Jalen Hood-Schifino was pushing early in the first half. Racing down the court the 19-year-old tried to pass over the top of multiple defenders to teammate Race Thompson only for the ball to careen out of bounds. Soon he missed an open layup and forced a ball over the top again that pinballed off multiple hands.
But in Indiana’s 96-72 win over Elon, it was hard to criticize the freshman too harshly. When senior point guard Xavier Johnson went down Saturday at Kansas with a foot injury IU’s primary ball handler was Hood-Schifino, a player with just eight games of experience entering Tuesday. Johnson has 126 starts in his five-year collegiate career.
“I thought [Hood-Schifino] responded pretty well,” head coach Mike Woodson said. “He had a few too many turnovers for me, but he's young and he's still learning.”
Hood-Schifino would eventually not just settle into Tuesday night’s contest but excel, finishing with a career-high 17 points. He showed better poise as the game wore on, not forcing passes and helping IU pull away from Elon courtesy of a 20-4 run to end the first half. JHS added seven assists but had five turnovers in his 30 minutes of game time.
“'Fino is definitely making strides… the kid is a relentless worker,” senior guard Miller Kopp said. “At the end of the day, we're super comfortable with where he's at and where he's going.”
A back injury hindered Hood-Schifino as he missed three games before last Saturday’s game at Kansas. It’s a concern for IU without another true ball handler.
“It's not like the NBA where I can go to the D-League and find me another point guard,” Woodson said. “I've got to really watch that closely and monitor him as we continue this journey, but the guys like [Trey Galloway] and [Tamar Bates] and [CJ Gunn] and [Anthony Leal,] guys that have to handle the ball for us, they've got to be more strong with it and be able to make basketball plays to help us.”
Hood-Schifino is also now tasked with guarding the opponent’s point guard. Johnson’s defense is a key facet of the Hoosiers' excellent defensive numbers over his first year-plus in Bloomington. Without him Elon made 10 3s and put up 72 points — lousy numbers considering the Phoenix do not have a win over a Division I opponent this season.
“We've got to do a better job in our pick-and-roll defense in terms of getting over the screen and getting into the ball,” Woodson said. “We were terrible tonight in that area.”
Hood-Schifino’s primary assignment, Elon’s point guard Sean Halloran, scored 15 points with nine coming in the first half. After a made floater early in the second half, the freshman missed his assignment coming up the floor and left a Phoenix shooter wide open from 3. There were positive moments on the defensive side of the ball but Woodson has repeatedly stressed defense comes along slower for freshmen.
On the offensive side of the ball, the highest-ranked freshman in the Big Ten showed multiple highlights of his five-star talent including a 360 spin and layin in the second half before minutes later running the break and finding fellow freshman CJ Gunn for a spectacular alley-oop. Before Hood-Schifino had played even a minute of college basketball a Bleacher Report mock draft projected him in the first round of the NBA draft.
The talent is there and even with Johnson out for the foreseeable future with a foot injury (his right foot was in a boot and he rode around on a scooter Tuesday night), Woodson does not want Hood-Schifino’s role to change.
“Well, I mean, it doesn't change anything, they both ran the offense,” Woodson said. “When X is there, it gives you two guys that can make plays with the basketball, not only for themselves but for guys around them. Now we don't have X.”
In Tuesday night’s win, IU fans saw the downside of that with rushed passes, an overall sloppy day for the offense with 13 turnovers and defensive breakdowns. But Hoosier fans also came to their feet multiple times as JHS led IU on a big run, hit numerous floaters in the lane and ran IU’s offense in transition to success very well as the game went on.
As the calendar turns to January and Indiana enters the heart of Big Ten play, a 19-year-old kid may dictate the Hoosiers’ fate.