18 days to be ready for the final 18 games.
Is that enough time for Indiana’s star forward to get fully healthy and lead his team through the Big Ten gauntlet beginning Jan. 5 at Iowa?
The eventual answer might end up being the difference between another lackluster season in Bloomington, and the promising 2022-23 campaign IU fans were anticipating. Sitting here in late December, it seems the season could turn in either direction, and which way it goes just might depend on how healthy and productive senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis can be down the stretch.
Jackson-Davis last played at Kansas on Dec. 17 and won’t play again until IU’s road trip to Iowa on Jan. 5.
After giving Jackson-Davis two games off last week against Elon and Kennesaw State, head coach Mike Woodson hopes his big man can get back to putting together the dominant efforts that had him on most preseason All-American lists.
“I’m hoping this break will allow him to rest a little bit more and he come back ready to go,” Woodson said on Friday.
Jackson-Davis appeared to injure his back on Nov. 20 in a game against Miami (OH). He was coming off easily his best game of the season, a 30-point effort at Xavier that saw the senior make 13-of-16 from the field. In that resume boosting road win, Jackson-Davis looked a lot like the man-on-a-mission Hoosier fans saw during the Big Ten Tournament a year ago.
But since the back injury, Jackson-Davis hasn’t been able to take over games like he did at Xavier.
How much of that was due to his back, and how has been due to an intense focus by opponents to take him away with double teams and defenses dropped into the paint?
Xavier head coach Sean Miller said Jackson-Davis was too good at reading doubles to take the risk.
“Because of how much experience he’s gained, it’s really hard to double-team him — much harder than it would have been two or three years ago,” Miller said after IU’s win in Cincinnati. “You have to guard him one-on-one. There aren’t a lot of big guys who can move their feet. Trayce took our big guys’ punches and did a great job.”
Unless Jackson-Davis’ back has been the real story, Miller’s assessment appears to be wrong.
Beginning with a road loss at Rutgers, Jackson-Davis has seen a wave of doubles, traps, sagging defenses and every other conceivable way to take him out of games. At times it seems like all five defenders are in the paint, forcing IU to find other answers.
And it has worked.
In his last four games, all against top-100 high majors, Jackson-Davis’ scoring production has been nowhere near that Xavier outburst.
Against Rutgers, Nebraska, Arizona and Kansas, Jackson-Davis has averaged just 12.3 points, and IU came up short in three of those four contests, scoring just 61.6 points per game in the losses. And in the latter two games he grabbed just 5.5 rebounds — perhaps the best indication that his back has been at least part of the story.
Indiana’s remaining schedule is all high majors of course, and 17 of the final 18 come against teams inside the national top-68 according to Bart Torvik.
So Indiana will need a healthy Jackson-Davis to survive, and they’ll also need others to step up and replace his scoring production when the now almost certain double teams arrive. Woodson has said he would double Jackson-Davis if he was game-planning for IU, and he expects to see plenty more where that came from when play resumes.
“The way teams are playing, when we had Trayce, hopefully he’ll be back after the break, they were doubling,” Woodson said. “That’s not going to change. Guys got to be able to make shots on the perimeter, it’s just that simple.”
The good news for Indiana — guys are making shots right now.
IU has shot above 32 percent from three in every game this season, and they’ve had five games above 42 percent. For the season Indiana is shooting 36.5 percent from long range, good for 69th in the country.
The Hoosiers can put a lineup on the floor they used against Kennesaw State — Jalen Hood-Schifino, Trey Galloway, Tamar Bates and Miller Kopp — with four players shooting above 37 percent from 3-point range, including three above 41 percent.
That smaller lineup, which Woodson turned to for significant minutes against the Owls, seems like a good counter to the crowded paint Jackson-Davis has seen of late when IU tries to play the post-up game.
The other is abandoning the post all together and opening up the floor, another ploy Woodson used on Friday.
Both Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson are skilled enough to play facing the basket. Thompson proved that against Kennesaw State when he played all 20 minutes in the second half and spent most of his time at the top of the key setting screens. Jackson-Davis proved to be elite a year ago in the pick-and-roll game.
If Woodson is willing to use more smaller lineups with only one traditional big man on the court, he might be able to give his offense a boost with better outside shooting — and more space to operate for Jackson-Davis. Indiana looks a lot less like a dominant defensive team without starting point guard Xavier Johnson anyway, so it may be time to flip to a more offensive minded approach that enhances the scoring opportunities for their best player.
The trade-off will be playing Kopp for extended minutes at the four spot, which won’t be easy in the Big Ten. But he’s shooting 45 percent from three on five attempts per game — so there’s no way Woodson can pull him off the court right now.
If Woodson goes small, the 6-foot-7 and 215 pound Kopp might end up in some tough Big Ten mismatches guarding bigger, more athletic power forwards. But he’s often caught in mismatches on the perimeter too, so it seems worth a closer look.
And it all seems like a relatively small price to pay if Kopp can keep making threes while pulling the opposing four out of the paint, and away from Jackson-Davis.
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