Normally, by the time teams get to Christmas, coaches are beginning to get a good feel for how the roster fits together.
Conference play is about to begin and the time is just about up for integrating new pieces.
As the No. 19 Indiana women’s basketball team heads to Minnesota for its Big Ten road opener at 2 o’clock this afternoon, the opposite is true.
Freshman Kiandra Browne and junior grad transfer Nicole Cardano-Hillary have entered the rotation the past two games, both getting their first truly extended minutes in Sunday’s blowout win over Nebraska. IU will also add Australian wing Paige Price on Dec. 26, as the 2021 signee will arrive in Bloomington.
For Browne, who would’ve been a senior in high school this year and reclassified to start college early due to the pandemic, things have escalated quickly.
The 6-foot-2 forward originally planned to redshirt, but with the NCAA granting all players a free year of eligibility this year, playing became an option. A preseason hip injury kept her out of the opener against Eastern Kentucky, she played just three minutes against Samford and did not appear in the game at Kentucky. But against Tennessee, Browne was the first Hoosier off the bench, playing nine minutes. The trend continued against the Cornhuskers, as the Canadian set career highs in nearly everything, recording her first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes.
“We always say you play how you practice, and she practices like that every day with her energy,” IU coach Teri Moren said. “She communicates, for a freshman, at a really high level. She does not take a play off, extremely physical, pays attention and is focused. All of those are things you get on a freshman about — show up every day, be consistent, effort, talk and communicate, but she doesn’t have many days you’re on her about those things.”
That was evident early in the second quarter when Browne hustled after a loose ball, diving like a linebacker chasing a fumble only to get whistled for a travel as she rolled over to pass the ball.
“That dive she had at halfcourt for a loose ball and they called her for a travel, I’m not sure that was a travel, but that right there tells you a little about Kiandra Browne and the type of player she’s going to be here at Indiana,” Moren said.
That all-out approach has even forced the IU coaching staff to try and dial Browne back in practices, of which there have been far more than there have been games to this point.
“We’ve had to temper her a little bit inside of practice, because we’ve had a lot of them,” Moren said. “It’s one thing to be physical against our practice squad guys, but it’s another thing against your own teammates, so there are moments she and Mack(enzie Holmes) have had nice battles on the block and we need a time out here to settle down some.
“She plays with that type of energy but also aggressiveness. Super aggressive young lady when she gets the ball, has to guard the ball and she’s a perfectionist, wants to do things right all the time.”
Cardano-Hillary is also learning the right things to do, but that’s a little more complicated on the perimeter for the 5-6 George Mason transfer, who is used to having the ball in her hands a lot. She scored the first five points of her Indiana career on Sunday, getting some time at the point in relief of Ali Patberg.
“I don’t think she a pressing at all, but she’s a high-volume offensive player, as she was at George Mason,” Moren said. “She’s also a facilitator, can draw and kick, feed the low post, but also her ability to get around the rim and score. This is a kid that scored a lot of points and is offensively driven, so as she continues to get more comfortable at this level against Big Ten-caliber guards, she’s going to keep getting better and better.”
And like Browne, Cardano-Hillary isn’t shy about much.
“She’s very aggressive and I like that in her, she’s not afraid,” Moren said. “You can’t worry about the last shot you just missed, just worry about the next shot you have. She’s not worried about missing, she wants to be a shot-taker and as long as they’re inside of our offense and not forced, we’re OK with that.”
The Hoosiers will need both of them, as well as the starting lineup that accounts for more than 70 percent of the Indiana offense against the Gophers, who give up 82 points per game. What IU also needs is a defense that can contain Minnesota standout sophomore guard Jasmine Powell (18.5 ppg).
“She’s the engine, for sure, that makes them go and is dynamic as a sophomore, really trying to hunt down shots,” Moren said. “She wants to drive the rails hard to the basket, then can step out and knock down shots. She does have some pieces that go around her, but she’s the key to us having some success up there with our ability to guard her and guard her well.”