When the NCAA Tournament selection committee announced Indiana men’s basketball would finally take part in March Madness again after a six-year hiatus, it meant all 17 players on the team would make their debut in the big dance.
This was enough cause for belief that nerves might run high for some of the Hoosiers when they stepped foot on the court at UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio, for their First Four matchup against the University of Wyoming. The prevalent questions before Thursday’s game mainly centered around junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and sophomore forward Jordan Geronimo.
Could Jackson-Davis carry over his scoring load from the Big Ten Tournament into his one-on-one matchup with Wyoming sophomore forward Graham Ike? Would Geronimo, who missed Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal game against Iowa with a knee injury, be able to return so soon for Indiana?
When the final buzzer sounded just short of midnight, it was the pair of Hoosier forwards Indiana fans had to thank for keeping the team’s dance alive. Through the duo’s performances, Indiana booked a trip to the first round against No. 5 seed St. Mary’s College on Thursday in Portland, Oregon.
"We just kept grinding,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said. “Trayce was who he’s been pretty much all year. In tournament play you find the guy who steps up. (Geronimo) was that guy tonight."
Jackson-Davis continued his run of leaving elite opposing big men in the dust by scoring a game-high 29 points, tying former Hoosier player Steve Downing’s record for most points by an Indiana player in their NCAA Tournament debut game. Jackson-Davis has now scored 20 or more points in four straight games.
Whether it be through elusive moves in the post or relentless downhill attacks, Jackson-Davis caused too many problems for Ike and senior forward Hunter Thompson to deal with alone. The Indiana star was usually on the wrong end of foul trouble in regular-season play, but he’s taken a more proactive approach during Indiana’s recent stretch of postseason games.
By halftime, Jackson-Davis led Indiana with 14 points on 4-6 shooting. His ability to get to the free-throw line forced Ike and Thompson to the bench with two and three fouls, respectively, for important periods during the low-scoring first-half. Those absences for Wyoming in the paint presented Jackson-Davis with easier scoring opportunities.
“It was a surreal environment,” Jackson-Davis said of his debut. “I've always dreamed about playing in this tournament and finally being able to live out that dream and just performing at the highest level. I'm truly grateful.”
On the other end of the court, Jackson-Davis and Indiana’s interior defense grinded out and succeeded against Wyoming’s post-up style of play. Ike and senior guard Hunter Maldonado, who lead the Cowboys offense with 19.6 and 18.4 points per game, respectively, were left frustrated by Indiana’s physicality and close-outs as they backed their way into contested hook shots.
Ike and Maldonado combined for 38 of the team’s 58 total points, while the rest of the Wyoming players shot 5-16 from the floor. Even though Maldonado carved out 21 points of his own, the Hoosiers completely took away his passing lanes as he posted up against Geronimo or junior forward Race Thompson. Of the Cowboy’s 19 total turnovers, 10 came from Maldonado.
Geronimo only scored 4 points in the first half, but he imposed his will from the moment Woodson called on him to fill in Thompson’s minutes. Despite the nagging knee injury, Geronimo showed his speedy recovery and bounce by slamming home three separate putback dunks.
“As the days went by, I started feeling a lot better and better,” Geronimo said. “I even surprised myself (with) how good I felt today. I just trusted my feeling.”
When Thompson was forced to the bench with three fouls early in the second half, Geronimo’s name was called again. He played 13 minutes in the second half, more than doubling his first-half total of six, and took over as Indiana’s second scoring option behind Jackson-Davis.
Lurking in the shadows of the packed paint, Geronimo’s lengthy arms more often than not found their way above the rest of the crowd. Because of this, Indiana won the second-chance points and offensive rebounding battles 16-6 and 19-5, respectively.
“He's a freak,” Jackson-Davis said of Geronimo. “That's what we call him: (a) freak of nature. Some of the things he does (are) just out of this world. He's blessed with God-given athleticism and talent.”
Geronimo’s finishing ability down low and shooting touch, which accounted for half of Indiana’s two 3-pointers on the night, earned him a career-high 15 points on 7-11 shooting with seven rebounds in the biggest game of his career.
It wasn’t the prettiest or most convincing game from the Hoosiers, but they found a way out of the First Four and into the 64-team bracket through something they’ve fallen back on so often in hard times: defense. The grind of March Madness will require more of it, and Indiana’s forwards are already living up to the challenge.