BLOOMINGTON – A pair of programs that appear to be somewhat ahead of schedule face off at Assembly Hall this afternoon.
Indiana and Minnesota are both in Year 1 under new coaching regimes – IU's Mike Woodson and new Golden Gophers coach Ben Johnson are former players for the teams they now coach, though Woodson is 22 years Johnson's senior – and both teams have gotten off to better starts than many expected. That's especially true of Minnesota, which was projected to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten after a transitional offseason produced a roster full of transfers. But the Golden Gophers bucked expectations and started 7-0 before stumbling against conference title contenders Michigan State and, more recently, Illinois.
Indiana had higher expectations for this season, but was still picked to finish in the middle of the Big Ten pack. That's where it sits right now, 20% of the way through the conference schedule, but it's coming off the first ranked win of the Woodson Era, a 67-51 dismantling of No. 13 Ohio State at Assembly Hall on Thursday. While the Buckeyes were rusty and somewhat out of shape in just their second game after a three-week break because of coronavirus issues, the resounding victory was the most emphatic signal yet Woodson has his team on the right track. It remains unclear whether Indiana can actually outperform those middling preseason projections, but the Hoosiers finally saw their full potential against the Buckeyes and there's reason to believe it gave them a boost of confidence.
In that way, today's game against the Golden Gophers will be clarifying. After such an important victory, are the Hoosiers mentally tough enough to get up for another game, this time one in which they are favored to easily win? Woodson praised his team for playing a full 40 minutes against the Buckeyes. Can Indiana do it again today? Can the Hoosiers make such efforts the norm rather than outlier? We'll begin to find out this afternoon.
One Indiana player who will very likely turn in a strong effort this afternoon is Minneapolis native Race Thompson. Thompson's father was a star running back for the Golden Gophers in the late 1980s and he was recruited hard by Minnesota, out of high school and again when he put his name in the transfer portal following the dismissal of former Indiana coach Archie Miller. He decided to throw his lot in with Woodson rather than Johnson and that appears to have been a pretty good decision in retrospect: the fifth-year senior is averaging 10.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals and shooting 68% from 2-point range. Those are All-Big Ten-type numbers and they don't even fully encompass Thompson's defensive performance, which was central to Indiana's win over the Buckeyes. Thompson (with an assist from backup forward Jordan Geronimo) made life difficult for Ohio State forward EJ Liddell, who scored just 11 points (8.6 below his incoming season average) on 3-for-12 shooting.
Thompson will have to turn in a similar defensive effort today against a similar player, Golden Gophers forward Jamison Battle. Like Liddell, Battle stands 6-foot-7. Like Liddell, Battle can score from anywhere on the court. Like Liddell, Battle is posting better than 18 points and six rebounds per contest. Battle transferred to Minnesota from George Washington, but is a Minnesota native and he and Thompson faced off on the state's high school's basketball circuit, giving Thompson some familiarity with his adversary. If Thompson can limit Battle one-on-one, Indiana will have a clear path to victory.
Indiana will also help its cause if it rebounds like it did against Ohio State. The Hoosiers out-toughed the laboring Buckeyes on the boards, winning the rebounding battle 41-33, the type of effort for which Woodson has been pining. Trayce Jackson-Davis was a force on the glass with 12 rebounds and he could eat again today against a Minnesota team that is among the nation's worst in rebounding margin, ranking 327th at minus-5. Indiana didn't shoot particularly well against the Buckeyes, going only 2 for 15 from 3-point range, but it gave itself extra opportunities with offensive rebounds.
Minnesota is ahead of schedule and has already exceeded expectations this season, but the Golden Gophers remain a team in flux (even relative to Indiana, which is saying something). The bottom line is: a serious NCAA Tournament contender, a designation to which the Hoosiers aspire, wins this game. It doesn't have to be pretty. In fact, Minnesota will probably try to make it ugly. There's no need for style points here – gutting out a victory to get above .500 in Big Ten play would be perfectly acceptable.