Archie Miller identified the problem. Indiana needs to be tougher.
But identifying the issue is only half of the battle.
The issue isn’t specific to Indiana’s 2018-19 team. Indiana State and Fort Wayne ring a bell?
To be sure, things are different this year. Despite a rash of injuries, IU is more talented than last year’s team. The Hoosiers also have players with a year under their belts in Archie Miller’s system. That’s why slow starts haven’t always led to being run out of the gym like they did at times last year.
No, this IU team has the talent and know-how to bridge the gap. At least against UC Davis.
But as we saw against Michigan, there will be games where no amount of talent or know-how will be enough to complete a comeback. Miller recognizes this fact. He said this after the loss to the Wolverines —
“Michigan established themselves very quickly in this game, very quickly, and it knocked us on our heels. On the road you’re not going to be able to do that in this league.”
So if Indiana wants to survive this deep Big Ten race, they have to get “tougher.” But how exactly do you do that? Can you do that?
If you spend any time around these players or watch them during interviews, one thing is abundantly clear. They are without exception a bunch of nice guys. And of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But can nice guys be tough guys? Or said differently, can someone be turned into a tough guy?
In an interview over the summer on the Kent Sterling Show, former IU player Collin Hartman said this about Indiana’s all-time assist leader Yogi Ferrell:
“The dude wanted to win. He would climb up into you in practice, and at the same time he would tell you when you were doing well. So he just held people accountable, and I think that’s one of the best things about being a great teammate and leader is being able to hold people accountable.”
Bob Knight once called Quinn Buckner the best floor leader that he had ever seen, and he had so much faith in Isiah Thomas’ will to win in 1981 that he changed his coaching style and effectively turned the team over to his sophomore point guard.
Holding people accountable. Floor leaders. Will to win.
Ask yourself, who fits those descriptions on this Indiana team? Surely some players have elements of those attributes in their character, but who is the complete package?
By their own admission, senior co-captains Juwan Morgan and Zach McRoberts are “lead-by-example” guys. They both said as much at the Big Ten media day prior to the start of the season. Again, that is perfectly fine. But if the rest of the team has to wait and watch for their example, perhaps that in part explains the slow starts.
Floor leadership and holding others accountable is probably too much to ask for the talented freshmen on the team.
Devonte Green and Justin Smith seem like quieter guys too.
Could Al Durham take the reins? Maybe? He seems to have a bit of edge to him, and he is a coach’s son. But then in interviews he also seems like a softer spoken nice guy as well.
In the real world, as it relates to things that really matter, this IU team is a bunch of guys that you would be proud to know and call a friend or family member.
But who is the tough guy? The guy with a nastiness about him. An edge. The guy that wouldn’t be afraid to get in his teammate’s face. Or an opponent’s face.
The hard part for IU’s head coach is surely the fact Miller was that guy. He still is that guy.
Hartman has referred to his former coach as one of the most competitive guys he knows in multiple interviews.
Miller’s former coaches and teammates have shared similar views.
“Very intense guy, competitive,” said Brian Keeter, one of Miller’s teammates at N.C. State to the Indy Star. “That’s what helped him be successful. He wasn’t gonna back down in practice from anybody, or opponents, whether they were larger and faster.”
And so perhaps it all falls back on the coach. The intense competitor is going to have to will it out of his guys.
Miller acknowledged that it isn’t just about the players making adjustments.
“It obviously starts with our leadership and our staff. It starts with our approach on game day. Whatever we’re doing we’ve got to look at it and do a little better job…to be honest with you we have to start to impose ourselves like we do later in halves and games earlier in the game.”
The second year Hoosier head coach believe that the part of the game that is on his end of the floor during the first half is what needs to lead the way.
“And in all reality to me it starts with our defense. Our defense is sort of our key to what we’re trying to do in terms of being a tough minded group, and if you’re going to give a team 30 points in the first eight minutes it’s on your defense as much as your offense. You can say both, but defensively we’ve got to be better out of the gates.”
Miller is surely right. The defense has led the way during just about every in-game transformation this season. In the first half of the game, that defense is right there in front of him, and the adjustments have been made.
Now the challenge is to get this team ready before those deficits happen and the adjustments are needed.
Whether it is being more animated in the locker room and huddle before games, calling very early timeouts, sending guys to the bench, or whatever other tool he has, the burden of becoming tougher might just fall back on the only tough guy on the team — the head coach.
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