Linda Taylor has been sitting in the stands at Assembly Hall for 39 years. She has seen an IU team or two.
From the band, to the cheerleaders to the team, Taylor’s perception of what is going on inside the building on game day is likely almost second nature at this point.
And Taylor, like many Indiana fans, can tell that something isn’t right with this 2019-20 Indiana basketball team. And the team before that.
“As a fan in the stands for 39 years what I see the last two years is that team comes out of that locker room flat,” Taylor said on Archie Miller’s radio show on Monday night. “There is no enthusiasm. There is no this is my floor and you’ve gotta take it.”
Miller may have been caught off guard but such a direct and public criticism of his team by a fan, but he didn’t show it. Instead, Miller agreed with Taylor.
“It’s actually a really good point because part of the struggle with our team has been passion and emotion,” Miller said.
Taylor went on to mention how there seems to be a lack of verbal communication among the players, and that may have earned her an invite into the locker room.
“You should come talk to our team,” Miller said. “I don’t think they believe me when I say that they don’t talk to each other.”
While the exchange between Taylor and Miller was friendly, it was just a small part of a nearly hour long acknowledgement by Miller on his radio show that his team isn’t right on or off the court when it comes to attributes like leadership, mental toughness and team chemistry.
That team that you see getting steamrolled by big runs seemingly game after game is lacking in more ways than just an inability to knock down jump shots.
“It’s not as much about basketball as it is the mental side of things and the togetherness side of things and making sure that we are right,” Miller said earlier in the show.
“When we’re right we can play with anybody. And when we’re not right, it doesn’t look right. You can go out and practice every single day hard but if your group in the locker room isn’t right in terms of their togetherness and their focus, you are going to come up short in a lot of areas in this league because there is no room for error.”
At several points during the show Miller seemed to acknowledge that there may be elements of the team that are not completely bought in.
And it sounds like those individuals might be a drain on the rest of team.
“If you’re not having fun at this time of year, then you’re not enjoying each other,” Miller said.
On multiple occasions this season Miller has suggested that adjustments to playing time and the rotation might be coming to get the attention of certain individuals.
Senior guard Devonte Green was benched for the home game against Ohio State, for example. Green responded well that day with a strong showing off the bench.
But the issues plaguing this team both on and off the court have continued, and it sounds like more changes are coming.
“As a coaching staff you have to play these games but at some point you have to draw the line,” Miller said. “If you don’t really want to be a part of winning, then you have to not be a part of what we’re doing. If you’re not progressing as a group and there is something wrong with the group then you have to stop what’s impeding it.
“We’ve got to have everybody on the same page, then we’ll start to see some success again.”
With Indiana once again on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the number of opportunities out there to ensure that it doesn’t miss the event for the fourth straight season are dwindling.
With a team that is struggling to manufacture points, Miller has a delicate balance on his hands. Somehow he has to navigate making the adjustments that are needed to improve the effort level and chemistry, while not taking too much production off the floor.
“At some point the coach needs to figure out who is not responding,” Miller said. “It’s not equal opportunity as you’re struggling. It may be that this guy right here isn’t playing well. Let’s play this guy and figure some things out. This team needs a jumpstart. We need some guys going out there that really want it.
“We have to go back to practice and see who is ready to go. We have to line up on Thursday night with those guys. If that’s six of ’em or eleven of ’em, whatever it may be. The message has been sent that Saturday was really disappointing.”
Perhaps his biggest challenge, Miller has to find leaders on this team. Verbal, demanding leaders.
That is not something that can be developed with long hours in the gym. Instead, that is a coach asking players to go outside of their comfort zone as individuals, and perhaps become someone that they are not.
It is something that is much easier said than done.
But it is also a part of coaching, and something that is vitally important to this particular team.
Miller believes a lack of communication is working against his squad when the going gets tough.
“An ugly face of this team has been that when things are hard, whether if it’s on the road or a losing streak here or there, they tend to be more reserved or more quiet,” Miller said. “Somebody is going to fix it for them.”
With playing time apparently up for grabs, verbal leadership is another attribute that will lead to more minutes on the floor.
“At this point in time anyone’s voice is a positive,” Miller said. “If you’re passionate about what you want and you feel the need to speak in any way in practice, film or anything, to me it’s a good thing because you care.”
The lack of leadership, the lack of complete buy-in in the locker room, all of that seems to manifest out on the floor in a way that is apparent to both Taylor and Miller.
Now mired in a four game losing streak, Miller believes that flat approach that Taylor sees is more to blame than anything else right now.
“I think the edge more so than anything, playing with a purpose, how hard you have to play for what you’re trying to accomplish out there,” Miller said. “We’ve shown that when we do that we can be pretty good, and when we don’t you can fall on your face. Saturday (against Purdue) was a direct result of falling on your face because you’re not mentally sharp, and you’re not as a group ready to roll in terms of you’re focus.”
Despite all of the doom and gloom, Indiana still has eight games remaining.
If making the NCAA Tournament is now the primary goal, that is clearly still on the table.
“We’re actually really relevant right now,” Miller said. “There is so much more ball to be played. Our quest is to find a way to play our best ball down the stretch here.”
But there will be no breaks down the stretch in the Big Ten. Each of Indiana’s final eight opponents are ranked No. 32 or better according to Ken Pom. If IU is going to get itself right, it is going to have to do it against top competition.
And it starts on Thursday night with Iowa.
“I told them today, this is the best team (Iowa) that we will play at home this season,” Mille said. “As much as you want to dwell on we’re not playing well, you better find a way to play well. We’ve got to get our stuff together.”
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