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Midseason Eval: Youth continuing to stand out for Indiana

Indiana men’s basketball, like many of the past few seasons, has been a rollercoaster thus far.

At the end of nonconference play, the Hoosiers have a respectable 11-2 record, but there is still so much that remains in question about this team.

Like last year, Indiana had a good foundation of a resume entering conference play and an identical 11-2 record before the team collapsed in January.

This season, Indiana’s resume to this point has a signature win over then-No. 17 Florida State, seven easier wins over low-major conference opponents to start the year and a few decent wins over Connecticut, Nebraska and Notre Dame.

The two losses to Wisconsin and Arkansas are all right. Wisconsin has been up and down and playing in Madison is always a tough task, but Indiana looked absolutely awful in this game and lost by 20. Arkansas is an 11-1 team, but is also difficult to read. Other than Indiana, the Razorbacks have only played one other major conference opponent so far.

The bottom line is that even though a good chunk of the season is already done, this Indiana team is still very much a mystery and there are plenty of questions to be answered.

Are they really that good? Can they find some consistency in the Big Ten? And, the ultimate question: Will they make the NCAA Tournament?

Big Ten play will shed some light on the Hoosiers’ true identity, but let’s dive into what we do know about Indiana, and particularly its roster at this point in the season with some mid-season evaluations.

Most Valuable Player: Trayce Jackson-Davis

By far the easiest category to decide, freshman power forward Trayce Jackson-Davis has been excellent in his first collegiate season.

Trayce Jackson Davis goes inside against Nebraska. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Going into the season, Indiana was not expected to have a definitive star or pure best player, but the young power forward has exceeded expectations and has emerged as the Hoosiers’ best and most consistent player.

After a decorated prep career that saw him win the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball award and be named a 2019 McDonald’s All-American among other accolades, it has not taken him long to show why he was so highly regarded coming out of high school.

Just by the numbers, Jackson-Davis is the team’s leader in points per game (15.4), rebounds (113), blocks (26) and field goal percentage (66.4 percent). His block total is 20 more than anyone else on the team and his total rebounds exceeds any other Hoosiers’ total by at least 36. Jackson-Davis’ scoring, rebounding and blocks averages each rank in the top 10 of the conference. The freshman’s field goal percentage is best in the Big Ten.

Additionally, he already has five double-doubles on the year, including a monster performance against Nebraska that included 25 points and 15 rebounds.

Beyond the numbers, Jackson-Davis gives Indiana a dynamic presence in the post that Indiana simply did not have a season ago. He finishes so smoothly around the rim, gives the offense second-chance opportunities with plenty of offensive rebounding and adamantly protects the rim on defense.

Once again, he is Indiana’s most consistent and reliable player with a high level of production every game. He doesn’t have the look of a freshman, but rather shows the poise of an upperclassman.

Jackson-Davis’ excellent play has earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times already.

Biggest Surprise: Armaan Franklin

The most pleasant surprise for Indiana this year has been the other scholarship freshman, shooting guard Armaan Franklin.

Freshman Armaan Franklin scored 12 points in his first game as a Hoosier, against Gannon. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Franklin entered the season with expectation to play, but not make the level of impact that he has. The backcourt depth is thin, but it is also very talented.

In normal circumstances, Franklin would have probably started the year as the fourth guard in minutes received but injuries to the other three guards gave way for more and more opportunity for Franklin.

In the exhibition game against Gannon, he was forced to play an unnatural position for him in point guard as Devonte Green, Rob Phinisee and Al Durham were all out with injury. Durham quickly returned and has been healthy for the regular season but Green and Phinisee have both battled some injury and missed some games here and there.

The minutes expectations have surfaced as all the guards have been available for some time now, but Franklin has made the most of his opportunities and proven to be an effective player on both ends of the floor.

Franklin is scoring 5.4 points per game, 1.9 rebounds per game and has recorded 27 assists. His numbers are not flashy, and his jumper has struggled some, but Franklin has earned his keep through his hustle and on-ball defense.

Indiana head coach Archie Miller has shown plenty of trust in the freshman and Miller’s confidence in the freshman paid off in the Notre Dame win.

