UM guard Nijel Pack has deep Indiana ties, game against Hoosiers takes on extra meaning

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If anybody understands the lore of Indiana basketball, from the impact of legendary coach Bob Knight to the frenzy of the Hoosiers’ Under-8-Minute Timeout, it is University of Miami guard Nijel Pack.

The sophomore from Indianapolis, whose Hurricanes team faces IU on Sunday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, grew up sharpening his basketball fundamentals at the Lawrence Central gym, Best Choice Fieldhouse, Pacer Athletic Center and North Central High.

During his early high school years, he played on the same Indiana Elite AAU team as current IU players Trey Galloway and Anthony Leal. They won the U15 national title together before he joined the Indy Heat Nike Elite team. He also played against Hoosiers star Trayce Jackson-Davis in high school.

Pack is coming off a spectacular 21-point performance in the first-round Miami comeback win over Drake Friday night, and Jackson-Davis was not surprised.

“Nijel is a great player,” Jackson-Davis said Saturday. “Just watching him throughout high school and blossom into the player that he is now, the way he shoots the ball and then his passing, his ability to attack the rim, it’s huge. I’m excited…it’s not every day you get to play someone that you grew up really close to.”

Jackson-Davis, a consensus All-American, is one of the most dominant forces in the game with an average of 20.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He will be the focal point of Miami’s defense, and Canes forward Norchad Omier said he is pumped to play him.

Pack mentioned that he has many Indiana ties but downplayed the potential matchup against the Hoosiers when asked about it early in the week, saying “If we both win and that happens to be the case, it will be a fun little game to play.”

But anyone who knows Pack’s basketball background knows that a game against IU takes on added meaning.

“Kids in Indiana have a passion for basketball starting at age three or four, and they work very hard on their fundamentals,” said David Pack, Nijel’s father. “Indiana players don’t usually turn over the ball, maybe don’t have all the flash, but solid fundamentals because they take the time to learn to shoot.”

Most of those kids also grew up idolizing the Indiana and Purdue programs, but not all of them got a chance to play for the Hoosiers or Boilermakers. Many talented players, such as 6-foot guard Pack, were overlooked.

“IU and Purdue always had a rich history in Indiana, but when Nijel was coming out, there was a different coaching regime at IU that maybe didn’t look at Nijel as a high recruit,” his father said. “Not an issue. Nijel’s path was different.”

Pack began his college career at Kansas State, playing for Bruce Weber, a longtime Purdue assistant. He also had offers from Belmont, Rice, Ball State, Butler, Indiana State, IUPUI, Bradley, Cleveland State, Loyola of Chicago, Miami of Ohio, Nevada, Northern Kentucky, Southern Illinois and Toledo.

When Weber was fired last spring, Pack transferred to Miami, eager to become a better point guard under UM coach Jim Larranaga, who had a reputation for developing guards. It took some adjusting, but Pack has come on strong in recent months.

“His mom and dad have raised him right, he’s a great kid,” Larranaga said. “He’s a great teammate. The first day he arrived on campus, he and Isaiah Wong went to our practice facility and by the end of the workout were best friends. He’s got great character and is one of our leaders.”

Pack said it was an easy transition joining the Hurricanes, and he is soaking in every moment of his first NCAA Tournament experience.

“Transferring to this team, especially with the roster they already had, I knew we had a very talented group,” Pack said. “Bringing my experience and leadership from a different program, I felt I could give some tips here and there. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to make this team better and make it successful.”

David Pack said his son has benefited from learning fundamentals in the structured Midwest environment, and now adding some East coast freedom, aggression and responsibility to his game.

“Coach L is an East coast guy and the way they play there is a lot different than the Midwest,” Pack’s father said. “The analogy I give is Midwest basketball is very structured, like a lion in a zoo. The lion will kill you, he’s got a structure, they’re going to feed him. East coast, there’s no zoo. You’ve got to get up in the morning when the sunlight hits, you better run and catch your gazelle or you’re not eating today. That’s the way they play.”

The structure and discipline served him well amidst the chaos of the final minutes against Drake, as did the creativitly and freedom to make decisions when it mattered most. The Indiana kid stayed calm and came through in the clutch.

Another big test awaits Sunday night at MVP Arena (8:40 p.m., TNT).

The Hurricanes say they are ready.

“The focus is Trayce Jackson-Davis and not letting him be so comfortable at what he does so great,” said UM guard Bensley Joseph. “Then, looking out and closing out on their shooters from the perimeter and their freshman guard, Jalen Hood, he’s really good. We’ve been here before. We’ve battled teams like this. So, I feel like it’s just another day, another game to battle and advance.”

But for Pack, the Indiana kid who was overlooked by the Hoosiers, it will surely not be just another game.