Although you could argue it certainly hurt Indiana in the team's loss to Nebraska Wednesday at home, Noah Vonleh's inflamed foot may have been the best single thing that happened to fellow freshman Devin Davis's season.
After scoring 10 points, which still stands as his season-high, against Chicago State in the first game of the season, Davis has yet to fill a consistent role in IU's rotation. He played double-digit minutes in seven of IU first eight games this season, but since, he's failed to appear in three games while playing up-and-down minutes during the rest. His contributions have been sporadic at best. That is, until Wednesday night.
Vonleh was first announced unavailable less than an hour before IU's game with Ohio State last weekend. That day, it was Hanner Mosquera-Perea who got to flex his muscles, playing a season-high 15 minutes, while tying a season-high with eight points. Davis played just two minutes in IU's victory.
But against Nebraska, Vonleh was out again, a surprise to Crean and the rest of his team after Vonleh didn't feel like he could go during the team walk-through Wednesday morning. Jeff Howard got the start, the perfect storyline for his senior night, but Davis burst on the scene, playing 15 minutes while scoring seven points on 3-for-5 shooting on a night where most of his teammates struggled from the field.
Crean said after IU's 84-80 loss to Michigan that after seeing the amount Davis's game had grown combined with the uncertainty of Vonleh's condition, he decided late this past week that Davis would start in the five-spot, giving him his first career-start in the final regular season game of his freshman season.
"I thought (Devin) did a really good job the other night, and I knew either yesterday or Thursday that we would go with him (in the starting lineup) today based on that," Crean said. "We hoped that we would have Noah back but not having him in the starting lineup or have him prepare to be in the starting lineup. Devin did a fantastic job with that."
After seeing Davis's confidence and effectiveness growing against Nebraska, Crean said he saw an opportunity to create some consistency with his game, something that the rest of his freshmen – Stanford Robinson, Troy Williams and Vonleh alike – have struggled with at times this season.
"I think our whole story with our youth, and if you look around the country I don't think it's a big difference, when you look at the other teams that are playing any kind of young people that are freshmen and sometimes sophomores, it's inconsistency," Crean said. "You want to have a consistent team because you can't win without it, but at the same time you have to go through the growing pains of getting it."
Saturday night at Crisler Arena, Davis scored nine points in a perfect 4-for-4 performance from the field while also pulling down six boards, just second on the team to Vonleh. He played 25 minutes, four more than Vonleh did coming off the bench. He was also one of just two Hoosiers, alongside Jeremy Hollowell, who played double-digit minutes while not turning the ball over a single time, as his teammates coughed it up 12 times in the second half.
Michigan's Jordan Morgan was able to drive in the lane and score with ease on Davis during the first several minutes of the game, scoring his team's first six points on his own senior night, but after Davis adjusted to playing against an opponent much bigger and more seasoned than he was, Crean said he thought he settled down a played an all-around impressive game.
"Jordan Morgan is hard to deal with, and we knew what we were potentially going to deal with, in terms of our switching on defense, but John (Beilein) did a good job of getting to that early," Crean said. "For the most part, we got a lot of that negated because of plays of guys like Devin and Troy (Williams) and the way they used their length, and Noah as well. They did a really good job."
Williams may have had the best IU performance of the night, scoring 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting, but as someone who has started every game this season, he's had some more time than Davis to grow and mature during ample time beyond the practice court. But Davis is slowly catching up to Robinson, Vonleh and Williams in knowledge and skills during a true competition.
"At the beginning of the season, we were playing our hardest, but we weren't really understanding the game," Williams said. "After every game we're getting a better IQ of the game."