Throughout the entirety of Bob Knight’s coaching career, his teams had only allowed an opponent to go over 100 points one time.
And then it happened. Three times. In ten days.
The year was 1988, and the game, they speculated, was starting to pass him by.
Indiana started the 1988-89 season 3-4 and gave up more than 100 points to Syracuse, North Carolina and Louisville.
From that point Knight’s Hoosiers won 22 of 25 games.
Often erroneously thought of as stubborn and unwilling to adapt, it was a midseason change that dramatically altered the course of that season.
Specifically, Knight changed his starting lineup, benching larger players and moving to a three-guard unit of senior Joe Hillman and sophomores Jay Edwards and Lyndon Jones.
A few months later, Indiana was the Big Ten champion in a league that sent two teams to the Final Four, and Knight, the national coach of the year.
No, this isn’t another attempt to relive the glory days. That’s the last thing this Indiana program needs right now. The 1988-89 anecdote is merely a reminder that things can change midstream. Coaches can find solutions that alter the course of a season — if they are willing to adjust.
Yes, this 2019-20 version of Indiana basketball is starting to look eerily similar to last year’s team that lost 12 of 13 in Big Ten play.
But it is only early January, and if head coach Archie Miller can find solutions today, the story of the season that we write in March might just look a lot different than the 2018-19 account.
GO SMALL OR GO HOME
The three forward lineup of Trayce Jackson-Davis, Joey Brunk and Justin Smith has run its course.
Jackson-Davis is the foundation here. For so many reasons on both ends of the floor, the true freshman is the most impactful player on this Indiana roster right now.
“He’s a 34 minute guy to me, and I honestly don’t care how many mistakes he makes,” former IU player and color commentator Todd Leary told me today on Indiana Sports Beat with Coyle and Leary. “He’s that good. He’s got to be on the floor.”
I agree with that sentiment, so the question becomes who do you take off the floor between Justin Smith and Joey Brunk?
Smith’s skill set just simply does not translate to playing on the wing offensively in the Big Ten. He doesn’t have the perimeter shot and he isn’t strong enough off the dribble.
But that is not to suggest that Smith should be benched. The junior forward is a strong defender, and he is elite in transition and diving to the rim on the offensive end. In the halfcourt however, Smith would be better suited playing even center before the three.
Against Maryland, Leary saw Smith playing at least at times the way he should be used on the offensive end.
“He backed his man in, and he at least was trying to play with his back to the basket,” Leary said. “That’s a super positive.”
Both Brunk and Smith should be in the rotation, but as for who starts and gets the lion’s share of the minutes, that should probably come down to matchups.
When a team has a modern stretch-four in the game, that is a great cover for Smith that he might be able to score against on the other end. If the opposition is going with two traditional big men then Brunk is likely the better fit right now.
A STRONG FINISH BY PHINISEE
“At the end of the day, some players are going to have to step up and make shots,” Miller said after the Maryland game.
When it comes to a guard that isn’t playing to their potential right now, one name stands out above the rest.
It has been a month now since Rob Phinisee returned to the lineup after a series of nagging issues. One would expect that the sophomore point guard might be back to 100 percent health and ready to lead this team.
Instead, Phinisee still seems to be on a pitch count and hasn’t looked like himself when on the floor.
Never was that more apparent than against Arkansas when Phinisee missed two technical free throws badly and then wasn’t on the floor as the game slipped away down the stretch.
“We all know he’s the best defensive player that we have and at the end of that ballgame (Arkansas) when you need stops, you don’t even have him on the court,” Leary said.
And then against Maryland, in a game where you might have expected Phinisee to shadow Terrapin point guard Anthony Cowan the entire game, instead he only played 22 minutes.
It isn’t clear what is wrong with Phinisee, but in addition to his defensive prowess he is a talented scorer and creator. If he is physically capable, the sophomore point guard needs to be pushed into as many minutes as he can handle, and strongly encouraged to look to score.
The game plan coming into the season was to have Devonte Green move off the ball, but that hasn’t happened with Phinisee in and out of the lineup and playing a reduced role.
With scoring the basketball such a challenge right now, Miller should go with his three best shooters — Phinisee, Green and Al Durham — all on the floor together, push the pace, spread things out, and look to create defensive breakdowns in the half court with dribble penetration.
OLD DOGS. OLD TRICKS.
Miller has been with the upperclassmen on this team for three years now. They are the leaders of the team, but not much has changed since Miller’s first game against Indiana State back in November of 2017. Simply put, the team lacks an identity and it lacks toughness.
None of the upperclassmen (De’Ron Davis, Green, Smith, and Durham), save for Brunk, were guys that Miller recruited — for whatever that is worth. Perhaps he will never be able to get through to them. Perhaps that is just an excuse. Perhaps Miller’s inability to foster change highlights an inadequacy he has as a coach.
Whether it is changing the current players or an infusion of new players that Miller selects, Leary sees the need for a more cohesive group that understands their roles.
“We need guys who are willing to play as a team,” Leary said. “And willing to come in and do the little things and do the dirty work, get the ball where it needs to go, play with leadership, and play with basketball IQ.”
Leary doesn’t absolve the coaching staff either.
“There’s a part of it, yes you have to hold some blame on the coaching staff,” he continued. “From Archie Miller all the way down. Every coach on that staff has the ability to go work with those guys and get them to understand how important they can be in other ways other than just scoring the basketball.”
Obviously the roster isn’t going to change during this 2019-20 season, and there are still two months left with this particular group.
There is still plenty of time to find answers, and that is what Miller intends to do.
It’s what he has to do.
“You’ve got to navigate the road,” Miller said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
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