TJD at the center of IU’s late-season hopes

Indiana coach Archie Miller is reminded of Trayce Jackson-Davis’ 16 rebounds at Minnesota, and he can’t help but marvel at the number.

That’s 16 rebounds, as a freshman. That’s 16 rebounds, on the road, in the Big Ten.

Sixteen rebounds.

“That’s a serious number,” Miller said Monday during his radio show. “That’s like getting 40 if you’re scoring.”

The number by itself is impressive, but it’s so much more significant because of how it came to be. Just a few days before that 27-point, 16-rebound effort at Minnesota, the Hoosiers’ 6-foot-9 forward was nearly absent at Michigan.

He didn’t just shoot 2-of-3 from the field. Jackson-Davis pulled down only two rebounds, a paltry total for such a long, athletic talent.

In a player’s debut season, it’s perfectly normal for them to hit a metaphorical wall sometime in January or February, worn down by the rigors of a collegiate season. Especially for a big man in what’s considered the most physical conference in the country.

But the Hoosiers haven’t had the luxury of letting Jackson-Davis take a back seat. He’s their leader in points (14.1 ppg), rebounds (8.1 rpg), field goal percentage (58.3%), free throws made (106), free throws attempted (152), and blocked shots (51) — one of four freshmen nationally to lead their team in those categories.

As TJD goes, IU goes.

“We talked a lot about, leaving Michigan, that wasn’t going to happen again,” Miller said. “The way he was a non-factor, that can’t happen. When your best player statistically across every category — and I’ve said this even to him — doesn’t post in the game, you’re not going to win.

“That’s just the way it is. The fact he’s a freshman, it’s not fair, but it is what it is. He’s gotta play.”

So to see Jackson-Davis break through a freshman wall and average 20 points and 13 rebounds in wins over Minnesota and No. 9 Penn State, it’s not just a boon for him as an individual. It bodes well for IU’s cause as the program seeks to make its first NCAA tournament in Miller’s tenure.

Down the stretch, the Hoosiers need a productive TJD.

“So much for a young guy, the wear and tear, just kind of wears you down a little bit. You can see even older guys going through ruts,” Miller said. “But he’s really fought through January and I think he’s primed right now. He knows the time is now for us to step up.”

Excluding the Michigan loss, there has been a renewed emphasis on putting Jackson-Davis at the center of the offense. For the season, he has averaged 8.7 shot attempts per game, but Jackson-Davis averaged 14.7 attempts in victories over Iowa, Minnesota, and Penn State.

That’s not totally a function of plays designed specifically to put the ball in Jackson-Davis’ hands. Miller points to those 16 rebounds with such glee because the freshman makes opportunities for himself with how active he is on the glass. He’s also more than mobile enough to hammer down dunks in transition, as he did off of a savvy pass from senior De’Ron Davis versus Penn State.

At the same time, Miller mentions post-ups and acknowledges there can’t be entire games where Jackson-Davis doesn’t get one. And the Hoosiers’ guards have been doing a better job finding him, allowing him the opportunity to create. Jackson-Davis backed down 6-9 junior John Harrar for a post bucket versus Penn State, and he later spun past Lamar Stevens for a strong and-1 dunk.

When he has the ball, Jackson-Davis doesn’t play with blinders on, either. He’s a more-than-willing passer, looking for Jerome Hunter, Al Durham, and Devonte Green on the perimeter. Green, in particular, is 14-of-29 from 3-point range in his last four games.

“That’s been a big part, too, getting open shots for our shooters when they double down,” Jackson-Davis said Sunday after the Hoosiers’ win.

IU wants to play inside-out, and in the Hoosiers’ frontcourt, the future of the program seems to be taking shape.

Jackson-Davis has been a star all year, but redshirt sophomore Race Thompson, who had his debut season marred by injury, has given IU a tangible boost in physicality underneath. Hunter, who missed his entire true freshman season, has not only started to hit shots — he stymied Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu on a block at the rim.

Thompson averaged 23 minutes per game in IU’s two wins last week, more than 10 minutes above his season average. Hunter has logged 20-plus minutes in five of his last seven games; he’s averaged 14.2 minutes a game on the year.

“The one thing you don’t have to worry about (Hunter), he’s fearless,” Miller said. “He’s not thinking about things when he’s out there. Sometimes, early in the season, you are like ‘Holy cow,’ the shot he just took. But that’s who he is.

“Those guys, you love to have ’em, because they are the ones, when the money is on the line, they are not afraid.”

Miller went on to talk about the “ante” being raised in the final four games of the regular season. At Purdue, then at Illinois, the Hoosiers are going to need their best performances to date, because so much is on the line for every team in the Big Ten conference.

And with so much at stake, Miller will need Jackson-Davis to travel well. Because if he’s rebounding and hitting shots, the Hoosiers are just a better team. They are 9-0 on the year when the freshman logs a double-double.

“That’s where it starts with him, and that’s where it’s going to finish for our team here down the stretch,” Miller said. “He’s gotta be not only a focal point but he has to be one of the main cogs right now that’s doing a good job for us.”

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