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What To Watch For: Indiana Basketball set to open with Western Illinois

Tuesday marks the start of the third season in the Archie Miller era with Indiana hosting Western Illinois in the season opener.

Rob Phinisee brings the ball up the floor during Indiana’s 84-54 exhibition win over Gannon at Assembly Hall. Phinisee wasn’t expected to contribute, but still ended up playing 14 minutes. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

A season ago, Western Illinois finished with a 10-21 record and in eighth place in the Summit League regular-season standings. Despite the poor record, the Leathernecks made the semi-finals of the Summit League conference tournament by knocking off No. 1 seed South Dakota State, who had made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

This will be the fourth all-time meeting between the Leathernecks and Hoosiers with Indiana leading the series 3-0. They’ll look to continue that success and build some momentum as they start a crucial seven-game stretch.

Crucial is a weird way to describe the beginning of the season in college basketball, but for Indiana’s sake it is applicable.

Indiana’s schedule is set up quite interestingly this year. The Hoosiers play seven straight home games against non-power conference opponents to begin the season and follow that with 24 straight games against Big Ten or other major conference teams.

With the difficult back end of the schedule, and practically no breaks or “cupcakes” throughout the 24-game stretch, the need for wins is high in the first seven games to maximize the Hoosiers’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Miller era and for the first time since 2016.

Let’s take a look at what to expect from each team on Tuesday.

Indiana

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about the Hoosiers and their rotation for the season. The starting lineup and rotation are far from defined at this point.

In the 84-54 exhibition win over Gannon last Tuesday, all nine of the available scholarship players played, and played legitimate minutes. All nine of them scored as well.

A similar outing should be expected with the rotation being forced to run thin due to the injuries of team captains Al Durham and Devonte Green. Both guards did not play against Gannon and aren’t expected to play against Western Illinois.


To make the guard situation more difficult, Rob Phinisee was limited against Gannon and should be expected to have the same durability against Western Illinois as he is still recovering from injury.

The starting lineup against Gannon included a lot of height, including no player under six-foot-four:

  • Armaan Franklin
  • Damezi Anderson
  • Justin Smith
  • Trayce Jackson-Davis
  • Joey Brunk

It is very possible Miller uses the same starting five and will need Franklin to step up once again as the makeshift point guard and only fully healthy member of the backcourt. Against Gannon, he had 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

Miller will need contributions once again from every healthy guy to counter the thin rotation and establish who will receive major minutes moving forward.

Western Illinois

The Leathernecks enter the 2019-2020 season with three returning regular starters from a year ago and add seven newcomers — three freshmen and four transfers.

The returning starters include Kobe Webster, Ben Pyle and C.J. Duff.

Webster, a junior and the team’s definitive best player, enters the season as a preseason All-Summit League First Team selection after finishing his sophomore on the second team.

The Indianapolis native is the returning leading scorer in the conference after averaging 17 points per game last year and has been the leading scorer for Western Illinois since his freshman campaign.

The six-foot guard is a 3-point marksman as well, converting on 41.3% of his attempts from beyond the arc last year. More than just scoring, Webster led the team in assists (97) and steals (34) last year too.

Pyle is coming off of a successful first year with Western Illinois and looks to take the next step as a sophomore. In his freshman season, the six-foot-seven forward recorded 8.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Duff, like Webster excels from the 3-point line where he made 42.2% of his shots from deep as a junior. The senior averaged 10.8 points per game and had a career-high eight 3s against Purdue Fort Wayne last year.

The combination of Webster and Duff, and particularly their ability to shoot from deep, is what could be the difference-maker for the Leathernecks and what would allow them to make the game competitive.

As a team last year, Western Illinois was 16th in the country in 3-point field goal percentage as they converted at a rate of 38.5%.

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