(INDIANA SPORTS INFORMATION)
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Al Durham couldn’t miss. Wouldn’t miss.
Indiana’s junior guard had a lost exhibition opportunity to make up for, a refined offensive game to showcase.
Western Illinois paid the 98-65 Tuesday night season-opening price.
Durham made it look easy at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. While rotating between point and shooting guard, he drained three-pointers, attacked the rim and took the fight out of the Fighting Leatherneck defense. He went 7-for-7 from the field, 3-for-3 from three-point range and finished with 21 points.
There was no sign of the bruised knee that kept him out of last week’s exhibition win over Gannon.
“It was my teammates finding me,” Durham said. “They trust me to knock down shots. I prepared for this moment, and it went my way.”
Did it ever, and that including rebounding (four), passing (three assists) and overall floor leadership.
In short, Durham was the backcourt catalyst IU needed with veteran guard Devonte Green still sidelined by a hamstring injury.
“He’s an important part in what we what we do,” coach Archie Miller said. “He’s an older player. A leader.
“He ran our team. He played with tempo. He made some shots. That’s a positive sign for his confidence. He did a nice job of leading. He’s very comfortable in how we’re playing. He has to stay with it.”
Beyond that, Durham personified the Hoosiers’ quest for better shooting.
That had been their Achilles’ heel during Miller’s first two seasons. But on this opening night, they showed what could happen when first-rate offense (58.5 percent shooting, 45.5 percent from three-point range, 18 assists) blends with solid defense (Western Illinois had 12 turnovers and shot 34.4 percent from the field).
The best part — IU’s defense will get better.
“We’re not a very good defensive team right now,” Miller said. “That has to get shored up.”
When Durham wasn’t turning the Fighting Leathernecks defense into rubble, junior forward Justin Smith was. He scored the season’s first points on a dunk, and finished with a career-high-tying 24 points, seven rebounds and three steals in 22 minutes. He took full advantage of IU’s push-the-pace approach.
“I’m at my best in transition. Being able to create turnovers, get out and run and use my athleticism.”
In other words, run, run and run some more.
“We have to use our defense to create offense,” Smith said. “If we focus more on the defensive end, we can get going.”
Smith will get going from anywhere on the court.
“Whatever Coach wants me to do, I will do. If he wants me to play the 1 (point guard), I will do it.”
Added Miller: “He’s played a lot of minutes. He changed the game with his defensive intensity. That’s what older guys do.
“I didn’t notice that he scored 24 points. I watched his approach. Defensively he was very active. He has to stay with it and keep getting better.”
Through it all Tuesday night IU attacked in waves in building leads as large as 37 points. Nine Hoosiers reached double figures in minutes played, and 10 scored. Guard Rob Phinisee had 14 points in 17 minutes. Forward Joey Brunk had 11 points and seven rebounds. Forward Trayce Jackson-Davis had eight points, six rebounds and four blocks.
“We played a lot of guys,” Miller said. “That was good to see. There was not a guy who didn’t belong out there. That will give us confidence that what we’re doing is working.
“If we keep evolving, we have a lot of guys who can help. We have to be a team that wills itself to win by doing a lot of things. We want to play a lot of guys that come at you and play solid defensively.”
Added Smith: “We pride ourselves on our versatility. We play some weird lineups in practice to feel things out. A lot of players can do a lot of things. We can use that to our advantage.”
Western Illinois lacked the firepower IU will see in future opponents such as Florida State, Notre Dame and Arkansas in the next month and a half, but that wasn’t the point.
Building a Big Ten contender was.
“I feel like we’ve upped it a notch,” Durham had said on Monday. “It’s a different vibe. Everybody is on the same page. There’s just a lot of energy. I feel like we’re ready to go to war for each other.”
Such team chemistry fueled IU’s 34-7 first-half run that decided the game, but not the purpose. Miller kept rotating combinations, and nearly all of them worked. He demanded a furious pace and got it.
“You’re only as good as your front court can run,” he said. “You can keep the pace up because of your frontcourt depth. They can put pressure on the rim.
“We’re trying to continue to push the pace. That’s a good sign. We can’t play trudging through the mud. We have to get going.”
Durham wasted no time showing his off-season shooting work had paid off. He hit his first three shots, including a three-pointer, to push the Hoosiers ahead 9-3.
A 7-0 Western Illinois run gave it a 12-11 lead. Turnovers and cold shooting briefly muted Hoosier momentum. A three-pointer boosted the Fighting Leathernecks to a 15-12 advantage.
IU’s response — attack the basket, ratchet up the defense, shoot like every missed shot was a crime.
Eighteen straight points later, the Hoosiers had a double-digit lead they never lost.
Even with a half-court, half-ending three-pointer, Western Illinois trailed 46-25.
The second half radiated inevitability. IU needed less than five minutes to build a 30-point lead, and cruise from there.
Next up — Saturday’s game against Portland State.
“It’s good to get the season off on a good note,” Miller said. “We had a lot of newness and inexperience, a lot of question marks on what will happen.”
Then he offered an answer.