Indiana’s virtual media day on Tuesday unofficially kicked off the Indiana men’s basketball season and it became apparent that in a season of complete uncertainty, one thing remains certain.
This is the best basketball team that Indiana head coach Archie Miller has had in his four-year tenure. The expectations should be high.
That is not to say that there is going to be a sixth banner in Assembly Hall by the end of the 2020-2021 season, but Indiana should not only make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Miller’s time in Bloomington (and since 2016) but the team should be getting in comfortably by season’s end. With respectable seeding, too.
Unlike previous years under Miller, there is a healthy combination of depth and star power. Both of those are extremely important, but at the same time, the amount of experience IU has returning could play a gigantic role in the team’s success.
“How you handle what’s thrown at you really comes down to your leadership,” Miller said. “We have some guys here who have been part of a lot of big games. A lot of college experience, they know what it feels like.”
A mix of experience and talent
Indiana returns four of its five starters from a season ago in seniors Al Durham and Joey Brunk, junior Rob Phinisee, and sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis. Sophomore wing Jerome Hunter is expected to fill the fifth spot.
To have four of five starters returning is a rarity in college basketball and would be valuable no matter the year, but that experience is especially important for this season.
In an offseason that was completely altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, workouts and team activities have been anything but normal and have been severely limited. Much of player development had to be done individually, especially in the beginning months of the pandemic.
With four starters back and seven players total who all got legitimate playing time returning, Indiana will be in good position to be ready for the season in comparison to many teams around the country.
In addition to the experience, the talent is plentiful with the main star being Jackson-Davis. Jackson-Davis was Indiana’s best player a year ago as a freshman and could be one of the best players in the country this year.
The 6-foot-9 power forward scored 13.5 points per game while averaging 8.4 rebounds as a freshman. Those numbers have garnered high expectations nationally. Blue Ribbon Yearbook listed him as a third-team preseason All-American.
Brunk and redshirt junior Race Thompson will support Jackson-Davis in the post. Brunk provides great size as the team’s largest player at 6-foot-11 and Thompson has been vastly improving from a year ago with more athleticism and is now fully healthy.
“Faster. Stronger. I’m jumping higher than I ever have been in my life,” Thompson said.
More depth on the perimeter
The post anchored the team a year ago, but Indiana should look to be much improved on the perimeter as well. It also looks to be something that will be vital to the team’s level of success.
With more guards in the mix, including three freshmen, Indiana will have six ballhandlers this year, compared to a total of four a year ago.
“The No. 1 thing this team has to do to be successful is move the ball,” Miller said.
Much of that responsibility falls on Phinisee with his role as the primary point guard and now an upperclassman with two years of starting experience. The junior is now fully healthy and looks ready to take the next step as a leader and one of the top scorers behind Jackson-Davis.
Phinisee will get help as usual from Durham and sophomore Armaan Franklin, but the freshmen Anthony Leal, Trey Galloway, and especially Khristian Lander will be instrumental in easing his job.
Lander, a five-star recruit coming out of high school, reclassified to be a freshman a year earlier than anticipated but should make life a bit easier for Phinisee as the other true point guard on the team.
The possibility of a three-guard set with Phinisee, Durham and Lander all on the court looks to be a legitimate one as well.
“I’m really comfortable with it… we’re working on it every day,” Phinisee said of the three-guard lineup.
In addition to Jackson-Davis’ growth into a superstar, the new depth at guard, and experience, Indiana has two possible secret weapons that have potential to breakout on the scene: Hunter and freshman Jordan Geronimo.
Both are 6-foot-7 wings, are long and athletic with shooting ability, and would typically play the small forward position.
Hunter experienced a bit of a breakout in the second half of his freshman season last year. He finished the season only averaging 3.8 points per game but proved to be a capable 3-point shooter at 30.2% on the season with many more looks coming his way this year.
Geronimo is perhaps the biggest unknown of the team. Hailing from Newark, New Jersey and playing at a northeastern prep academy, St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, he is not a very familiar face quite yet.
His teammates rave about him, specifically about his upside and athleticism.
“Jordan’s been really, really good… He’s really raw right now, but at the end of the day, he’s going to be a really good player,” Jackson-Davis said.
Franklin added more emphasis on what he thought of Geronimo’s ability.
“Jordan is a freak athlete,” Franklin said. “He can stretch the floor.”
Hungry for an opportunity
With all that being said, there is a lot to like with Indiana’s squad this year, and high expectations are fair.
As of now, the biggest question might be, when are they getting started.
There is still a lot of uncertainty about the schedule, as the only thing Indiana knows at this point is that the team will be playing in the Maui Invitational — now relocated to Asheville, North Carolina — on Nov. 30 to start play in the event. They will open with Providence and will play two more games over the course of the week.
It is possible Indiana sneaks a game in before then, though. NCAA Division I basketball is not allowed to begin play until Nov. 25, but nothing is set.
“It’s about just preparing and getting ready and staying hungry for that one opportunity when they say go, you can go, that we’re ready to go,” Miller said.