Bloomington, Ind. – As the Hoosiers gear up for Friday night's NCAA opener against Arkansas, Coach Dan Dakich has already identified his team's magic number.
Sure, it would take four wins for the Hoosiers to get to the Final Four, but the "4" Dakich is referring to is the position on the floor which has proven to be an enigma and occasionally an albatross for this year's basketball team. The second frontcourt spot alongside D.J. White has been a constant source of uncertainty, rotation and at times frustration.
In 32 games, four different players have started alongside D.J. White. Senior Lance Stemler has gotten the nod 15 times, but Mike White (11 starts), DeAndre Thomas (5) and Kyle Taber (4) have also been in the line-up on a handful of occasions. Each has had their moments, but no one has played with the sort of consistency to make them the obvious choice to start on a night-in, night-out basis.
Who will start on Friday night is anyone's guess, but whoever that person is will have to do more than just take up space.
"It's a spot that's incredibly important in this game," Dakich said.
It's important because of what Arkansas counters with at the position. Six-foot-10 Vincent Hunter has started as of late and provides an outside threat, shooting 37 percent from behind the 3-point arc. Six-foot-eight, 231-pound Charles Thomas comes off the bench and is more of a low-post scoring threat, chipping in 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds on average.
Dakich knows both can present some problems for his team defensively, and he's also well aware that IU needs to get some production of its own from that spot.
"If you look at good teams, every good team has a four man who is doing something," Dakich said. "You have to get something out of that spot."
So who will Indiana turn to? Stemler has been the most frequent choice because he's a veteran who has the best understanding of the offense. Taber was the choice against Minnesota due to a very good effort in the regular season finale at Penn State. Both are possibilities, but Dakich said the next four days of practice will be the determining factor.
"I'm simply going to play the guys that play the best," Dakich said. "So whoever we start will be a function of who played the best in practice."
Don't be stunned if that person winds up being DeAndre Thomas. It's been nearly two months since the 6-8, 300-plus pound junior got his last start, but his play in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals was critical to the Hoosiers' comeback. He scored only two points and added three rebounds before fouling out in the second half, but his energy helped IU battle back from a 16-point first half deficit.
"DeAndre didn't score, but once (the position) got productive – rebounding, energy on defense – it turned the game around," Dakich said.
While Thomas has had bigger games statistically this season, the Minnesota game was among those in which he's had the most dramatic impact. Dakich said it was one of Thomas' top three efforts this season along with the win over Kentucky (11 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes) and the win over Michigan State (10 points, four rebounds in 16 minutes).
There's been a common theme to those performances as well. .Dakich said in the days leading up to those contests, Thomas has put forth some extra effort on the practice floor which has in turn produced results on gamedays.
"DeAndre's three best games of the year – Kentucky, Michigan State and Minnesota – were simply a matter of DeAndre getting in the gym extra, when he was going to be serious about playing, period," Dakich said.
"You don't have those three games by coincidence. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case with Dre."
Dakich is hoping to get that same sort of effort from Thomas this week leading up to the Arkansas game. While former Coach Kelvin Sampson said he generally shied away from playing White and Thomas at the same time because neither was well equipped to defend the ‘4' position, Dakich said he doesn't have the same reservations.
"I don't have any reluctance to play anybody, but they have to play well," Dakich said. "That's what I said when I took a kid out early against Minnesota. I don't care what you're supposed to be. If you're not playing hard, you're not playing well, you're not playing – period."
Hoosiers Identify Their Magic Number
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