Indiana men’s basketball is back.
The Hoosiers open the 2022 regular season against Morehead State on Monday night at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. IU has high expectations this year, entering this year as one of the favorites in the Big Ten.
Here are a couple reasons it might be a big year for the Hoosiers — and a couple reasons it might not.
Pro: IU’s bench depth is stronger than last year’s
The Hoosiers already have four of their five main starters from last season back, in Miller Kopp, Race Thompson, Xavier Johnson, and preseason All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis.
And with Jalen Hood-Schifino set to start, the main returning bench players from last year will all play similar roles this year (at least for now).
IU’s bench was inconsistent at times in 2021. But with continued improvement from Trey Galloway, Jordan Geronimo, and Tamar Bates, Indiana could be in much better shape when substituting this year. Geronimo, in particular, looks primed to break out and be a potential game-changer off the bench at some point.
And adding Malik Reneau as a sixth or seventh man for this year is massive. IU did not have a reliable big man to bring off the bench last season. Michael Durr played just over seven minutes per game, and contributed very little on the stat sheet. When Jackson-Davis or Thompson had to come out, and Durr wasn’t the replacement, it often meant plugging Geronimo in at the four — or playing even smaller.
Even if Reneau needs some time to fully acclimate to the college game, he already looks — by a landslide — like a better option than Durr. Reneau is a potential X-factor for Indiana this season — the better he is and the bigger the role he can take on, the further Indiana could go.
Con: Depth is overrated in college basketball
People love to talk about depth, and it’s certainly valuable. If someone gets into foul trouble, or if there’s an injury, you don’t want to be holding your breath when you look down the bench.
There’s a real case for this IU team being two-deep at each position. And that definitely sounds nice.
But it’s not realistic for Indiana to use that many players in most games. Yes, the Hoosiers will likely go deep into that bench in the early part of the season, with mostly tune-up games to develop a rhythm heading into their marquee non-conference games and Big Ten play.
But in those bigger games — especially later in the season — teams will tighten those rotations. In the last four national championship games, only one of the eight participating teams (2021 Baylor) brought three players off the bench to play double-digit minutes. The other seven finalists had just one or two players sub in for 10 minutes or more.
In simple terms: when you bring in a player off the bench, you’re taking someone off the floor. So the question isn’t whether, for example, Bates is good enough to play 15 minutes per game in Big Ten games. It’s really whether he’s good enough to be comfortable playing that much and eat into minutes allotted for Johnson or Hood-Schifino.
That’s not to say Bates isn’t at that level. It’s too early to know that, either way.
But the point is, college basketball games and championships swing heavier on which team has the best players on the court, not who has the most talent at the bottom of the roster.
Pro: IU has top-end talent
Obviously, that starts with Jackson-Davis. The once-lauded recruit has turned into one of the top players in program history.
Jackson-Davis enters this season at No. 15 on IU’s all-time scoring list. He’s on pace, based on his first three years, to crack 2,000 points, enter the top five, and pass his head coach, Mike Woodson. TJD is also on track to become the fourth Hoosier to grab 1,000 rebounds.
After earning second-team All-Big Ten and Big Ten All-Defensive honors last season, Jackson-Davis comes into this year as preseason Big Ten player of the year and a preseason All-American. There are big expectations, both for individual performance and to lead this IU team to success.
In many games IU plays this year, Jackson-Davis will be the best player on the court. And in some games when he isn’t, Hood-Schifino could be the reason why.
The freshman guard already looks like a rising star. He’s got a smooth 3-point shot, which has been Indiana’s obvious team weakness for years. He’s a skilled playmaker and scorer, and will certainly ease some of that responsibility that was all on Xavier Johnson last year.
Hood-Schifino has growing national buzz about his NBA potential, and should at least contend for Big Ten freshman of the year. There’s a real chance that this is his only season in Bloomington.
If he can match the hype around him and give the Hoosiers a second star player alongside Jackson-Davis, Indiana could have the top-tier talent to make a big run.
Con: This group still needs to prove it can consistently win
IU has all the makeup of a team that could reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, or even further. But doing that would be a big step forward for a group that, to this point, hasn’t proven it can win consistently enough to challenge for a league title.
The Hoosiers snapped their NCAA Tournament drought last year, and won a game in the First Four. IU beat Purdue last season for the first time in six years. It was, by all accounts, a solid showing in Woodson’s first year at the helm.
But Indiana still went just 9-11 in Big Ten play. In Jackson-Davis’ three seasons with the program, IU has a 25-34 conference record. The league looks different this year than it has in the past — it could be a down year for the Big Ten.
But some of the other teams expected to be near the top of the standings have done a lot more winning in recent years. Illinois and Michigan, who have claimed conference championships in the last two years, line up alongside IU as the Big Ten favorites. Those are squads and coaching staffs who have gotten it done before.
The past is the past, and that won’t matter in the heat of the moment in games this year. But the truth is that while IU took a step forward last year, there’s still a lot to prove.
Woodson says the 3-point shooting will be better. Will it really?
People say that the touted freshmen could take IU over the top. Will they really?
Jackson-Davis set a Big Ten title and a national title as his main goals for this year. Is that doable?
We’ll find out those answers, and more, in due time.
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