So far, the Indiana men’s basketball season has been drama-free. Heavenly, almost.
There were no obvious cracks in the Hoosiers’ armour, save perhaps for guard Xavier Johnson’s inconsistency, and two blowout victories saw many early-season question marks answered in encouraging fashion.
On Friday, however, Indiana faces a hurdle it has struggled to overcome for over a decade — real street competition.
#12 Indiana travels to Cincinnati to face Xavier as part of the annual Big Ten-Big East Gavitt Games at the Cintas Center. Tip off is 6 p.m
The Hoosiers rarely leave the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall during the non-conference portion of the schedule, but when they did, it wasn’t a happy journey.
The Hoosiers have not won a nonconference game on an opposing court since Indiana defeated North Carolina State on their home court in the 2011-12 season.
Granted, the non-conference losing streak is just nine games spanning more than a decade, but Indiana coach Mike Woodson knows if the Hoosiers are to succeed nationally, they must exorcise their street demons.
“I’m pretty excited about where we’re going into the game tomorrow night because we need to be a good road team to get where we need to be,” Woodson said.
It wasn’t just out-of-conference street games that have plagued the Hoosiers. In the 2021-22 season, Indiana was 3-8 away from Assembly Hall in all road competitions.
In that regard at least, the Hoosiers can claim they were on the verge of getting over their travel blues. Half of the losses were five points or less or in overtime.
“It’s never easy to win on the street. It’s always going to be a challenge, but we have to take that challenge and use it to our advantage,” said Indiana guard Trey Galloway. “I think we’ve got the guys who’ve been through it for a while.”
Two guys who haven’t gone through that yet are freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino and freshman swingman Malik Reneau, both key figures in Indiana’s encouraging 2-0 start.
While Hood-Schifino is still looking for his shot, he was valuable in every other way. He averaged six assists and 3.5 rebounds.
Reneau was one of the Hoosiers who nitroed Indiana’s attack off the bench, but his all-around contribution really stands out.
Among Indiana players who played at least 10 minutes per game, Reneau has the highest usage rate at 34.1%.
Usage Rate is an advanced statistic that tracks how often a player is involved in an action – goals, assists, rebounds, etc. – while on the ground. Reneau is seven percentage points ahead of Trayce Jackson-Davis in this division.
Still, this is the road, and neither Hood-Schifino nor Reneau have set foot in a college cauldron before.
“You didn’t have that experience. It will be fun. It’s fun to take to the streets and win. Helping these guys is fun and doing what we have to do to get that win is a must,” Galloway said.
“It’s a mentality thing to take to the streets. Having the discipline and knowing what we have to do to follow the scout, do the little things on defense and the right things on offense. We have to have the mentality to know we can win. It’s something we had to have this year.”
Xavier (3-0) will be a very solid test for the Hoosiers. The Musketeers hover just outside the Associated Press Top 25 after victories over Morgan State, Montana and Fairfield.
The Musketeers have size – 6-foot-11 Jack Nunge and 6-9 Zach Freemantle are Xavier’s leading scorers – but what they do with that size is a challenge.
Spreading the word, Nunge, a Newburgh native known to Big Ten fans after playing in Iowa from 2017-21. He was a 38.5% 3-point shooter at Xavier, an eight percentage point improvement over his Hawkeyes days.
However, Freemantle is a pivot. A 59.4 percent shooter, he’s a threat from up, but he’s also very good at passing the ball. He averaged 5.7 assists.
With Xavier’s starting point guard Colby Jones, Freemantle had 10 assists against Fairfield on Tuesday. Jones is doubtful for Friday’s game with an ankle sprain, so Freemantle could make a comeback.
“On the transition we can’t get so drawn into the point where (Nunge) is behind and he just runs straight back into 3-point shots. He did a couple of those in their game the other night so we’ve got to watch for that,” Woodson said.
“And the big guy, Zach, I mean, he does a lot of things out there on the ground, but he mostly does a lot of damage around the bucket. So we got our hands on two bigs that we need to match our energy to our bigs and see what happens.