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Justin Smith Finishing Freshman Season Strong

Indiana freshman forward Justin Smith goes up for a layup against Maryland on January 22, 2018. Smith has averaged over 13 points in his last four games. (Josh Eastern/HN)

Indiana freshman forward Justin Smith was the lone bright spot in Tuesday night’s 66-57 road loss at Nebraska.

He finished tied for the team high with 16 points against the Cornhuskers while also pulling down eight rebounds, one shy of Juwan Morgan on the night.

Over the last four games, Smith has been one of the most consistent players for IU, ending his rollercoaster freshman campaign strong.

“I think if you look at his numbers the last three or four games, I think he’s given us an added dimension,” IU head coach Archie Miller said. “It’s good to see him finish strong down the stretch, I thought he looked the part out there tonight.”

Last 4 games (13 days, Feb. 9-Feb. 20):

Minnesota: 9 points, 4-7, 4 reb (1 offensive), 2 TO, 17 minutes

Illinois: 13 points, 5-7, 3 reb (2 offensive), 0 TO, 13 minutes

Iowa: 15 points, 5-7, 3 reb (1 offensive), 1 TO, 20 minutes

Nebraska: 16 points, 7-11, 8 reb (4 offensive), 1 TO, 25 minutes

Totals: 13.3 ppg, 21-29 FG (72.4%), 18 reb (8 offensive), 4 TO, 18.8 min pg

Smith recorded his third straight game scoring at least 13 points Tuesday night. In his last four games, he’s averaging 13.3 points, shooting 72.4-percent from the field and averaging 4.5 rebounds per game. You also can’t forget about his high-flying dunks and lock down defense either.

“I’m just trying to come in and do my job,” Smith said. “Get rebounds, play hard on defense and make the little plays. If points come, they come, but I’m just trying to do everything possible.”

All of this production for Smith has come off the bench, something he didn’t do in the month of January.

When sophomore forward De’Ron Davis tore his Achilles prior to Indiana’s game against Minnesota on January 6, Smith took over in the starting lineup.

He only played single digits minutes in eight of the nine previous games before Minnesota, but rose to the occasion in his first Big Ten start putting up 20 points in 26 minutes in a road win.

From there, Smith stayed in the starting lineup and played well, giving Indiana key minutes in the frontcourt when they needed it the most.

Indiana freshman forward Justin Smith attempts a shot against Minnesota on February 9, 2018 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Smith had 9 points against the Golden Gophers, sparking his current four game hot streak (Mark Timko/HN)

First 5 Starts (15 days, Jan. 6-Jan. 22):

Minnesota: 20 points, 7-10, 3 reb (2 offensive), 2 TO, 26 minutes

Penn State: 2 points, 1-3 FG, 2 reb (1 offensive), 1 TO, 6 minutes

Northwestern: 8 points, 4-8 FG, 5 reb (3 offensive), 1 TO, 17 minutes

Michigan State: 9 points, 3-6 FG, 4 reb (4 offensive), 2 TO, 22 minutes

Maryland: 12 points, 6-8 FG, 1 reb, (1 offensive), 0 TO, 21 minutes

Totals: 10.2 ppg, 21-35 (60%), 3 reb (2.2 offensive), 1.2 TO/game, 18.4 min/game

Playing five games in 15 days in the Big Ten is do-able, but that can grind down a first year player. Smith’s final three starts came in Indiana’s three games in six days stretch at the end of January. It was evident that the schedule affected him.

Last 3 starts (6 days, Jan. 24-Jan. 30)

Illinois: 6 points, 3-3, 0 reb, 3 TO, 20 min

Purdue: 5 points, 2-5, 6 reb (1 offensive), 1 TO, 28 min

Ohio State: 2 points, 1-4, 2 reb (1 o-reb), 0 TO, 21 min

Totals: 4.3 ppg, 6-12 (50%), 2.6 reb (0.6 offensive), 1.3 TO, 23 min/game

The numbers speak for themselves. Smith’s scoring production went down six points and his offensive rebounding took a major hit as well. All of this happened while averaging five more minutes per game in his last three starts than in the first five starts.

He was relegated to the bench at the beginning of February and struggled still in his first two games.

Smith scored just three points (all free throws) against Michigan State at home and two points (1-5 FG) on the road two days later at Rutgers. In those two games, the freshman forward only averaged 11 minutes per game.

But what’s changed for Smith since tailing off at the end of January and the beginning of February? Rest and more practice reps.

Prior to his current four game hot-streak, Indiana had four days off between playing Rutgers and Minnesota. They had another five days of rest before they played Illinois.

The transition from high school to college isn’t easy and Miller knows that first-hand being a former player. He knew it would probably be a rollercoaster season for Smith, but the best thing to do is learn from every mistake.

“Freshmen, they go through ups and downs and good starts, bad games,” Miller said after the Illinois win.” That’s what a freshman season is. But moments like tonight, hard-fought win where guys make winning plays, they stick with you — that’s how you learn how to win. And these are experiences that will help them develop into really good Indiana players.”

As Indiana ends its regular season Friday night against Ohio State on senior day, Hoosier fans will bid farewell to Robert Johnson, Collin Hartman and other beloved players.

But, what they should really be excited for is the future. Watch out for this freshman to finish the season strong and take his current momentum into next year.

Zain Pyarali

I am a junior from Edwardsville, Illinois majoring in Sports Media. I formerly worked for the Indiana Daily Student for two years serving as the Sports Editor and beat reporters for Men’s Basketball, Men’s Soccer, Baseball and Field Hockey during my time with the student newspaper. Currently I am the Men’s Basketball beat reporter for IU Student Television while I also broadcast games for BTN Student U. Email me: zpyarali@thehoosiernetwork.com and follow me on Twitter: @ZainPyarali

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