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Justin Smith could be Indiana’s most important player

The Sophomore’s development will have a huge impact on IU’s season

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Fair or not, when Romeo Langford donned an Indiana hat on April 30, expectations for Archie Miller’s second winter in Bloomington skyrocketed. Some diehards believe this team can win the national championship, and the local media and the players themselves have not slowed down the hype train.

“My expectation is to win a national championship,” Langford said back on IU media day. “I don’t go into any season just trying to win a couple of games. I go in trying to win the whole, entire championship. My expectation for myself for (what I’m) bringing to the team, is just be the best I can be. I feel like me doing that is going to help the team be successful down the road.”

However, while Hoosiers throughout the state gear up for Indiana to be “back,” the national media has taken a more cautious approach on the upcoming season. Indiana is not ranked in either major preseason top 25 poll. Way-too-early bracketology (yes I am crazy enough to look at projections before the season starts) has the Hoosiers in the six to seven seed range— hardly in the Final Four discussion.

So why is there such a disconnect between how the fanbase and local media feel about the Hoosiers and how the national media media perceives IU? Well, part of the reason is because the people close to the program are usually more positive on the program than the national media on the peripheral. But the divide goes deeper than that for this year’s IU squad, where the major gap in opinion stems from the perception of “the other guys” on the IU roster.

While everyone agrees that Langford and Juwan Morgan form one of the best dynamic duos in college basketball, national pundits say there are major question marks about the rest of the roster. And they are right. The Hoosiers have a lot of talent other than Langford and Morgan, but it is unproven talent.

After Morgan and Langford, Archie Miller will need somebody to fill the role of being the third go-to guy the Hoosiers need to score game in and game out. In college basketball, it is nearly impossible to be a Final Four contender without somewhat balanced scoring, and while Langford and Morgan will be great for the Hoosiers this season, they in an absolute best case scenario will “only” score about 35-40 points a game. If that happens, the rest of the team to fill the other 30 to 35 (depending on the game) points needed to win consistantly. IU will need other constant scorers. While Evan Fitzner is a lights out three point shooter, he does not fill this void because the Saint Mary’s transfer doesn’t typically create his own shot.

Which brings us to Justin Smith. The 6-7, 227 pound freak of nature averaged 6.5 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Smith saw his playing time increase as the season went on, especially after De’Ron Davis tore his achilles midway through the season. In IU’s first game after the injury, Smith exploded for a career high 20 points on 7-10 shooting—including making the game winning three pointer with 2 minutes left—in 26 minutes to lead IU to a 75-71 victory at Minnesota. Smith was unable to turn that performance into his standard though, as he only had one double digit output in the next ten games. Smith showed his potential again when he averaged 15 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in IU’s last four regular season games.

Smith, already able-bodied, hit the weight room hard this summer to take his athleticism to the next level. Smith showed his athletic ability during the summer when he broke the IU record for a max vertical leap as he skied 48 inches, six inches higher than the previous program record held by current NBA star Victor Oladipo.

Smith showed off his hops Thursday’s scrimmage against Southern Indiana, when he caught and crammed an alley-oop over a pair of USI defenders.

But for Indiana to realize their potential, the Buffalo Grove native is going to need to be more than just a high leaper. Archie Miller noted that Smith has to be stronger around the rim to become a constant threat to finish around the basket.

“The biggest thing for Justin, in my mind, is to obviously use that great talent and athleticism and get points on the board,” Miller said during IU media day. “So many times a year ago, you saw the explosive jump but you didn’t see the two points get on the board, or you didn’t get the and-one. … I think that’s something we’ve really hammered home with him in terms of his concentration level because he could probably put four to five more points on the board for us this season with the amount of repetitions he’s going to get, the amount of minutes that he’ll get.”

Smith will also have to improve his jumpshot. The sophomore only attempted ten triples all of last season, and made three of them (two coming in that Minnesota game). While Smith does not have to shoot at an Evan Fitzner like clip from long range, being a threat would open up the floor for Langford to drive or Morgan to post up.

If Smith is able to improve those two facets of his game, as well as continue to progress as a defender, he can be a phenomenal combo forward hybrid that can take Indiana from a top thirty sure fire tournament team to (best case) a Final Four contender.