Since before the season started Indiana head coach Archie Miller has repeatedly stated that the depth and balance on this 2019-20 Indiana basketball team was perhaps its greatest strength.
But at IU’s media day in late September, Miller also said this:
“As the head coach, I look at our point guards in a very different manner than I do all other positions. I think it’s the most important position on the team,” Miller said.
Depth is one thing, but a steady point guard is just as critical. Indiana’s players understand this very well, and they recognize what an asset sophomore point guard Rob Phinisee can be when he is healthy.
“Rob is a great player,” junior forward Justin Smith said on Tuesday night. “He really adds a lot to our team offensively and defensively and we missed him the past couple games.”
Tuesday night in New York, finally, it all came together.
“This is the first time all season we’ve had all eleven (scholarship players) available,” Miller said after the win over UConn.
While most of his depth has been available throughout the first ten games, there has been a major void in the backcourt — and that has been about more than just missing the most important position on the team, as Miller put it.
With Phinisee out the four prior games, and hobbled since early October, the Hoosiers have been down to three and sometimes even fewer scholarship guards early in the season.
Phinisee returned on Tuesday night in New York, and the timing could not have been better.
“It helped tonight to have Rob and Armaan (Franklin) and a lot of different guys at the guard spot because it wasn’t an easy game to play if you were a guard because there was a lot of pressure,” Miller said.
While Miller has been consistent with his claim that he has a deep group, the full potential hadn’t really been seen or realized with Phinisee along with others dealing with nagging bumps and bruises.
With all eleven available on Tuesday, flashes of this team’s potential emerged.
“As the course of the game played out, it kind of showed, I thought, what we can be,” Miller said.
The depth allows Miller to tinker with lineups more, and it gives him the confidence to plug guys into the rotation, perhaps even in moments when it wouldn’t be expected.
With the UConn game advancing towards crunch time, redshirt freshman Jerome Hunter and redshirt junior Joey Brunk checked into the game at the 8:19 mark of the second half.
Hunter has yet to find his stride as he continues to come back from a year away from the game, and Brunk had about as miserable of a first half as you can have.
Miller’s substitions immediately paid off. Hunter made a step-back shot in the paint and got a block in a sequence that started 17 seconds after he check in.
“Jerome Hunter, big shot coming in the game, I thought he did a great job defensively for a time, had some rebounds,” Miller said.
Brunk scored seven points and recorded a block over the next three minutes, giving Indiana critical buckets as the game hung in the balance.
“Really happy for Joey, he struggled there for a little bit getting his feet on the ground and getting some baskets,” Miller said. “I gave him that second run, things became very stagnant, it become very difficult to score, and I thought he went back to the basics of what he’s being doing well for us all year.”
Similar moments could be highlighted for each of the eleven, and that’s the larger point here.
According to ESPN Stats, Indiana didn’t have a player in double figures for the first time in 20 years — but ten players scored in the game, and five had six or more points.
“Had a lot of different guys step up and play that you know, maybe didn’t get 20 points in the game, but just some key plays overall with a lot of guys stepping up in key moments,” Miller said.
Of course it won’t be smooth sailing to keep all eleven players happy if the Hoosiers have the good fortune of maintaining a healthy roster.
Race Thompson is someone that has made big contributions early in the season — but he only saw the floor for four minutes on Tuesday. Keeping all eleven players engaged and prepared when called upon won’t be easy.
That’s something that Miller recognizes, but he also knows that this depth is the foundation of his team’s potential.
“We just have to be really mindful around each other every day how hard it is to coexist with eleven players that expect to play,” Miller said. “But if we’re about the right things and we play the right way, and it’s about the win, this team has a chance to be pretty good.”
Indiana’s chance to be good really seemed to crystallize with their point guard back on the floor.
When Phinisee checked into the game on Tuesday night for the first time in nearly a month, the Hoosiers were reeling. Trailing 15-6, and coming off a blowout loss at Wisconsin, things were looking dire.
But in came IU’s steadying force. Miller’s extra important point guard. And by halftime, IU was up 34-31.
What makes Phinisee so special to this Hoosier team?
“His demeanor, the way he plays, he has confidence and we all believe in him,” Brunk said.
Miller, a former point guard himself, saw Phinisee just come in and do his job — the things that make the position so critical.
“He did what he does,” Miller said. “I thought defensively he impacted the game when he came in, and then offensively, he’s steady and he’s strong. He doesn’t just fire the ball all over the place.”
With all hands on deck, these Hoosiers look like they might have something here. At 9-1 and with the Wisconsin game firmly now in the rear view mirror, IU can look forward with optimism.
That’s a much easier sentiment to reach with a healthy roster, and with Phinisee back manning the most important position on the team.
But just don’t go confusing optimism about having a good team with any easy wins going forward.
The goal going forward is going to be finding ways to win in what should be a seemingly never ending series of “grinder” type games as Miller referred to Tuesday night’s contest against UConn.
If all goes according to plan, Indiana’s depth might be enough to put them over the top, getting the wins in tough games that have eluded Miller’s first two Hoosier teams.
“Every game from this point forward is going to feel like this. You’ve got to get used to it,” Miller said.
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