BLOOMINGTON – Everyone on the IU bench jumped out of their seats. Jordan Geronimo and Kaleb Banks held out their arms as if to prevent their teammates from storming the court. Race Thompson, having just received the pass from Xavier Johnson in transition, got up and threw a dunk with force to fall to the ground and slide across the baseline on his butt, knocking his teammates’ jaws off.
Star striker Trayce Jackson-Davis was out; Indiana was careful with his healing right wrist. Without him, the Hoosiers had their second straight shaky performance against an underdog. Throughout it all, the senior duo of Thompson and Johnson was a stable and, at the moment, striking duo that led IU through an unequal aggregate game to an 87-68 win over Little Rock on Wednesday.
In the first two weeks of the season, IU coach Mike Woodson has emphasized the importance of players understanding and embracing their roles. Players should make the most of the minutes they get, no matter how many. And if someone is injured, especially a prolific goalscorer and defender like Jackson-Davis? the next man With Indiana looking to fight for a national championship, the stakes are too high for the machine to fail if a single gear stalls.
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“That’s what this team has to be about, and that’s what it’s always been about for me as a coach,” Woodson said. “I’ve coached games where my best players weren’t in the line-up. I can’t wait for these guys. I still have to train and get guys to play and play at a high level. I expect the boys to be ready to play.”
True to the philosophy, Thompson took on the offensive role normally filled by Jackson-Davis. Johnson performed the same ball-screen actions with Thompson as he normally does with Jackson-Davis. Thompson finished the season with a season-high 20 points in 7-of-8 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds. Johnson had 9 points and 10 assists.
“You get X or ‘Fino (Jalen Hood-Schifino) in a ball screen and you put up a good screen to make something happen, they’ll make the game for you,” Thompson said. “So it was really just X playing.”
Indiana’s already thin frontcourt was hit again in the first half when Thompson elbowed his temple under the IU basket. He left the game and jogged to the Hoosiers’ locker room, holding a towel to the side of his head.
He returned with a white headband covering up what he called a “big ol’ wound” and remained IU’s main scoring opportunity down the bottom, with Malik Reneau being limited by four fouls.
He positioned himself and got into position on smaller Trojans defenders, making life easier for Johnson and Hood-Schifino. The guards only had to throw a pass over the front defender to set Thompson up for a dunk or layup. By the end of the night, the headband was caked with blood, although Thompson said he didn’t think it would need stitches.
As Thompson took on more responsibility, Johnson did the same job that was expected of him all season: Lead the offense, be a stabilizing force, engage others and snap the occasional shot.
After Little Rock got closer to the Hoosiers in the second half, Johnson assisted on two Miller Kopp 3-pointers, then picked up a charge and finally took two free throws to end a 12-3 run by the Hoosiers that held the lead from 6 brought to 15 points.
The Trojans eventually cut the lead back to single digits and Johnson set up Jordan Geronimo for a treble. Then he struck his own from the depths. It was another calm, artisanal, and most importantly important sequence for the unwavering presence Johnson uses to direct the offense.
“He’s capable of it and I expect him to do that,” Woodson said. “He’s our point guard and I thought he was solid when things didn’t go well for him early on. He just started getting everyone else involved and doing basketball games that he’s capable of and we’ve all benefited from that.”