Last season’s trip to Williams Arena, better known as “The Barn,” on the campus of the University of Minnesota for the IU men’s basketball team marked the breakout performance for then-freshman forward Justin Smith.
The Jan. 6, 2018, contest saw Smith score what is still his career-high in points for the Hoosiers with 20, which came as part of an efficient seven of 10 shooting performance from the field.
That victory was one of only three road wins in conference play the Hoosiers had during IU Head Coach Archie Miller’s first season, but Smith’s performance gave a prelude to the potential future of the program.
Thirteen months later, IU is set to return to Minneapolis in an unenviable spot in terms of both the conference standings and its recent form, something exemplified by the recent play of Smith.
Over IU’s last 10 games, Smith has averaged 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, although those performances have come with outliers. On one end of the spectrum was Smith’s showing during IU’s win at Michigan State on Feb. 2, in which he played 35 minutes while recording a double-double.
“He did a really nice job against Michigan State,” Miller said last week. “He was really engaged defensively, made a lot of plays, awareness plays over the ball.”
Miller praised Smith’s communication with his teammates, especially during transition play, as part of the reason for his success against the Spartans. This came with several frontcourt players receiving significant minutes for IU following the injury suffered by senior forward Juwan Morgan.
It allowed Smith, along with freshman forward Jake Forrester and junior forward De’Ron Davis, to log playing time for the Hoosiers during critical moments of the upset win.
“Being able to help not only Jake at times, or Juwan at times, or even De’Ron at times, to get them organized and get them matched up,” Miller said.
But, similarly to IU in general, Smith’s offensive and defensive momentum from the game didn’t extend into IU’s play last week. Home losses to then-No. 20 Iowa and Ohio State saw Smith continue his Jekyll-and-Hyde consistency.
He had just six points and two rebounds in the Iowa loss, while his statistics marginally improved to eight points and three rebounds in the Ohio State defeat.
The games also featured maddening sequences from Smith where he would air ball a jump shot during a stagnant offensive possession, only to thunder down the court a few plays later and make a strong cut to receive the ball and finish at the rim.
Defensively, Smith’s error near the end of the game against Ohio State allowed the Buckeyes to easily score the winning basket, although his three-block performance against Michigan State showed his defensive competency.
Miller said that for offensive success, Smith needs to continue creating action via screens and making timely plays. At the other end of the court, Miller just wants Smith to continue playing hard, with Smith’s next opportunity to recapture his stellar play coming at the site of one of his best games in the cream and crimson.
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