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IU basketball's win in Bahamas debut an encouraging first look at Mike Woodson’s team

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

PARADISE ISLAND, The Bahamas – IU impressed in the first of two exhibition games here in The Bahamas on Friday night, defeating Serbian side BC Mega 79-66.

Trayce Jackson-Davis led all players with 21 points and nine rebounds, but he was hardly the only standout on an encouraging first look at Mike Woodson’s team. Here are three reasons why:

Hoosiers fight it out

These sorts of things are intangible, of course, and therefore hard to quantify. But among the most basic questions we could’ve asked about Indiana going into Friday’s game was how prepared the Hoosiers would be to balance their hustle with their comfort in Mike Woodson’s system.

By their own admission, Woodson’s concepts have taken some time to absorb, unsurprising given he’s probably introduced some relatively advanced principles this summer. Was IU going to be able — against a professional outfit with a potential lottery pick and plenty of experience against college competition — to play hard and smart at the same time.

That question got an early and emphatic answer.

IU men's basketball team beats BC Mega in The Bahamas 79-66

The Hoosiers outworked Mega at both ends of the floor. On defense, they battled a size disadvantage with hard close-outs and good work on the boards. When they rebounded, they ran, as promised, and the Serbian side struggled to keep up in transition.

That the game was played according to college rules, with Big Ten referees, probably benefited the Hoosiers. It clearly took Mega time to adjust to a tighter whistle and less allowed contact. But none of that had to do with work ethic. Indiana executed that fast-paced offense without too many mistakes (only six first-half turnovers), and the expected faces paced the Hoosiers early on. Freshman guard Tamar Bates was particularly impressive, never looking out of place on a court crowded by experienced college players and current pros.

A late-half dip aside, Indiana’s 41-32 halftime lead was thoroughly deserved.

More:Insider: It's one exhibition game but Mike Woodson's Hoosiers looked really good

IU men's basketball team beats BC Mega in The Bahamas 79-66

Defense on point

It was clear Woodson had new directions in mind defensively when, during a Zoom news conference in the early weeks of his tenure, he replied to a question about Indiana’s preferred pack-line defense under Archie Miller by asking what it was.

On early evidence, Woodson is going pretty straight man-to-man. It looked good in its first test Friday night.

Facing a team with a decided size advantage, IU countered with great activity. Mega tried to play heavy on the ball, pressuring every screen and handoff. But Indiana had more success in results, forcing 27 turnovers and scoring 34 points from them.

There might not have been a more relevant statistic by the end of the game, both for the actual gap in points and also what it signified. Indiana punished Mega’s laziness in transition, stayed active in half-court defense and created numerous opportunities to run at the pace Woodson envisions. Only when BC was able to limit giveaways and force the Hoosiers into more half-court offense did the visitors have sustained success defending Indiana.

As with so much, we’re dealing with an enormous sample size issue here. But on first evidence, Indiana is responding to Woodson’s challenge — and his methods — on defense.

New-look backcourt acquits itself well

Woodson spent the spring and summer overhauling his guard rotation in the wake of Armaan Franklin’s departure.

Parker Stewart settled in after spending the back half of last season on the sideline. Xavier Johnson transferred in from Pitt. Tamar Bates, a one-time Texas signee, reopened his recruitment when Shaka Smart left for Marquette and wound up joining IU.

Blending them with returners Rob Phinisee, Khristian Lander, Trey Galloway and Anthony Leal was among Woodson’s greatest summer challenges, given the importance of guard play to his scheme. And that made Mega an ideal early opponent — the Serbian side would be physical, athletic and experienced enough to challenge those guards at both ends of the floor.

Leal sat out due to injury, but the rest of Woodson’s first backcourt looked good.

Phinisee, who struggled virtually across the board last winter, looked as assertive on the drive and as physical on defense as he ever has. Johnson provided the same creative spark that made him a standout at Pitt, despite foul trouble. Stewart hit tough shots. Galloway and Lander gave solid minutes off the bench.

Bates was probably the star, scoring 14 points and looking every inch the borderline five-star recruit he was billed coming to Bloomington from IMG Academy. He got IU fans out of their seats more than once.

There will be tougher days to come, of course. That’s true of all observations after an exhibition. But that new-look backcourt was more than adequate to the task Friday night, a deeply encouraging sign for Woodson ahead of the season to come.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter for updates from The Bahamas: @ZachOsterman.