just remind each other that we got to keep playing defense, we have those little team huddles throughout the game and I think we just gotta preach to each other we keep playing defense and keep up the momentum,” he said.
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