Noie: Notre Dame just another game for Indiana sophomore Damezi Anderson
He’s not going there, not going to give any substance to a slam-dunk storyline for Saturday’s college basketball game in the center of a state where people live and breathe and love the game.
The kid who made his basketball bones on the south side of South Bend, the kid who’s the all-time leading scorer in Saint Joseph County history, treats the matchup between Indiana (10-1) and Notre Dame (8-3) in the ninth-annual Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (noon, ESPN) as just another game.
Indiana sophomore small forward and former Riley standout Damezi Anderson is having none of any of that other stuff. Playing for the first time in college against his hometown team, Anderson demurs on every question about the Irish. He trots out the usual clip of clichés about how this game isn’t personal, how this game doesn’t carry any special significance, how it’s just another game among so many this season.
He’s right about all of it. Anderson grew up playing basketball and playing it well a long 3-pointer from the Golden Dome, but he rarely dreamed of walking past it on the way to a college class or the gym or the football stadium or anything else that included going to college so close to home.
This south-side kid stayed mainly on the south side. Close to his roots. Close to his family. He seldom ventured up Eddy Street to Notre Dame. For anything.
The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Anderson didn’t spend summers like some top players around town by playing pickup with the Irish over on campus. A few times when they were out of options of what to do, Anderson and some of his buddies might pile into a car to go play on the outdoor basketball courts behind the Notre Dame bookstore, but those experiences were too minimal to mention.
So Saturday’s first game for him against his hometown team carries no significance for Anderson.
“It’s my hometown team or whatever you want to say,” he said Thursday by phone after practice. “But I’m at Indiana. I don’t care whoever else we’re playing. It’s just another team that I want to compete against and get the ‘W.’”
Significant that Anderson chose that word — compete. Back in high school, he didn’t really have to know what the word meant on a basketball court. Everything was so fluid for him that he seldom had to break a sweat. Not when he was a four-year starter at Riley. Not when he earned Northern Indiana Conference most valuable player honors his junior and senior seasons. Not when he averaged 19.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.8 steals as a senior, when he led the Wildcats to a 26-1 record.
Not until Anderson arrived in Bloomington did compete become part of his vocabulary. College is an eye-opening experience for kids away at college for the first time. It was for Anderson.
“Beginning of freshman season when I first started practice, that’s when I really realized, ‘Geez, I’ve got to get good,’” Anderson said. “I couldn’t be out here B.S.-ing. I had to grind every day.
“It was too easy in high school. When I got here, it was difficult. I’m trying to make it easy again.”
That’s the hardest part of this process — learning that everything you did in high school to be good, to be a Top 100 college prospect, to earn a scholarship to a blue-blood program in state wasn’t nearly good enough at the next level. The game’s hard. It’s a daily grind. As good as you were one day, you’ve got to be even better the next. And the next. Anderson realized he’d have to be, but there were times when he wasn’t.
His freshman season was bare bones in terms of stats (1.5 points and 1.1 rebounds in 21 games) and minutes (9.6 per game) and highlights (his season high of 14 came in an exhibition game). For the first time since elementary school, he wasn’t a staple in the starting lineup. For the first time since he could remember, he wasn’t the best player on the court. He was nowhere near the high scorer on the final stats sheet. But he was sure of this — he’d eventually get back there. Maybe not that year or this year or even next. But he’d get there.
“I was just so unsure of a lot of things,” Anderson said of his freshman year. “The IQ for the game. Making the right reads. Seeing the game in different ways. I had to develop myself and get myself prepared for this year.
“I’m just more confident, more comfortable.”
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey saw that on film this week while scouting the Hoosiers. Anderson moves differently. He plays differently. He carries himself differently.
“He’s learning to be a better basketball player all the way around,” Brey said. “He’s got a really bright future down there. I love him.”
