Each of Archie Miller’s press conferences and sessions of public comment over the past week have focused on Indiana’s poor starts to games and for obvious reason.
The Hoosiers fell behind 21-6 to Ohio State in a 78-59 loss in Columbus on Saturday thanks to an early stretch of nearly eight minutes without a field goal. They had just as bad of droughts against Northwestern, when they fell behind 21-7 in the first 13 minutes, and Iowa, when the Hawkeyes built a 17-4 lead in the first seven minutes, even though Indiana won both of those games.
Indiana was able to keep most of the preceding games close early, but more because of defensive tenacity then offensive efficiency because they kept opponents from getting out of the gates quickly as well.
So Miller is well aware of the problem and how desperately it needs to be fixed for the Hoosiers’ critical 9 p.m. game Wednesday night against a Minnesota team that, at 13-8 overall, 6-8 in the Big Ten, is just as much on the bubble as Indiana (11-9, 6-7.)
“I think the slow starts really come from being slow on offense,” Miller said in his Zoom press conference with reporters Tuesday. “I don’t mean slow running or slow moving. We’re out of the gates very slow on offense. We miss a ton of easy ones to start games. We miss free throws to start games.”
Indeed, they do. For all the talk throughout Miller’s tenure about the Hoosiers’ struggles to make 3s, it’s been inside the arc and around the rim where Indiana has had problems. Against Ohio State on Saturday, they missed their first six two-point shots. Against Northwestern, they missed their first seven. Against Iowa, they missed their first three and nine of their first 10.
“I think it’s a confidence thing,” Miller said. “I think that’s why as the game continues to go and you get your feet under you, we seem to be able to climb back in and be able to sustain better play and a higher level of play. But to start the game, we’re a very apprehensive offensive team, a team that hopes for things to go well. That’s why you miss a layup to start the game. It’s why you struggle around the rim, you miss your first couple of 3s. You get fouled, you draw a great foul, and at the end of the day you go to the line and you miss two.”
Miller said there are a lot of things he’s tried to do and is considering trying to do to remedy that problem. However, he said a starting lineup change is not one of those potential remedies.
The current starting lineup — junior Rob Phinisee at the point, senior Al Durham and Armann Franklin at the 2 and 3, redshirt junior Race Thompson and sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis at power forward and center — isn’t set in stone, Miller said. But this issue won’t be the reason it changes.
“I’ll consider changes going forward,” Miller said. “It won’t be due to slow starts. If we change our lineup, it will have something to do with us thinking that guy (who enters the lineup) really earned the right to get off to an earlier start in the game or deserved more playing time.”
There wouldn’t be an obvious move if he did want to make a change. The only player not currently in the starting lineup who has started a game this season is freshman wing Trey Galloway, and he’s not close to 100 percent because of a back injury.
Phinisee has continued to struggle at the point while freshman Khristian Lander has shown impressive flashes in recent games. He appears to be the fastest Indiana player off the dribble and he’s shown next-level court vision. However, Lander still isn’t quite on Phinisee’s level on defense and is shooting just 23.5 percent from the field including 1 of 14 from two-point range. Redshirt sophomore Jerome Hunter is just working his way back into the lineup after he was held out against Illinois and Iowa because of what Miller called a coach’s decision. And as much as they’ve made strides, freshmen Anthony Leal and Jordan Geronimo don’t appear to be on the brink of unseating Durham, Franklin or Thompson.
Besides, Miller pointed out, the player who has had the biggest and most consistent trouble being effective early in games is their best player.
Jackson-Davis, who will likely be a first-team All-Big Ten and All-American pick at the end of the season, has struggled to get himself established early even in games when he’s been dominant later on. He’s averaging 19.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, all figures that put him in the top five in the Big Ten, so pulling the 6-foot-9, 245-pounder out of the starting lineup isn’t an option even when he is struggling to make shots.
He missed two shots near the rim in the first seven minutes against Ohio State and didn’t score until the 10:06 mark of the first half, but ended up 10 of 14 from the field with 23 points. Against Northwestern, he missed two layups in the first minute and missed each of his first five shots and two free throws before finally getting a layup that was initially waved off with three seconds to go in the first half. In the second half, he was 4 of 5 from the field and finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds. Against Iowa, it took four missed field goals, two missed free throws and nearly 11 minutes of game action for him to score, and he still led Indiana with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
“A lot of it to be honest with you, is Trayce,” Miller said. “You want to me to pull Trayce out of the starting lineup for missing a couple of free throws or an easy one to start the game? To me, we gotta get him more of a confidence level to start the game. I think that will help us more than anything.”
Jackson-Davis admitted after the Ohio State loss that he does think too much early and needs to settle down, especially when he gets the ball around the rim. Miller said on his radio show Monday night that he’s seen the same thing and that the coaches have tried to address that with him.
“He almost kind of feels his way through the game,” Miller said. “He’s not one of those guys that, when you start the game, his energy level is so high you have to come him down. I think he really wants to see, are they gonna trap the post? Where are they coming from? I think he thinks a little too much early in the game rather than just going after it. If he misses a couple, he misses a couple.”
That’s an issue when he gets the ball in the post and it’s also a problem at the free throw line. Jackson-Davis has made more free throws (106) than any other player in the Big Ten, but his .657 free throw shooting percentage leaves something to be desired and a lot of his misses are coming early.
“That kind of compounds it when he gets down a little early,” Miller said. “To his credit, he finds a way to pick it up and as the game goes on, he gets better and better and better. We’ve tried like crazy to find ways to get him an easy layup, an easy bucket to get him started. An easier catch. He’s finding ways to get them. He just has to be able to capitalize and put them in.”
So ultimately, fixing this problem just means asking for more from a player from whom so much has already been asked. Jackson-Davis is third in the Big Ten with 34.3 minutes per game, and the only other true post player in the league who is averaging more than 30 per game is Iowa All-American Luka Garza at 30.5.
“He’s had a lot on his plate,” Miller said. “He’s played a lot of minutes. His stats prove that he’s one of the best players in the country. For us, we almost need him to be Hercules. You need him to get 35 and 15 sometimes. He finishes the game, he’s got 23 and nine against Ohio State and you’re like, ‘Man, he could have done better.’ That’s the expectation for him.”
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