The two freshmen had played together before.
Ahead of arriving in Bloomington this summer, forward Justin Smith and guard Al Durham both played in the 2017 Kentucky Derby Festival Classic in April. They were teammates on Team Lightning before they became Hoosiers.
Just under seven months late, the pair found themselves playing pivotal roles in a closer-than-expected victory over Howard 86-77. The freshmen combined for 32 points in 57 minutes, and the Hoosiers played their best basketball with the two on the court.
After junior forward Juwan Morgan left the game with an ankle injury just over five minutes into the game, Miller turned to Smith in the front court and it paid off.
Finishing the game with a double-double, the forward had 16 points and 12 rebounds in his second career game as a Hoosier. He became the first IU freshman to have double-double since Thomas Bryant in 2016.
“I try to get reps at any position,” Smith said. “So, whenever my name is called, I am ready to step into that position and do it well.”
While he didn’t attempt a three-point shot, he was efficient from the floor and made 75 percent of his shots. Miller said Smith works well in tight quarters, and he found success with Howard playing a zone defense.
"Justin had a good game for him to play because he was given an opportunity to play inside and around the paint area,” Miller said. “He got some catches in there around the bucket where that’s going to be where he’s at his best right now early in his career.”
In those areas around the basket, Smith shows off the athleticism that made him a dunk competition participant at the Derby Classic Festival.
“First thing I noticed about Justin’s game is his high motor,” Durham said. “If he is running, he knows I’m looking for him and my other teammates. But he was open, I fed it to him and then he finished the rest off for me.”
In the second half when Durham checked in for sophomore guard Devonte Green and joined Smith on the court, IU extended its lead up to 18 points, which was the largest lead of the game
Durham was IU’s best shooter from three-point range Sunday, shooting three of five from beyond-the-arc. Matching Smith’s point total of 16, Durham also tallied three assists and only turned the ball over once in 27 minutes.
“Al is a high-level IQ for a freshman,” Miller said. “Some of the plays, he makes them look easy. He’s obviously got a good feel for the game.”
Miller said that Durham has been productive in practice by making plays for his teammates, while not turning the ball over. In the preseason, he suffered a hamstring injury and missed some practices, yet Smith says Durham isn’t lacking confidence.
“He was out for a little bit but right when he got back into practice, he just went right back at it,” Smith said. “When he’s out there he’s playing with confidence, he’s shooting with confidence. It’s contagious and we all feed off that.”
The other freshman – forward Clifton Moore – earned his first playing time of his career, but he missed his only two shots in six minutes.
Miller said he liked what he saw from Smith and Durham as they played significant minutes for the Hoosiers.
“Both guys did a really good job,” Miller said. “And Clifton got his first action tonight. Hopefully we can build on that with him as well.”