Studying Anderson’s stats the second time through (5.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists in 15.4 minutes) isn’t going to scream, different year and different player. It’s been a series of small steps for Anderson. A solid stretch of practices here, a sound segment of game minutes there. Those are the big moments for Anderson for now.
Like last week’s overtime home victory over Nebraska. Indiana went small and put Anderson at the power forward spot late. He scored five points with six rebounds in 16 reserve minutes. But it was one play he made in overtime that showed his overall growth. Like, it’s coming.
Indiana coach Archie Miller kept Anderson on the floor for overtime. Anderson rewarded his coach’s confidence by jumping a passing lane and making a steal. He would hit five clutch free throws to help give the Hoosiers enough separation to enjoy success. It was a small step in a win, but a big step.
“He helped them win that game,” Brey said.
A more engaged Anderson, a more focused Anderson is a better Anderson. The kind of Anderson that fans back in South Bend saw in high school. He has a tendency to drift through games, but he’s more locked in than he’s ever been in college. He’s still a reserve, still fighting to earn more minutes, still believing he’s on the right track. He can’t wait to show more of his new self on Saturday, even against that certain team from a certain town he still calls home.
“When I came here from high school, I was more playful,” Anderson said. “I grew out of that stage. Now I take everything like a job, a business now.
“I’ve been working my butt off and getting better every day. If I play hard and have that energy, I’ll be OK.”
2019 Crossroads Classic
WHO: Notre Dame (8-3) vs. Indiana (10-1).
WHERE: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (18,345), Indianapolis.
WHEN: Saturday at noon
RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).
ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI
NOTRE DAME VS. INDIANA
NOTING: Indiana has been idle since a 96-90 overtime victory over Nebraska at home on Dec. 13. Freshman power forward Trayce Jackson-Davis led the Hoosiers with 25 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks in 35 minutes. Indiana went 5-for-25 from 3 with 15 turnovers. … Indiana has non-conference wins over Princeton, Florida State and Connecticut. Its loss was at Wisconsin. Indiana is 1-1 in the Big Ten. … The Hoosiers return three starters off last year’s team that finished 19-16, 8-12 and tied for eighth place in the Big Ten. … Indiana has averaged 17.6 wins with no NCAA tournament trips the last three years. … The Hoosiers were picked this preseason to finish ninth in the Big Ten. … Indiana leads the Big Ten in scoring offense (82.0 ppg.), is second in scoring margin (+15.0) and rebounding margin (+10.3) and third in field goal percentage (.491). … Jackson-Davis, the son of former Indiana Pacers power forward Dale Davis, is second in the Big Ten for field goal percentage (.644). Four Hoosiers average double figures for points, led by Jackson-Davis (15.1 ppg.). … Indiana leads the all-time series 50-22, 17-7 at neutral sites. Indiana has won three of the last four in the Classic. Notre Dame’s win was in 2013. … Notre Dame is 4-4 all time at the Crossroads Classic, which began in 2011. The Irish play the Hoosiers in odd-numbered years and Purdue in even-numbered years. Purdue and Butler play in Saturday’s second game. … Notre Dame has been idle since a 14-point victory over UCLA on Dec. 14. The Irish have averaged 17.5 3-pointers with an average margin of victory of 26.5 the last two games, both wins. … Senior power forward John Mooney leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounding (13.4). … Indiana leads the nation in free throws attempted (29.4 per game); Notre Dame is second in the country in fewest fouls (12.1). … Notre Dame leads the ACC in assists (17.7) and assist/turnover ratio (1.82). Three Irish rank in the Top 10 in the league for assist/turnover ratio – T.J. Gibbs (second, 3.2; Prentiss Hubb, fourth, 2.4; Rex Pflueger 10th, 1.9).
QUOTING: “It’s a matter of turning the page and heading down to Indianapolis and letting it rip again. It’s a week to make a move. These are (NCAA tournament) resume wins come March. If we can get another one, it only propels us heading into conference play.”
-Irish power forward John Mooney on piggy-backing the win over UCLA with a game against Indiana.