It isn’t just folks in and around the Indiana program that are noticing.
Despite a double-double from Trayce Jackson-Davis and a team leading 14 points from Al Durham, Penn State head coach Pat Chambers almost instinctively knew who changed the game on Sunday for Indiana — even if he didn’t have any noteworthy numbers on the stat sheet to back him up.
“I thought Race (Thompson) played really well.,” Chambers said. “Maybe his stat line won’t indicate that, but I thought his job late on Lamar was fantastic and he got some big time rebounds.”
It is probably no coincidence that Thompson is the first player that came to the mind of Chambers after a 68-60 loss in Bloomington. The Nittany Lions’ head coach is known for putting tough, physical, gritty teams on the floor.
Indiana head coach Archie Miller didn’t look at the stat sheet either when asked about Thompson on Sunday.
“Race is physical. Race is physical,” Miller repeated himself.
And after repeating himself several other times this season about his team’s lack of physicality, and lack of consistent energy, what Thompson is bringing to IU bears repeating.
And it might even be changing the character, and yes, the outlook for this basketball team.
What exactly is the 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore delivering to IU?
“He puts his body out there. He defensive rebounds, he walls up, he offensive rebounds,” Miller said. “You’re starting to see him in the post get a little bit more confidence with a couple of back-to-the-basket moves.
“Race is not afraid. He’s not a young kid. He’s been here three years. And unfortunately his season was taken from him last year with injury or he would have helped last year because he knows what he’s doing and he’s a smart guy.
“But at the end of the day, if you look at our wins here recently he’s played a big role because the physicality in our league is above, like, any other league in the country. There’s not another league in college basketball that plays the league as physical as this.”
Thompson’s big role in Indiana’s wins has not surprisingly led to more minutes on the floor.
After playing more than twenty minutes just once all season going into a high profile Jan. 23 game against Michigan State, Thompson played 11 first half minutes against the Spartans and amassed 4 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals and a whole lot of other things that statisticians haven’t figured out how to track.
“Race Thompson was unbelievably good in the game,” Miller said after the win over the Spartans.
But Thompson didn’t finish that contest. As Miller said, he puts his body out there, and instead Thompson suffered a back injury after a late first half collision with MSU forward Xavier Tillman that sent him crashing to the floor.
Indiana would go 0-3 over the next three games that Thompson missed due to the injury, and Miller indicated that he wasn’t fully ready to go in a fourth straight loss on the season to Purdue.
Now with Thompson back and 100 percent, Indiana has won three of its last four. The Minnesota native has averaged 23 minutes in those three wins, and just 11 in the loss at Michigan.
It all points to a question that is gaining steam — why isn’t Race Thompson starting?
Indiana’s three-forward starting lineup that includes Justin Smith, Joey Brunk and Trayce Jackson-Davis isn’t particularly dynamic on the offensive end and creates a lot of difficult matchups for Indiana on defense.
Former IU player and color commentator Todd Leary is one of many who is struggling to understand the thought process behind Miller’s standard first five — and for him it starts with the defensive mismatches.
“Trayce Jackson-Davis having to guard Lamar Stevens, that was putting him in a real bad position to draw an early foul, and how do you think that game goes if Jackson-Davis has to sit out with foul trouble,” Leary said.
One possible explanation for the lineup is what Miller is getting from his second wave in the rotation. Few teams in the Big Ten can match IU’s production off the bench in recent weeks including Devonte Green, Jerome Hunter, De’Ron Davis and Thompson.
“Maybe he’s (Miller) trying to match up the timing when Race comes into the game and Indiana plays faster with when the other teams make their first substitutions,” Leary said.
Another possible explanation is simply that Thompson isn’t ready to take on more minutes. After sitting out his entire freshman season to redshirt, and then missing three months in 2018-19 with a concussion, Thompson hasn’t played a lot of basketball over the last three years.
It didn’t go unnoticed on Sunday against Penn State that Thompson was tugging at his jersey, the signal that he needed a breather.
20 to 25 minutes per game might be all that Indiana can reasonably expect right now out of their emerging forward.
And Miller might just be ensuring that he has his junkyard dog on the floor at the most critical times rather than at the start of games. Miller has been known to say that it isn’t about who starts, it’s about who finishes.
Thompson’s plus/minus over IU’s last three wins is an absurd plus-50, and while that statistic can be dangerous to rely on in small sample sizes, it matches up with what seems obvious on the floor — Indiana is a much better team on both ends when Race Thompson is playing.
And that is something his teammates recognize too.
“We need him to win, we really do,” Jackson-Davis said after Thompson scored a career high 10 points and added 4 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks in a win over Iowa two weeks ago.
“He gives us a lot of energy on the defensive end,” Smith said after the win over Penn State. “He’s always willing to make the dirty play, the extra play, the hustle play. He’s been a valuable part of our team and it’s good to have him healthy. The hustle plays build on momentum. They really get us going. And usually it’s on the defensive end. So just those extra hustle plays gets us an extra stop or rebound. It’s the 50/50 rebound. It just gives us some energy and some momentum to get going.”
Hustle, energy, defense, rebounding — you can’t put a price on what Thompson is bringing to Indiana right now.
And with his team seemingly turning a corner late in the season, Miller pointed to Thompson’s play as perhaps the biggest reason why.
“He’s changed the course of our season here as we’ve been able to get through February,” Miller said.
That is a major statement by Indiana’s head coach, but Miller has been searching desperately and pleading with his team to play with the tenacity that Thompson is now bringing to his squad.
More than just the toughness factor, Thompson is bringing versatility to Indiana’s rotations. He can guard out to the three-point line, and he can run the floor at a pace that Miller wants to play. And Thompson’s presence on the court is putting Jackson-Davis in a better position to play to his strengths.
“He gives us another mobile guy out there,” MIller said. “We’re able to play Trayce a little bit more at the center position which gives him more offensive opportunities.
“He’s saving us in many ways at times being able to play alongside Trayce. Our most physical rebounding team right now is with Race in there.”
But make no mistake, for Thompson, it all starts with those toughness intangibles.
The son of former University of Minnesota football star Darrell Thompson, Race brings a gridiron approach to the basketball court.
“You need guys that are willing to stick their nose in there and do it. And that’s what Race gives us, Miller said.
“When it gets away from you, you need somebody to get out there throwing some punches back. At some point, you have to make some hard plays yourself.
“And Race does that for us because he gives great effort. That’s what he does. He’s a blue-collar guy. He does it every day in practice. He’s really improved.”
Thompson has really improved, and by no coincidence, so has Indiana.
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