First off, I have to give it up to women's basketball player Drey Mingo today. Three and a half weeks ago she was lying in a hospital near death with bacterial meningitis. Today she returned to the court for two minutes of action in the ladies' 76-56 victory over Auburn to start the Boilermaker Blockbuster. This is a tragic story that thankfully had a very happy ending today. The fact she is alive at all is a miracle in itself.
I was excited to see out Boilers play in person today. I completed my Christmas shopping early, finishing up for my sister, and headed downtown to hit the scalpers for a ticket. A sweet street deal later I was in Conseco Fieldhouse, where the last time I saw the Boilers play in person we barely knew where the north basket was in a dreadful first half against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. At first the crown looked sparse, but as tipoff neared the lower two sections were mostly full with the upper level blocked off.
Indiana State brought a very good crowd today. In a way, I think it helped us because it felt like a true neutral court game. These are the types of games we will face in March, and the Sycamores definitely responded to their supporters. I will give them credit, they played tough defense and really limited us in the first half.
Fortunately, JaJuan Johnson came to play. People are going to get on us all year because JJ and E'Twaun do their thing, while the supporting cast rotates seemingly every night. You know what? It doesn't matter. All we need to do is score at least one more point than the other team. For awhile tonight JJ looked like he was going to do it by himself. Eventually, everyone else caught up and the second half was E'Twaun's half. I have no problem with bitching about double victories, which we've been able to do in nine of 11 games so far.
Positives from the Indiana State game:
Kelsey Barlow - Yes, I said GDB. Today was his biggest step forward, and he only scored three late points from the free throw line. Today GDB did exactly what he needed to do. He crashed the boards with reckless abandon to gather 11 rebounds. You cannot underestimate what 11 rebounds from a player like GDB can do. I have said all along he can be our best rebounder because few people have his athleticism. If he gets in the right spot, he is getting the board. In a way, he could be our Dennis Rodman. I think his offense will be sporadic, but if he can be a steady contributor on the glass that will be a huge boost.
JaJuan Johnson - As Indiana State learned in the first half, he is a good player. For the entire first half all we had to do was give him the ball and he was going to score. Indiana State was helpless to stop him.
Ryne Smith - I saw a lot of nice little things out of The Love Pump today. His baskets were a quick release three and a backdoor cut where he scored on a perfect feed from Lewis Jackson. His three came during my favorite stretch of the game. For about three minutes late in the first half we didn't have JJ or E'Twaun on the floor. Ryne hit the only basket in the stretch, but I felt like the offense opened up and we got some good looks that didn't fall. Sandi Marcius played in this stretch and had two very good rebounds. Unfortunately, he also had a short sky hook and an avalanche of a charge. This unit played strong D and didn't give up anything while our big guns rested. It doesn't really show up in the box score, but if a similar unit can give us 3-5 minutes per night where the lead doesn't shrink, that only shortens the game. You cannot overstate the importance of that.
D.J. Byrd and LewJack - Again, it is all about the little things. D.j. Byrd is giving us hustle plays that are bordering on Kramer-esque. He can also score unexpectedly on any given night. LewJack seems to know exactly when the defense is tired and he can wreck havoc by driving and either scoring, drawing a foul, or passing off for an easy score. He is very much a rhythm player. He can sense the tempo threshold of a defense and push it to the breaking point late in games.
Little Things - Maybe I am totally delusional and trying to convince myself that this is a National Title caliber team. That has me looking for the Little Things that prove to be keys to victory. We need them if we're going to be a good team. We're going to get great effort from JJ and E'Twaun every night because, frankly, we're not going to have a chance if they don't. The other Little Things, like GDB's rebounds, LewJack's tempo, Ryno's little hustle plays, etc., what will make the difference. Tonight I noticed a lot of that in what was an otherwise business-like win.
Negatives from the Indiana State game:
Terone Johnson - TJ had another rough game, but I still feel like he will get on track. His confidence is going to come in a game where we least expect it.
3-point shooting - This was probably our worst game from long range, but it could be a benefit in the long run. I feel like we have relied on it too much. Tonight it wasn't working, so we looked for JJ down low and had some nice drives by E'Twaun, LewJack, and GDB that produced points either through the drive or the dump off.
We only have one more game until Big Ten play, so Tuesday night, against a solid IPFW team, is a dress rehearsal. People can rip on us, but we have learned from our stumble against a mid-major. Illinois just had theirs. Tennessee was exposed by two this week. We're improving, and that is all that matters. All we need to do is score one more point than the other team by any means necessary. So far, we've done that in every game save one. The fact we've shown improvement is only gravy.