Indiana's lack of bench production is holding Hoosiers back
Trayce Jackson-Davis finished Tuesday's game against Michigan State with 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and seven turnovers. The turnover number is bad. The others are not.
We’ve reached the point that this might be considered somewhat of an off-game for Jackson-Davis. Not because he played poorly, but moreso because he didn’t dominate in nearly every aspect of the game, which has become a regular occurrence this season.
For Indiana to win a game like this requires others to step up. Jalen Hood-Schifino, who has been the other half of the dynamic duo, had 16 points. Trey Galloway had 11 points. But on a night like Tuesday, that is not enough.
Among the flaws revealed in Indiana's 80-65 loss to Michigan State: it needs more from its bench. Far more.
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There have been times this season when it has been a strength, but others where it has been a weakness. On Tuesday, the juxtaposition was clear. Indiana had six bench points to Michigan State’s 17. Malik Reneau, CJ Gunn and Anthony Leal each had two points. Gunn and Leal’s contributions came in mop-up time when the game was already pretty much decided.
“They played well, man,” IU coach Mike Woodson said of Michigan State. “Listen, Izzo’s teams play great. They do. They play hard. They force you to play hard and if you don’t meet that, you’re gonna lose. I thought we came out playing well early, but as the game wore on, they smashed us. I don’t like that.”
Indiana’s rollercoaster of a season hasn’t left the question of whether Indiana can be good. The answer? Yes, they can. The Hoosiers dominated Illinois on the road. They beat Purdue at home. Even with Tuesday’s result, Indiana has still won nine of its past 12 games.
The pressing question is not whether Indiana can play at a high level, but rather if it can be sustained. One could argue the last time Indiana played well was against Purdue. The Hoosiers have won some games since then, but haven’t been markedly impressive. Underwhelming first halves at Northwestern and home against Illinois. That Indiana turned some of those collectively uninspiring performances into wins — against Michigan, Rutgers and Illinois — goes both ways, but hasn’t been decisive in doing so. On Tuesday, a good start against Michigan State turned sour by the end of the first half.
Whether Indiana is able to reach its ceiling this season might be reliant on whether the bench can reach its ceiling.
“Guys, we have struggled on the road,” Woodson said. “We’ve been pretty decent at home. We have struggled on the road coming off the bench. We’ve just got to somehow, like I told him when we broke here, we’ve got to figure that out as we continue this journey.”
Part of the excitement coming into this season was a result of optimism that some returners would make major improvements.
Jordan Geronimo is one of them. Tamar Bates is another. Both were preseason breakout candidates. On Tuesday, they combined for zero points on one shot attempt from the field. That doesn’t cut it.
Geronimo has incredible physical gifts and athleticism. In his first two seasons, he showed markings of a player that could be special —- notably his performance at Iowa during his first season and then what he did against Wyoming in the First Four last season. This season, however, has still been far too inconsistent. He has dealt with multiple injuries. He was thrown into the starting lineup after the injury to Race Thompson. He strung together back-to-back double-figure scoring outputs in January but hasn't scored more than five points in a game since then. The potential is there, however, whether it'll be fulfilled seems to be getting more uncertain.
Bates arrived as a highly-touted recruit that flashed potential as a freshman, but couldn’t quite find his footing. This season, he played well enough to eventually earn a spot in the starting lineup, but that only lasted two games. His scoring has improved since last season, but not so much as to be relied upon. Over the past four games, Bates has scored just four points. He has been held scoreless in three of those four games.
Blame shouldn’t be placed only on those two. Malik Reneau, who was expected to be a standout freshman, hasn’t played the part. To his credit, he has seemed to improve over the course of the season. But he is still too foul-prone defensively. On Tuesday, he had more fouls than points.
Anthony Leal, Kaleb Banks and CJ Gunn each played on Tuesday, but have had limited roles this season. Leal and Gunn have played sparingly this season. Banks has found a niche bringing energy off the bench recently. But IU needs more than energy. It needs quantifiable contributions.
Missing Xavier Johnson, who has been out since suffering a foot injury during Indiana’s December loss to Kansas, certainly makes things more difficult on Indiana’s bench. If Johnson was in the lineup, that might mean Galloway would be coming off the bench, therefore creating more depth.
But right now, the reality is that Johnson hasn’t returned. Jackson-Davis and Hood-Schifino have shouldered a significant part of Indiana’s success. But they need help, especially from the bench.
There is only so much more you can ask from players Jackson-Davis, Hood-Schifino and Galloway to grow. The added dimensions likely have to come from elsewhere. Geronimo, Bates, Reneau and others off the bench might not be the players some envisioned this season, but they need to find a way to contribute more.
“It’s not just Trayce,” Woodson said. “When you get outrebounded like we did, and 50-50 balls, second chances, it’s everybody."
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