Indiana looking to stay healthy ahead of top-20 matchup with North Carolina


BLOOMINGTON — When the starting lineup for Indiana University’s basketball game against Arkansas Little Rock at Assembly Hall was announced last week, star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis wore street clothes.

He was out of uniform for “precautionary reasons.” Fans could interpret that vague, governmental-sounding explanation being that coach Mike Woodson feared Jackson-Davis would score 40 points.

The way the 6-foot-9 senior has played as the Hoosiers ran up a 6-0 record, rarely missing a shot, it was a possibility. But Woodson said Jackson-Davis was just banged up in need of rest.

IU won 87-68. The day after Thanksgiving, Jackson-Davis scored 11 points in 19 minutes as the Hoosiers clobbered Jackson State 90-51. This has been the state of the union for IU thus far. Except an 81-79 fight over Xavier, they have smothered others by amounts such 35, 52 and 30 points.

Veterans of last year’s 24-14 performance in Woodson’s coaching debut, coupled with a sterling freshman recruiting class, give IU much more flexibility and firepower approaching a date Wednesday (9:15 p.m.) against North Carolina. The showdown was heralded as IU versus the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State recently, so no-go on that aspect.

Teams do not go undefeated anymore. All that seems to truly matter is being the last men standing after the NCAA tournament in April. No telling how the long season will end for the Hoosiers, but they have shown the goods indicating they can beat anyone, though Woodson is cautious about what it all means.

Jackson-Davis is unstoppable in the low post, mixing slick moves and dunking power, converting periodic alley-oop passes. There has been considerable silliness about how he must beef up his 3-point shooting. That’s pointless given how he makes so many shots from two feet and the rest of the team can bomb away.

Guard Xavier Johnson is showing a more consistent and developed model of his play-making skills while nailing 3-pointers on demand, as he did (4-for-8) against Jackson State. Yet he completely relishes his facilitator mode.

“I’m a pretty good teammate when it comes to team chemistry,” Johnson said. “I’m going out there and just keep it going and stay locked in with my teammates and keep my teammates rolling, too.”

In that Little Rock game, the Hoosiers seemed to run just about the same plays for Race Thompson as they ordinarily would for Jackson-Davis — and they kept working. Thompson scored 20 points and missed just one shot from the field.

Freshman Malik Reneau clearly knows his way around the hoop. He has already created his own signature with the public address announcer employing the alliterative “Reneau for two” on his baskets.

Dramatic improvement has been demonstrated by forward Jordan Geronimo (11 points in 17 minutes versus Little Rock) and Tamar Bates.

Bates, just 19, is a 6-5 sophomore guard from Kansas City, Kansas, scored his career-high 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting versus Jackson State. Bates was headed to the University of Texas before Shaka Smart left, then switched to IU saying he wanted to play for a Black coach during troubled Black Lives Matter times.

Last year, Bates faced an unexpected pregnancy and at one point flew home for a family funeral, missing a game in late December. He seems to have adjusted maturely.

At a press conference after his big game, Bates who has called Leilani, born March 20, “my little princess,” cradled her more delicately than he did the basketball and jokingly noted she seemingly had much to say about her daddy.

“I see she’s excited, too,” Bates said. “She’s trying to play with the microphone.”

Bates said his whole world changed instantly when he first saw the baby, and Thanksgiving week represented her first games. He was grateful family could travel to Indiana for the holiday and when asked how he copes with the responsibility of parenthood said, “I’ve got an army behind me. My family does a great job when she’s back home with them, so it really just takes a lot of stress off of me.”

Last season, as Woodson shifted from a long-time NBA player and coach to college, IU hired veteran college coach Thad Matta as a guide. Rarely has anyone of such prominence disappeared so quietly from the Bloomington basketball scene. Matta coaches Butler these days.

He hasn’t made a big deal about this, but Woodson is already 3-0 this season on a private reunion tour, his Hoosiers shellacking other teams coached by former NBA pals and foes: Reggie Theus (Bethune-Cookman), Little Rock (Darrell Walker) and Jackson State (Moe Williams).

North Carolina is coached by Hubert Davis, who played in the NBA from 1992 to 2004. At the same time Indiana could move to 7-0 in this show-me encounter, Woodson could go to 4-0 in his personal standings.

Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected].

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