Even after a loss, redshirt freshman forward Jerome Hunter put somewhat of a smile on his teammate’s face. He was back in his home state of Ohio — the Schottenstein Center at Ohio State is about 20 miles from Hunter’s high school, Pickerington North. Hunter had just finished another strong performance off the bench, doing it in front of his family and friends..
In the postgame media scrum, he was asked about his improved shooting this season. And that made sophomore guard Rob Phinisee crack a small grin for his teammate.
“I like shooting the ball a lot,” Hunter said following the Hoosiers 68-59 loss to his hometown Buckeyes. “Shooting the ball, I feel like, is my bread and butter. I’m going to keep shooting it, hope it keeps going in.”
Hunter missed his freshman season with a lower leg injury. He looked from the sideline as last year’s team crashed out of the projected NCAA tournament field. Through the first half of his first full season, Hunter’s shots weren’t falling and he was barely playing.
Entering this season, Miller looked at Hunter as a true freshman. In the opening games of the season against the weakest competition, Hunter showed flashes of the ability his high school highlight reel showed. But it was inconsistent. As the competition picked up, Hunter started to become a more integral role player off the bench.
But as the calendar turns to February, everything is starting to go right.
In the midst of the middling offensive displays and late collapses during IU’s three-game losing streak, it has seen more consistent flashes of Hunter’s potential. Hunter is looking comfortable with IU for the first time.
He’s played at least 19 minutes in four of his last six games. In Hunter’s last two games, against Maryland and at Ohio State, he played the most minutes of his career with 27 and 28, respectively.
Against Maryland on Jan. 26 in Bloomington, Hunter tied his career high with 12 points, including three crucial 3-pointers. His shots fueled what was one of the Hoosiers' best offensive performances of the season.
“He's starting to look the part,” IU head coach Archie Miller said after IU’s loss to Maryland. “His legs look stronger. I think, if you just watch him right now, he has a much better bounce about him on the floor than he's had. It's taken him a while to get to this point.”
Hunter didn't play against Penn State, and the team's dropoff in offensive production was notable. Against Ohio State on Saturday, Hunter was a lone positive when the offense struggled again. He scored nine points, including two 3-pointers.
“Now he's playing, and he's playing more and more, which is a big thing for our team,” Miller said after the Jan. 26 loss to Maryland. “He's added value in a lot of ways. He's doing a better job defensively. He ends up getting double figures here tonight but made three big shots, but that's what he can do. He can add some offensive firepower."
When Hunter’s shot is falling, IU’s offense suddenly has some extent of a 3-point shooting game. After losing to Ohio State, IU was ranked 327th nationally in 3-pointers made.
But Hunter is 7-13 from three in his last four games, and that includes a performance against Michigan State where Hunter did not attempt a shot from behind the arc. He was just 4-28 in the 16 prior games played. As a forward, Hunter has stretched the floor and provided an offensive element that has been noticeably lacking throughout Miller’s tenure in Bloomington.
“Each game I’m just trying to get better and each game I’m just starting to get more and more comfortable,” Hunter said after the loss to Ohio State. “I think that’s the biggest part is just playing games, getting the reps I need to be out there on the court to help us win games.”
Hunter is already a player whom Miller has praised for his reliable defense, who has the size to guard inside as well as the wingspan and athleticism to play on the perimeter. That has come over the course of the season as Hunter has seen his minutes increase.
Now the offense is beginning to follow suit.
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