After a first-round win over Kent State University that ended in the early hours of Saturday morning, No. 4 Indiana men’s basketball will face the No. 5 University of Miami at 8:40 p.m. Sunday night.
The Hurricanes, who ended the regular season with a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference title, are one of the biggest guard-dominant teams in the NCAA Tournament. Led by junior Isaiah Wong — the reigning ACC Player of the Year — four Miami starters average over 13 points per game.
Wong, fifth-year senior Jordan Miller, sophomore Nijel Pack and sophomore Wooga Poplar make up a talented and deep Hurricane backcourt that loves to spread the floor and create shots for themselves. Each member of the guard quartet is capable of a career-best scoring performance on any given night, and making contested, low percentage shots is a routine part of their arsenals.
Even after struggling to defend offensive-minded guards as recently as eight days ago against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, the members of Indiana’s backcourt have confidence about Sunday night’s tough matchup with Miami.
“They’re good at the guard position, but Indiana basketball is good at the guard position, too,” freshman point guard Jalen Hood-Schifino said. “We have to be locked in, but Miami will have to be locked in, too.”
In addition to Hood-Schifino, junior guard Trey Galloway and sophomore guard Tamar Bates will have their hands full when it comes to defensive assignments. Despite uncharacteristically quiet performances from Wong and Miller in Miami’s first-round game — the two scored 19 points fewer than their combined season scoring average on just 18% shooting from the field — the Hoosiers know the Hurricanes have ample offensive weapons.
Pack and Poplar, usually Miami’s third and fourth options at the guard positions, combined for 36 points Friday night on 7-13 3-point shooting. But for Pack, an Indianapolis native, the Hoosiers have more familiarity than most opponents in trying to slow him down.
“I played with Nijel in AAU, so I know his game pretty well,” Galloway said. “He’s a good player, and he can do a lot of things — create for himself, create for others. It’s not just him, there’s other guys as well, but he’s a big piece of their offense.”
According to the Hoosier guards, playing in the Big Ten has prepared them well for a matchup like this. Even though it’s regarded as a big man’s conference, the presence of talented perimeter scorers is aplenty, leading to similar game plans from opponents of Indiana’s past like Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis and Michigan State’s Tyson Walker, according to Bates.
“That’s just the benefit of playing in the Big Ten: You play so many good guards,” Bates said. “This isn’t our first time seeing a team with a good amount of good perimeter players.”
It hasn’t been rare, but it also hasn’t been easy for Indiana to shut down shifty guards. Against the Jalen Picketts and the Jahmir Youngs of the world — All-Big Ten selections from Penn State and Maryland, respectively — the Hoosiers struggled to limit shot-creating efforts and force low-quality looks.
The message for Sunday, though? Team defense.
“We’re just trying to stick to our game plan,” Galloway said. “Obviously, there’s guys that can score at high rates, so if it’s someone’s night, we have to find ways to lock in on them and shut them down. As a collective unit, being able to stop guys as a team will be huge for us.”
And against Kent State, a complete defensive effort that held the Golden Flashes to their third-lowest point total of the season was the catalyst.
“Our defense was solid for 40 minutes,” Galloway said. “Communication was on point. We’re all on the same page defensively.”
Galloway will be tasked with switching off on Miami’s talented backcourt, but according to his teammates, he’s well equipped to lead the defensive charge.
“Trey just wreaks havoc out there — you can define it as organized chaos,” Bates said. “He flies around., he shoots the gaps, he’s up on ball screens, he blows up handoffs. When he does that, he sets the tone defensively.”
Sunday’s game will be a test of how Indiana’s roster can handle a different offensive style than it’s used to. Behind the guard trio of Hood-Schifino, Galloway and Bates, though, a locked-in Hoosier squad appears ready to take on the challenge with each other.
“We get a lot of reps together in practice, but we’re really close off the floor,” Bates said. “When you spend time with guys, you just trust each other out there. There is no unfamiliarity when you’re playing together.”