IU had valid excuses to underperform against No. 24 Marquette on Wednesday night.
Redshirt senior Zach McRoberts and junior Devonte Green sat with injuries. That left some combination of sophomore Al Durham and freshman Rob Phinisee to slow All-American candidate and matchup nightmare Markus Howard.
Green’s absence also left a scoring void.
Durham answered the call.
The sophomore guard filled the vacated backcourt spot next to Phinisee to near perfection in IU's 96-73 win.
In 35 minutes of action, Durham totaled 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting coupled with four rebounds and five assists.
“I thought it was one of the best games he's played,” IU Coach Archie Miller said. “He was aggressive on offense, made great decisions on the drives to pass. Obviously has to play a lot of minutes right now, so we were fortunate he was able to hang in there.”
Working inside and out, Durham looked the part of a versatile playmaker onlookers observed in spurts last season.
Just minutes into the contest, he spotted up off a catch-and-shoot spot deep on the left wing. With a silky stroke, the ball splashed through the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall netting. The crowd roared in approval.
Moments later, IU’s suffocating team defense forced a steal. Running out in transition, Phinisee and Durham found themselves in a two-on-one in the Marquette end.
With a slight flip pass from his running mate, the Lilburn, Georgia native put home an easy layup. The Hoosier faithful rejoiced — rising to their feet in unison amidst screams, shouts and cheers.
Defensively, Durham was equally enthralling. Minutes before his transition offense clinic, he scrambled for a loose ball along the IU baseline. Durham subsequently aired his wiry reach to fling a one-handed, clambering save into the arms of senior forward Juwan Morgan.
In turn, Morgan moved the ball up the floor where Romeo Langford muscled his way to a quick two-point bucket. It all started with Durham’s hustle.
The Al Durham intangibles showcase persisted throughout the first half. With a defender on his back, Howard went up for a tough layup. Sitting in his hip pocket, Durham swatted the aimless attempt into the Bloomington night.
Exiting the shuffle, he puffed his chest and voiced his impassioned excitement to a collection of courtside fans.
“Going in, we knew how good Markus Howard was, and we knew how capable was he was of scoring,” Durham said. “So we prepped for that all week for, you know, just to get our minds right to make sure we're guarding him. So that just translated to the game.”
Given the collective depth of this IU roster, Durham’s role in 2018 was difficult to pinpoint preseason. Green and Phinisee were presumed stalwarts at point guard, while Langford’s was locked at the two.
Further, Durham’s offensive game was — and is — a work in progress. He notched just four double-digit performances in 31 games last season and scored seven points or less in 26 of those contests.
Following a 14-point showing at Illinois and a 10-point outing against Rutgers in the final five games of 2018, the needle trended upward for Durham.
Before the first outburst against Illinois, it had been nearly three months since he’d hit double digits. Yet, Durham insisted no adjustments had been made to that point.
“My teammates and coaches have always had confidence in me, so nothing has really changed,” Durham said at the time. “It's just been following them.”
Some said it was confidence, others sided with limited ability, but no matter the cause, Durham’s offensive game was inconsistent at best.
With an offseason to refocus, Durham showed Wednesday what a difference a year makes. Against the No. 24 team in the nation, he was here there and everywhere on both ends of the floor.
“Ultimately my teammates pushing me and my coaches pushing me every day during the summer, off-season, during the season,” Durham said of how he initiated his transformation. “Just continued to get reps and become a better player than I was last year.”
Miller said postgame that McRoberts and Green are sidelined indefinitely. That implies increased minutes for Durham.
That said, if the throttling of Marquette was any indication of things to come, Miller will have an energetic, 6-foot-4-inch Georgian Swiss army knife at his disposal.
Like what you're reading? Support independent, award-winning college journalism on this site. Donate here.
More in Sports
Oladipo said he wants to focus on rehabbing his right leg.
Maurice Creek and Remy Abell are both on the court for team Sideline Cancer.
Changes include allowing quarterbacks to throw to receivers.