Franklin had a career day with a career high 17 points while shooting 4-5 from the 3-point line, including the game-winning three with 15 seconds to go to lift Indiana over Notre Dame 62-60.

As Franklin continues to develop and improve, there will be more performances like the one against Notre Dame in the near future.

Most Improved: Damezi Anderson

Looking back from a year ago to now, it is evident that sophomore forward Damezi Anderson has taken the biggest steps forward in his progression as a player.

Damezi Anderson lines up a 3-pointer against Troy. He finished with 14 points, 2-for-4 from long range. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Anderson, like Franklin, does not have flashy or gaudy stats to show for his play, but the improvement is very visible. He is scoring and rebounding at an average of 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds per game in about 15 minutes per contest. For all of those categories and just about all other statistical measures, Anderson has improved.

One should not get caught up in the numbers game though when dissecting Anderson’s game, because scoring a ton is not his role. Anderson’s job is to provide depth off the bench, solid defense and timely shooting.

In his play this season, he has shown to be more than capable of doing all of those things. A year ago, Anderson had a handful of “freshman moments” where there some tough stretches for the forward. Those have ultimately turned out to be learning experiences for Anderson as the most obvious improvement is that he just looks far more comfortable on the court.

Anderson still has some slip-ups from time to time, but he has earned his spot in the rotation this year and has done it in large part because of his hustle. It’s not hard to see that Anderson works hard and it shows in his defensive play which has had some really impressive showings this year.

For Anderson to continue his growth, he’ll need more minutes on the floor. More playing time for Anderson is likely stringent on Anderson making more shots from 3-point range.

Currently, Anderson is tied for fourth on the team with eight 3-point shots made with Franklin, but he has received significantly fewer minutes than Franklin as well as Green and Durham who are the team leaders in 3-pointers made.

Most Underappreciated: Joey Brunk

If there is a player on this Indiana basketball team who regularly contributes in a big way but often doesn’t get the praise for it, it’s junior center Joey Brunk.

The 6-foot-11 graduate transfer from Butler has been a starter from day one for the Hoosiers and has transitioned pretty seamlessly to the Indiana program.

Joey Brunk celebrates during Indiana’s win over Notre Dame on Dec. 21. (Bailey Wright/HN)

Brunk is scoring at a rate of 7.6 points per game, though he has had three games where he has reached double digits and is shooting an effective 53.9 percent from the field. Brunk is also bringing down nearly six rebounds per game and has the second most rebounds of anyone on the team with 77.

Much of what Brunk provides can’t be measured by numbers though. With senior big man De’Ron Davis falling out of the rotation, Brunk’s role as true big man, being a physically imposing force at 6-foot-11, becomes far more important.

Just purely being that big gives IU so much flexibility on the court. He might not be able to run the floor or in transition the way an effective small ball team would, but his presence alone down low under the bucket makes it that much more difficult for opposing teams to score in the paint and gather rebounds.

Comparing Brunk’s impact to a season ago, where Indiana’s starting lineup featured two 6-foot-7 players playing the post goes to show how important Brunk is. Juwan Morgan, one of those post players from Indiana a year ago, was excellent at being an undersized post player on offense, but on defense he was forced to guard players who were much bigger than him and were purely unfair mismatches for him to deal with. Those mismatches often left Indiana beat on defense in the post. That is no knock on Morgan, but just a season later it shows how valuable a traditionally big center can be on the inside like Brunk.

The combination of Brunk and Jackson-Davis is why Indiana’s interior defense has been so much better than the perimeter defense this season. Brunk at 6-foot-11, and Jackson-Davis at 6-foot-9 provide much better size than two 6-foot-7 players down low.

Additionally, Brunk being on the court with Jackson-Davis is part of what allows the freshman star to be so effective. Jackson-Davis has found plenty of success when the team’s lineup is going small too, but when Brunk is on the floor with him, opposing defenses have to account for two big bodies to guard and contain. Rather than if Jackson-Davis was the tallest player on the court, defenses would have an easier time swarming him and taking away the physical advantages he provides.

Like others mentioned in these evaluations, Brunk’s numbers aren’t eye-popping but what Brunk brings to the table as a consistent force and glue guy in the lineup makes him invaluable to this team.

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