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Archie Miller has only had freshmen available on bench, and he’s growing more comfortable with them

By Dustin Dopirak —

Indiana’s four freshmen missed nine of the 16 shots and eight of the 12 3-point shots they took in Sunday’s win over Iowa. They committed four turnovers and made plenty of mistakes on the defensive end.

But they didn’t let any of those mistakes knock them off course, which was why Indiana coach Archie Miller gave double-figure minutes to each of them in the Hoosiers’ 67-65 win over the then No. 8 Hawkeyes and why he believes Indiana gets better as a team as their roles expand.

“That’s the beauty of the young guys coming in,” Miller said on his radio show Monday night. “I thought those guys stepping in there and coming in and firing in the first half there late, giving us some confidence and not being afraid to miss. They weren’t afraid. That’s a big part of this time of year. The ball going in and the ball not going in, it makes a world of difference. I think guys playing with confidence and not worrying if they’re missing or not is a huge deal.”

With forward Jerome Hunter missing a second game because of a coach’s decision Miller explained generally but not specifically, center Joey Brunk still out with a back issue and transfer guard Parker Stewart still working through various protocols, the freshman class now makes up Indiana’s entire scholarship bench. That means Miller has no choice but to trust them, but they have increasingly earned that trust.

Trey Galloway has had it since the beginning, The 6-foot-4 wing has started seven games and is averaging 22.8 minutes per game. Miller has had to come along some on guards Anthony Leal and Khristian Lander and forward Jordan Geronimo, however.

Leal got on the floor when Galloway and sophomore Armaan Franklin battled injuries, and Leal combined solid and opportunistic defense with an ability to shoot from outside, and he’s become a more steady part of the rotation.

Geronimo had a little further to go because he’s still figuring out team defense, even though he’s the most physically blessed of the freshmen. He still finds himself out of position sometimes, but he’s fearless when dealing with post players including Iowa All-American Luka Garza. He’s also made 13 of 20 field goal attempts (65 percent).  With Hunter out, he’s the only Indiana player on the bench who can handle the 4 or the 5 when Race Thompson or Trayce Jackson-Davis come out, but Archie Miller is increasingly comfortable with that.

“He is freakishly athletic and he is strong,” Miller said. “He is not afraid at all to bang. He’s played against bigger players coming up, you can tell. We had a clip in film today that we showed of a play when he was playing Luka Garza that they got him on at Iowa when they ducked him in off a ball screen at the top. He was just so quick and so fast to be able to pull around and move. You just see that he can pull around and move. And I love the way he plays on offense, as crazy as that sounds. He continues to to help us as much as anyone on offense. He’s a physical screener. He’s very athletic, he’s a very good passer.”

And he still hasn’t shown off one of his emerging skills – his 3-point shot. He’s 2 of 6 from beyond the arc so far, but most of his buckets have been dunks or layups.

“When he’s able to play more minutes and is able to get more comfortable and the 3-point shooting comes in and he starts to be able to stretch the floor, that’s when he’s going to really blossom,” Miller said.

The Hoosiers expected more immediate minutes from Lander, the five-star point guard who reclassified, blitzing through his senior year academic requirements so he could start college a year early. He didn’t play double-figure minutes in a game from the Dec. 13 blowout of North Alabama until the Jan. 24 loss to Rutgers, but he’s improved on defense and reminded the coaching staff of the offensive flashes that made him so desirable as a recruit. He has 15 points and five assists in a combined 46 minutes in the last three games after scoring a total of 26 points and registering 12 assists in his first 15 appearances. He is 5 of 14 from the field in those games after starting 7 of 32, and 5 of 12 from 3 after starting 6 of 22.

“He’s trying to find his way for a long period of time,” Miller said. “… Offensively, he’s always been very talented. We’ve seen glimpses of him in practice and times where he could shoot the ball well. He has a different gear with the ball. He can get by people and make some good passes. … But we just felt like he wasn’t ready to start games. He was nervous and he just wasn’t in tune with what was going on.”

Lander played just four minutes in the Hoosiers upset of Iowa and didn’t come into the game until the second half. But he had a steal and effective work in that half and it led to more.

“He’s spent a lot of time,” Miller said. “Extra workouts, extra lifts. He’s picked himself up and got himself in a situation now where he’s helping. He’s contributing. … (Against Iowa) He had some really good passes, banged a huge shot, did a good job defensively. Played 15 minutes. I told him that 15 can continue to grow.”

Being able to trust those players means the Hoosiers don’t wear down like they could if they were only playing a seven-man rotation. The bench played a critical role in both upsets of Iowa and it kept them in the game against Illinois even though the Hoosiers eventually lost.

“We’ve made runs here in the last three or four games with (Lander) on the floor,” Miller said. “Jordan on the floor, Anthony, Trey is coming back as well. We don’t just have to play guys 36 or 37 minute just because they’re older anymore. I feel like that’s why our team has a chance to be better as we come down the stretch because we have more guys.”

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