For a moment, Indiana got to remember what noise can do. How it can add muscle to fragile psyches and make its targets feel as if they have no place to escape.
A year to the day after the world changed and packed arenas became a dangerous thing, the Hoosiers experienced the closest thing to an impassioned, raucous crowd that they have seen since last March. Their friends and family had done the best they could at Assembly Hall all winter, but playing the Big Ten tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium provided enough space for even a socially-distanced crowd of Indiana fans to make a visceral impact with their voices.
The Hoosiers could clearly feel it during an 8-0 run early in the second half that culminated with a ferocious dunk by sophomore center Trayce Jackson-Davis with 12:04 to go. It was still there a little over two minutes later when sophomore guard Armaan Franklin stepped on the 3-point line and hit a long 2 from the right corner with 9:50 to go to give the Hoosiers a one-point lead.
But that was Indiana’s last field goal of its 2020-21 season, unless the NIT for some reason decides it wants to invite a 12-15 team. After that, the Hoosiers missed their last 13 shots from the field and were outscored 14-2, allowing No. 7 seed Rutgers to advance to the quarterfinals with a 61-50 win.
And that’s when the noise turned on the Hoosiers. The displeased Indiana faithful knew they were sitting in the building in which a champion would be crowned of an NCAA Tournament in which the Hoosiers would not play, even though it will be held entirely in their home state. They began a chant that echoed throughout the building and was loud enough to understand on the Big Ten Network broadcast.
Miller claimed he couldn’t hear it, that as a coach who used to be a player he long ago learned how to block out the noise when he’s working.
“I didn’t hear the fans say anything,” Miller said. “If they were chanting my name, that’s up to them. But during the game there’s not a whole lot you pay attention to.”
But the sentiment he knows well. In Miller’s four seasons, he’s 67-56 overall and 33-43 in Big Ten play. His 20-12 record last season would have almost certainly gotten the Hoosiers an NCAA Tournament berth had the event not been cancelled, but they followed that up with a backward turn. They end the season on a six-game losing streak, so it’s not at all surprising that there are calls for him to be fired. The best thing he has going for him is the fact that he has three years left on a seven-year contract, which means he would be owed a buyout of over $10 million if he were to be terminated.
Miller said he hasn’t thought about that either.
“I’m not entering any offseason wondering if I’m going to be back,” Miller said. “Those decisions are made way higher than me. My job is to run the program. We’re doing our thing here. I talk to our administration daily. We’re in a good spot. Didn’t capitalize on some opportunities this year to put ourselves in a position to be able to bounce back after last season was obviously cancelled short. It’s disappointing. … Performance matters. The questions about me and what not, that’s really not my concern.”
What is his concern, however, is creating a plan to fix what ails his program if he does return, because the factors that led to Thursday night’s loss were the same that have led to so many others this season and in previous seasons.
The 9:50 bucket-less stretch to end the game was representative of all of those ills. They weren’t terrible on defense, but the breakdowns were just bad enough to do them in. Twice, they got sucked into the paint on dribble drives to allow wide open 3-pointers to Rutgers sophomore guard Paul Mulcahy that gave Rutgers a seven-point lead and control.
But more to the point, they couldn’t score no matter what they did. Of the 13 missed field goals, six were around the rim, three were 2-point jumpers and four were 3-pointers. They also missed six free throws in that stretch, including two front ends of one-and-ones by junior guard Rob Phinisee. Two made free throws by senior guard Aljami Durham with 2:35 to go comprised the entirety of their scoring in that stretch.
“Obviously, I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that our offense was the way that it was or blaming the coaches or anything,” said sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who scored 19 points and was the only IU player who finished in double figures. “I feel like we had a lot of good shots. We had layups, but we missed them. We missed eight free throws down the stretch (if you count the missed one-and-ones as two) and if we made them it would have been 58-57. Obviously, the inability to put the ball in the basket just killed us.”
The Hoosiers have had that problem all season, regardless of where they’ve shot from. They finished the season ranked 242nd nationally in effective field goal percentage (48.5 percent), 229th in 2-point percentage (48.5 percent) and 240th in 3-point percentage (32.4 percent). Though they have one of the highest free throw rates in the nation, ranking eighth with a 41.5 percent free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio, they’re 300th in free throw percentage at 66.5 percent.
The 3-pointer has been a particularly glaring problem lately and it was again on Thursday night. Durham hit the Hoosiers first 3-pointer of the evening from the left wing and redshirt sophomore Jerome Hunter it another from the right wing on a gorgeous Rob Phinisee drive-and-kick pass with 5:37 to go in the first half. But those were the only 3s Indiana hit all game. They were 2 of 16 for the game and 0 of 7 in the second half.
Miller said during his pre-game radio spot that the Hoosiers had worked extensively on shooting in practice this week, but it didn’t reverse the trend. Thursday was the fourth straight game in which the Hoosiers shot 27 percent from the arc or worse. They made a combined total of 13 3s in those four games on 74 attempts, an abysmal rate of 17.6 percent.
Shooting is something Indiana has never done well since Miller has been in Bloomington. He was a lights-out shooter himself at North Carolina State and Blackhawk High School as a player and his teams at Dayton usually shot well also. In his six years at Dayton, no Flyers team ranked worse than 101st in effective field goal percentage and none of them finished outside the top 180 in 3-point percentage with three finishing in the top 60 in that category. In his four years at Indiana, the Hoosiers have never been better than 162nd in effective field goal percentage or 204th in 3-point percentage.
“Offensively, it really comes down at the end of the day to shooting the basketball,” Miller said. “This is a game that is kind of simple when it goes in the basket. I think our inconsistencies from shooting it from outside throughout the course of the season, quality consistency and perimeter scoring throughout the course of the year, where it’s not as erratic. Some games it’s really good. Other games, you get hits and misses. I would say the bottom line from a consistency standpoint is you’ve got to be able to shoot the ball consistently at a high clip from a lot of different guys.”
They haven’t been able to expect that most of the season and they couldn’t on Thursday night. Sophomore guard Armaan Franklin returned after missing 3 1/2 games with an injured heel and missed all five of his attempts. Hunter and Durham were 2 of 7 combined. Phinisee and freshman Trey Galloway went 0 of 4, though one of Galloway’s was a half-court heave at the end of the half.
The Hoosiers finish the season with just one player — Franklin at 42.4 percent — who made more than 40 percent of his 3s. Durham, who hasn’t said for sure if he will return for a fifth year, was second at 38 percent. No one else who took at least 20 3-pointers hit more than 35 percent. The Hoosiers will add an outside shooter in transfer Parker Stewart, who has hit a combined 142 3-pointers in one season each at Pittsburgh and Tennessee-Martin, but that is all the help that is on the way.
Still, Miller told IU fans to trust that things will get better. Along with the addition of Stewart, the Hoosiers will bring in center Logan Duncomb from Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, they should get center Joey Brunk back healthy, and he has hope that the freshman class will turn its clearly abundant energy into more productivity in Year 2. They could lose Jackson-Davis, who said he will take a few weeks to decide if he will enter the NBA draft, but he’s currently projected to be a second-round pick and could easily decide to stay.
“My message to anybody right now is at the end of the day we’ll be fine,” Miller said. “We got good guys. We got guys who battled. Like any program at this point, you have to take inventory.”
Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson has to take inventory as well, and now it’s up to him to determine if Miller will remain a part of it, or if he’ll listen to the voices that Miller claimed he ignored on Thursday night.
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