Indiana’s Justin Smith is just hitting his stride as season winds down

Indiana forward Justin Smith (3) scores on a dunk in front of Ohio State guard Andrew Dakich (13) during the second half of a game Friday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana's Justin Smith dunks the ball during a game against Iowa earlier this season in Iowa City, Iowa. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana forward Justin Smith, center, goes to the basket in front of Ohio State center Micah Potter, left, and forward Keita Bates-Diop during the first half of a game in Bloomington Friday. (By The Associated Press)

Thirty games into a college basketball season the freshmen are supposed to be fading into a cloud of fatigue. However, in the case of Indiana forward Justin Smith, he is just getting going.

The 6-foot-7 athlete was one of three Hoosiers in double figures Friday, as Indiana nearly knocked off Big Ten power Ohio State at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, before falling 80-78 on a last-second shot in double overtime.

“He’s probably playing career-best basketball for him,” first-year Indiana coach Archie Miller said in a post-game press conference. “He’s had double figures in a lot of games.”

Eight to be exact.

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In the Hoosiers’ initial 26 games this season, Smith produced in double figures four times. However, that number has been matched in each of Indiana’s last four outings.

Smith hit 7 of 13 shots against the 15th-ranked Buckeyes (24-7, 15-3 Big Ten) and finished with 16 points. He is averaging 15 points per game over the last four games.

“I think you’re seeing a guy with a lot more confidence (and is) physical around the basket,” Miller said. “I mentioned he’s playing tougher on both ends of the floor.”

It isn’t difficult to take notice of Smith on the court because he is as athletic as any player in most games. The difference of late, however, is that he is tapping into that ability more often.

“I’ve seen him grow a lot,” Hoosier junior forward Juwan Morgan said of Smith. “It translates from practice. He’s finishing really well, focusing more getting to the rim and putting it in the basket.”

Morgan is Indiana’s best player, but he recently took credit for a bit of coaching as it related to Smith’s improvement.

“We used to call him a practice dunker,” Morgan explained, “because he could always dunk it hard in practice, but he never was trying to dunk on anybody in the games. Now he’s attacking the rim with that kind of aggressiveness.”

Miller could barely take Smith off the floor against Ohio State.

Smith has averaged just a touch over 14 minutes per game this season, but Miller played him 37 against the Buckeyes. It was by far the most he had played all season.

“He’s doing some of the things that he needs to do to be successful,” Miller said. “He’s using his athleticism and he’s a lot more forceful on his drives. I just think he’s playing with a lot more confidence in and around the basket.”

Smith’s evolution hasn’t been limited to just explosive offensive plays. Miller said that he has grown and is making an impact defensively, as well.

“Defensively,” Miller said, “not only against Iowa, not only against Iowa and Illinois, but also even in our recent game against Nebraska, I thought he took a step up defensively. He really took on the challenge of some perimeter-oriented guys, driving the ball.

“I thought he did a good job, maybe his best, one of his best overall games to be honest with you.”

No one within the Indiana program (16-14, 9-9) is ready for this season to be over as of yet. But Miller admitted to being very excited about next season in terms of where Smith’s game is going to be.

“It’s good to see freshmen finishing strong,” Miller said. “That’s a big part of their development is at the end of the season showing that they got to a point where they feel good about themselves.

“He’s building confidence. He should go into the offseason ready and motivated and I think he can obviously be a game-changer as a sophomore with the amount of experience he’s gotten.”

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