Thompson embodies tough-minded Hoosiers heading to Mackey

Race Thompson can tell you what’s different about this Indiana team right now, particularly on the defensive end.

And that’s because he’s played a large part in shaping the outcome.

“I would say, overall, toughness,” Thompson said. “Just really find a way to be as tough as we can.”

It’s a refreshing word to associate with the Hoosiers, because it wasn’t so long ago that coach Archie Miller was left to question that quality in his team. At the end of a four-game losing streak, a disappointing loss to Purdue, the Hoosiers’ defense was uninspired. The Boilermakers bled IU with precise cuts and screens, picking their rival apart.

But as the Hoosiers enter a rematch with Purdue at Mackey Arena, there seems to have been a change of course. In back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Penn State, IU’s defense has been more intense for longer stretches, creating the backbone for three victories in four games.

On the other hand, Purdue (14-14, 7-10 Big Ten) has dropped four in a row, struggling to produce points consistently.

If the Hoosiers (18-9, 8-8) keep those trends moving in the same direction, it will be because of their toughness, brought out in a hostile road arena. It should be inspired by a 6-foot-8 forward who can’t go a minute without a skirmish for the ball — a player who was fresh off of an injury and not quite 100 percent the first time IU met Purdue.

The defense has tied together strong outings for the Hoosiers, and Thompson seems to have played an outsized role individually. In their last three wins, the Hoosiers have scored 50 more points than their opponents during Thompson’s nearly 71 minutes on the floor.

“He’s playing career-best basketball,” Miller said. “He’ll play a big role for us coming down the stretch. Rebounding and defense is obviously of the utmost importance, playing with a high motor right now defensively.

“He’s giving us a chance to kind of get better. We are probably as good in back-to-back settings this past week as we’ve been maybe all season long. Race’s minutes played is probably a big reason why.”

The question is whether the Hoosiers can go back-to-back-to-back, especially at a place like Mackey, facing an opponent they haven’t beaten in six straight meetings.

The challenge for IU defensively remains the same. Purdue can throw a variety of challenging post matchups at the Hoosiers, specifically 6-9 sophomores Trevion Williams and Aaron Wheeler.

Williams is physical inside. Wheeler went 3-of-3 from 3-point range versus the Hoosiers last time out.

With two bigs on the floor, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Joey Brunk, it can be difficult for IU to guard fours and fives out to the 3-point line. Thompson may offer the perfect blend of physicality and versatility to match up.

“He gives you a guy who kind of knows what he’s doing out there in terms of his role and he’s playing really hard,” Miller said. “He gives you another guy out there that’s competing at a pretty high level. From a defensive standpoint, he gives us some mobility.”

Thompson has also shown more of a comfort offensively. While he isn’t shooting a ton of 3s — he’s 3-of-10 on the year — he’s not someone defenses can just ignore out there. And on the inside, he’s not only found second chances, but he’s looked for opportunities to score.

Against Iowa, Minnesota, and Penn State, Thompson took six shots apiece. He had only one conference game with four shot attempts (Nebraska) prior to that, and there were only three other games where he attempted a trio.

“I knew I had it in me. I think the team knew I had it in me,” Thompson said. “I don’t think it’s coming as a real surprise to anybody on the team, the coaches or the players or anybody. It’s every day in practice, just a confidence thing. When it comes to games, confidence is really the main thing.”

The last time these two teams played, Thompson logged just 7:37 of court time. He was 0-of-1 from the floor and grabbed only one rebound.

Thompson’s short first outing against Purdue was emblematic of what the Hoosiers lacked. They were outscored 33-17 in bench points, which included a 1-of-7 effort from senior guard Devonte Green.

The very next game, Green exploded for 27 points on Iowa, including seven 3s. Thompson added 10 points. IU’s bench outpaced the Hawkeyes’ unit, 45-16.

And it isn’t just those two. In recent games, senior De’Ron Davis has provided more quality minutes. Redshirt freshman Jerome Hunter has hit big shots. IU’s depth has better reached its potential, and it’s paid off in the win column.

“I think guys know what’s going on right now in terms of roles on our team,” Miller said. “I think guys know if they play well, they’ll play more. But we don’t really have an unhappy group in terms of dealing with three or four guys that are unhappy. We are past that.

“I think guys have seen the value of just staying with it and having their moments in games. … Every guy, every single guy on our team, whether they play a minute, don’t play, they are bringing it every day in practice. And that gives you the confidence to go in the game and compete.”

Miller has often used boxing analogies with his team, splitting the game into “rounds.” From time to time, the other team is going to land shots.

But with some confidence and some toughness, the Hoosiers can pull through. That’s something a scrapper like Thompson has certainly taken to heart.

“Just continue to play as hard as we can,” Thompson said. “I mean, the toughest team for the longest time, and that’s how we win games.”

2 comments

  1. Well, that was about as bad of a half as I’ve seen in a year full of bad halves.

    Our upperclassmen are making freshman mistakes time and time again. Bad shot selections, unforced turnovers and they are barely moving without the ball. There was a sequence where they got the ball low to TDJ, he was double teamed and a guy on the perimeter (forgot who it was), could have cut the hoop. They ALL just stood there and TJD got swallowed.

    Why is Justin Smith shooting 18 ft jumpers early in the shot clock? Did he hit one in in practice and now he thinks he’s Pete Maravich?

    Is it next year yet?

  2. Even worse 2nd half.

    With 15 min left, we have 20 points, 3 assists and 9 turnovers. 7 of them from our “guards.”

    This is the single worst offensive performance I’ve witnessed since high school when our freshman girls team won a game 4 – 2.

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