After going 259 days since its last game, the IU men’s basketball team took the court against Tennessee Tech on Wednesday night at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers defeated the Golden Eagles, 89-59.
But the Hoosiers didn’t return to the same roaring Assembly Hall crowd they left last March. Instead, most of its 17,000 seats remain empty — except for the ones filled by fan cardboard cutouts or the approximately 100 friends and family members of players.
Despite the differences — masks, plexiglass and distanced seating — they tried to mimic the normal game experience as much as possible.
When the Hoosiers ran out of the tunnel before the game, they did it to “Indiana Our Indiana,” like they always do. But it was a pre-recorded version, and there was no tunnel of cheerleaders for them to run through. They still showed the introduction hype video, too.
Even as they played all the music and tried to mimic IU’s traditions, the experience still wasn’t the same. When the Hoosiers won the tip-off, there was no large crowd on their feet cheering for junior guard Rob Phinisee when he scored.
“It’s different, but we got it out of the way,” IU head coach Archie Miller said. “I’m glad college basketball is up and running.”
All that echoed through the stadium was the sound of Adidas squeaking on the floor and the recorded fan noise on the loop that never stopped — not even during IU’s free throws.
“You’ve got to create your own energy,” sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said.
He said playing without fans was different and the team started off slow because of it. Jackson-Davis found he needed to get energy from his teammates instead of the crowd. And once they figured that out, that’s exactly what they did.
“Sorry, I lost my voice screaming too much,” freshman guard Trey Galloway said.
And along with the differences due to the COVID-19 pandemic came differences for the Hoosiers’ squad.
Miller tried out a smaller lineup with three guards — especially since redshirt senior center Joey Brunk was out with a back injury. With the faster lineup, the Hoosiers forced turnovers and pushed the ball in transition to score 19 points on fast breaks and force 20 turnovers.
Even with the change in pace, Miller still wasn’t happy with some of the problems that haven’t changed for the Hoosiers yet. He said to have a good transition offense, the team still needs to make 3-pointers and hit open shots. The Hoosiers shot just 26% from 3-point range against Tennessee Tech.
Miller also criticized the team’s ability to rebound. IU only brought down 10 offensive rebounds for second-chance opportunities.
“My biggest concern right now is our ability to rebound and take care of it,” Miller said.
He said the Hoosiers are deficient in rebounding, with Jackson-Davis and junior forward Race Thompson being the only two that can rebound consistently.
Not all of the similarities between this season and last season were bad either.
IU remained dominant down low — scoring 58 of its 89 total points in the paint. Jackson-Davis led the team with 26 points in 30 minutes of action.
But even as much as the team wants to play the same style of basketball it did in March, Miller said some aspects of the game still stand out. He said communication with the team is different and the spaced-out benches are an adjustment. And most importantly, he said they missed having fan energy to feed off of.
With COVID-19 precautions, empty stands and a man with a backpack full of disinfectant that he sprayed all over the benches at halftime, college basketball isn’t the same experience it was eight months ago.
But even amid the change, they tried to show some semblance of normalcy throughout the game.
When the buzzers sounded for the under-eight minute timeout, the trumpets for the William Tell Overture started over the speakers. The Hoosiers kept up the tradition in a virtual way — including footage from past games and fans across the country.
“It was good to get back on the floor,” Miller said. “We were all anticipating what it was going to feel like. It’s greatly different.”