By Zain Pyarali
Prior to Indiana men’s basketball’s road game against Minnesota Saturday, head coach Archie Miller stressed the importance of an “all hands on deck” mentality without starting sophomore center De’Ron Davis.
Davis went down with a lower leg injury in practice earlier in the week and is out indefinitely. Also before the game it was announced that senior forward Collin Hartman would not play due to a shoulder injury.
That opened up the opportunity for any Hoosier to step up. Freshman forward Justin Smith turned out to be the one who answered the challenge.
Miller inserted Smith into the starting lineup Saturday as he turned in a career high 20 point outing in the 75-71 road win. He shot 70-percent from the field while making both of his 3-point attempts and pulled down three rebounds as well.
“I was really proud of Justin Smith,” Miller said. “He really stepped up and played for us today on both ends. By far his best game of his career.”
Smith’s offensive outburst was a major key for Indiana as him combined with the scoring of senior guard Robert Johnson and junior forward Juwan Morgan tallied 68 of the Hoosiers 75 points in the game.
The freshman didn’t get rattled in big moments either. He buried his second three pointer in the game with two and a half minutes left in the game to put IU up by one. They would eventually hold on to that lead and win after trailing by as many as eight points early in the second half.
Prior to Minnesota, Smith’s lone start of the season came at Seton Hall in the third game of the year. He earned that start after putting up 16 points and 12 rebounds against Howard in Indiana’s first win.
But through the first three Big Ten games, Smith had only seen the floor a little over four minutes per game. Saturday, he played 26 minutes and made the most of his opportunity.
“Once De’Ron went out we had that next man up mentality,” Smith said. “I just had to step in, play my game, fill in the role and do whatever it takes to win.”
Another challenge for Smith that comes with Davis not being on the floor is guarding the other team’s best big men. For Minnesota, that’s double-double machine Jordan Murphy.
Murphy did end up eclipsing Tim Duncan’s NCAA record with his 17th straight double-double this season with 18 points and 10 rebounds against the Hoosiers. But, he only made five of his 14 shots and pulled down his 10th rebound of the contest in the final seconds of the game.
“Just make him uncomfortable, front the post and do what you can to make him uncomfortable,” Smith said. “He’s going to get his rebounds, but we had to try and keep him off the glass and keep him from getting easy baskets.”
As Smith has now played 16 games in his collegiate career he’s becoming more comfortable out on the floor. Smith said that he’s improved on his shooting as well as being more confident in his defense when it comes to switching and the different rotations in their defensive schemes.
Morgan said following the Minnesota game that Smith didn’t play like a freshman against the Gophers. Moving forward, a lot more is going to be expected out of Smith for Indiana and he’ll have to turn in more veteran performances if he wants to continue to be the next man up for the Hoosiers.
“He really just was comfortable out there,” Morgan said about Smith. “He really fit his role well and didn’t try to do anything he can’t do. Everything we do in practice, he was just doing it out there in the game.”