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IU basketball: Hoosiers trying to find depth, health and perimeter defense during unexpected time off

By Dustin Dopirak

Archie Miller’s team is tired, and he can tell.

A lot of the fatigue is mental, the product of an exhausting year in American life and the challenges of being a college basketball team at the time of COVID-19, but some of it is physical.

Indiana starts two forwards, and they happen to be the only healthy post players on the roster with senior Joey Brunk out due to back surgery. One of them, sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis, ranks third in the Big Ten with 34.0 minutes per game, and the other Race Thompson, is not far behind him at 29 minutes per game, just outside of the Top 25 in the league. Some of the Hoosiers’ most effective lineups include both of them in the game at the same time because they can both play power forward and center, but no one else on the roster can handle the center spot, so the Hoosiers always have to have at least one of them on the floor.

“Losing Joey puts a lot of pressure on Trayce and Race in particular,” Miller said on his radio show on Monday night. “Not only do they have to play a lot of minutes, but they’re the only two real front court players who practice every day. That’s been the mental grind of coming to work every day and having to saddle up. That’s caught up with us a little bit.”

Some of the guards are fairly overworked as well. Senior Aljami Durham is fourth in the Big Ten with 33.2 minutes per game. Sophomore Armaan Franklin would be up there as well if he hadn’t played just seven minutes against Maryland on Jan. 4 because of a first half ankle injury before sitting out the next two games. Franklin averages 29.3 minutes per game and he’s played at least 32 minutes in the last five games he’s been fully available.

“Guys are playing a lot of minutes,” Miller said. “We’ve got to continue to work our bench. Al is a little bit fatigued as well playing a lot of minutes. We have some guys who are way up there in the minutes category.”

As a result, he’s seeing a team that starts to fade at problematic points in a game. Sometimes they still hang on and win games, but he’s seen them lose leads and fall behind by significant margins and go through stretches when they can’t make shots.

“Can I complain about their intent?” Miller said. “Can I complain about their togetherness or unselfishness? I think just, at times, we’re too easy to give in at times in certain areas.”

That’s particularly been a problem on defense, which not long ago was carrying the Hoosiers. They still rank 25th nationally in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, but not long ago they were top 15. They’re allowing 91.8 points per 100 possessions on the season, but they’ve held just one opponent (Maryland) under 1.05 points per possession since Big Ten play began on Dec. 23.

In conference games, the Hoosiers rank 10th in the league in scoring defense (74.3 ppg), 10th in field goal percentage defense (46.5 percent) and last in 3-point field goal percentage defense (40.4 percent).

“Our fundamental defense has really had some slippage since we started conference play,” Miller said. “All you have to do is look at the 3-point field goal percentage that the opponents are making on us right now. That’s not for lack of trying to guarding the 3-point line. That’s a lack of getting back properly, a lack of our positioning being right. I would say the base of our defense has really taken a slide. … It’s been a strength, and it’s become a weakness and that’s not good as you get into conference play.”

The schedule hasn’t taken it easy on the Hoosiers. Their loss against Purdue on Jan. 14 marked the end of a four-game stretch in 10 days. They didn’t get the usual downshift around the holidays when teams usually play weaker non-conference opponents in front of smaller crowds with the students out of town to gear up for conference play. The Big Ten started early this season with no crowds to speak of anyway and non-conference scheduling hampered by COVID-19, so the Hoosiers had conference games on Dec. 23, Dec. 26 and Dec. 30, keeping it going right through Christmas.

“There’s some guys playing some heavy minutes and it’s very difficult to ask those guys after three games in six, seven days to strap it on and get going in practice,” Miller said. “There’s got to be some type of a recovery. You add in some injuries and we start to get a little thinner. And to me, our practices have gotten a little choppy. They’ve gotten more manage-the-team, rather than, let’s keep getting better and keep working at it.”

So although he certainly isn’t rooting for the spread of the virus, he wasn’t all that sad for his team to have Sunday off thanks the cancellation of the Hoosiers game against Michigan State in East Lansing due to COVID-19 infections in the Spartans’ program. It at least gave Indiana a chance to take a breath.

“Hopefully it’s a blessing in disguise,” Miller said. “We had a few days here to recommit ourselves to the practice floor. If we do that, good things will start to resurface for us in certain areas that we can control.”

The Hoosiers (8-6, 3-4 in the Big Ten) need to get right because the next stretch of the schedule is the most brutal. They play at No. 4 Iowa (12-2, 6-1) on Thursday night followed by a home game against Rutgers (7-5, 3-5) at home Sunday. They don’t play a mid-week game after that, but have to go to Ann Arbor to play No. 7 Michigan (11-1, 6-1) on Saturday, Jan. 30, then come back for home games against No. 22 Illinois (9-5, 5-3) on Feb. 2 and Iowa on Feb. 7. They get Northwestern (6-6, 3-5) in Evanston on Feb. 10, No. 15 Ohio State (11-3, 5-3) in Columbus on Feb. 13 and No. 17 Minnesota (11-4, 4-4) at home on Feb. 17.

The Hoosiers don’t have another team that is currently under .500 for the season left on the schedule and it’s possible they won’t see a team that fails to make the NCAA Tournament the rest of the year.

“We have a lot of opportunities in front of us against great teams to show what we can do,” Miller said. “And we can do better.”

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