There have been moments throughout the Indiana basketball season where a breakthrough seems imminent, but it just hasn’t happened.
The team has stumbled against the better opponents on the schedule, struggling to finish games and compete down the stretch due in part to inconsistent offense.
In each of the previous two games — a narrow win at Nebraska, and a double-digit loss at home against Purdue — IU's offense peaks in the middle portion of the game and falters after. Indiana’s major emphasis on post scoring with a lack of 3-point efficiency hurts down the stretch of games when the offense goes cold.
While a lot of the deficiency has to be sorted out with the team's playing style and execution, Indiana might have already have a solution waiting to help mitigate its scoring struggles.
More shot attempts and playing time for an improving Jerome Hunter could be a huge factor in allowing the Hoosier offense to increase its scoring and potency.
“Jerome is really a comfort player,” Hunter’s high school coach, Jason Bates, of Pickerington High School North in Ohio, said. “Once he gets comfortable, the sky is the limit.”
After a slow start to the season, Hunter is starting to find his stride in his second season in a Hoosier uniform. He had a season-high 12 points off the bench against Wisconsin and is averaging nine points per game on 55% shooting in the past three outings.
— rome?? (@j_hunter35) January 10, 2021
Those marks are each considerably higher than his season average of 5.2 points per game and 41.4% field goal percentage. For the whole season, he has taken a big step up in his 3-point shooting, too. Hunter is a 36.8% 3-point shooter, a near seven-percent increase from a year ago, and the second-best rate on the team this season.
It has been a long road to consistency and comfort for Hunter in his Indiana career. A promising 2018 offseason when he first joined the team never came to fruition as a serious leg surgery in November 2018 sidelined Hunter for the year.
“It (the injury) was good in some ways,” Bates said. “He was able to sit, learn, kind of feel the expectation, get used to being a college student… and then get used to also being a college athlete.”
The former four-star prospect and top-60 prospect in the 2018 class finally got to play last year, but it was a small role as he learned to adjust to Big Ten basketball. Hunter was mainly just a 3-point shooter, as 63 of his 103 shot attempts last year were from beyond the arc.
This season, and especially in the past few games, Hunter seems to be really finding a consistent rhythm as the usual second player off the bench for Indiana. He has evolved his game to include more slashing and driving at the rim in addition to his 3-point shooting ability.
About 46% of his shots this year are from two-point range as he isn’t solely reliant on his 3-point shot anymore compared to a year ago when he shot from two-point range 38% of the time and 3-pointers for 62% of his looks.
The diversification of his scoring ability is a testament to his increased confidence in his season playing for Indiana.
“My teammates, they just always gave me the confidence,” Hunter said in a Zoom media availability. “They know the type of player I can be. Me not playing my first year, I think that kind of set me back a little bit, but I feel like this year is the year, there’s no problems.”
Bates has liked what he has seen from Hunter so far this year but believes he is capable for far more as he continues to grow more comfortable in the college game. Bates said that when Hunter really figures it out, he will have the ability to score in bunches and at an elite level.
The Pickerington North coach referenced Hunter’s junior year in high school to how Hunter can take over a game. In a regional semifinal game against Upper Arlington with then four-star prospect, and now current Notre Dame guard Dane Goodwin, Pickerington North was down 38-37 in a back-and-forth game going into the fourth quarter.
Hunter went off for 13 points in the final period alone to lead his team to a 64-44 win in a 27-point performance overall.
“I just remember Jerome was just unstoppable, absolutely unstoppable,” Bates said of that game. “Every play I called, he caught in the right places, he was scoring, it was ridiculous.”
Indiana will face No. 4 Iowa on Thursday, and that may be the perfect opportunity for Hunter to continue his growth. The Hawkeyes are known to be one of the best offensive teams in the country, scoring 87 points per game in Big Ten play alone.
For an Indiana offense that is second-to-last in the Big Ten for scoring at 72.6 points per game, they’re going to need Hunter to step up again, especially from 3-point range.
“I just want him to continue to stay comfortable and find ways within the offense, and within what the coach is telling you to do, but also to add what you can do,” Bate said. “Once he gets to that level of everybody on the same page as far as what he can do and what he’s expected to do,… then I think you will start to see the Jerome we saw here in Pickerington.”