By Dustin Dopirak
Archie Miller was bothered by Indiana’s defensive performance against Penn State on Wednesday night, and the Hoosiers’ coach didn’t feel any better about it the more he watched it on video.
Indiana escaped with an 87-85 victory in overtime, but the 80 points they allowed in regulation were the most in any game this season. The Nittany Lions shot 47.7 percent from the field and hit 12 3-pointers, a season-high by an Indiana opponent. They posted 1.13 points per possession, also an Indiana opponent season-high.
Miller would like to believe it was simply a product of dealing with Penn State’s excellent collection of perimeter talent, but Miller saw much of the same in the Hoosiers’ Dec. 23 loss to Northwestern when the Wildcats posted 1.10 points per possession in a 74-67 win over Indiana at Assembly Hall. And he knows what he saw could be an issue at 8 p.m. Monday night at home against a perimeter-oriented Maryland team.
Overall, the Hoosiers rank 16th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com (90.2 points per 100 possessions). They rank fourth overall in the Big Ten in scoring defense (65.5 points per game) and fifth in field goal percentage defense (40.7 percent). However, through three league games, they rank eighth in scoring defense (76 ppg) and 12th in field goal percentage defense (49.1 percent) in conference play.
“Our defense has got to get its feet back on the ground,” Miller said. “We’re not tough enough on the ball right now. Since conference play has started, fatigue has set in during the course of the game.”
Against Penn State it was particularly obvious. The Nittany Lions play four-out, one-in with center John Harrar being the only player who plays with his back to the basket. Harrar had just two field goals, but the Nittany Lions scored 28 points in the paint thanks in large part to the dribble drive. Indiana had a particularly hard time keeping backup point guard Sam Sessoms out of the lane, and he finished with 17 points.
And the fact that the Hoosiers are already showing signs of fatigue in the very beginning of the new year in a season that started late to begin with is, of course, deeply problematic. The Hoosiers had to deal with an awkward offseason thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but so did every other team in the country.
To an extent, Miller said, that’s something the Hoosiers simply have to fight through, particularly the veterans. They are college kids after all, and they should have energy.
“There’s a lot of guys out there in college basketball right now that don’t come out,” Miller said. “And they play hard. And they play well. This is college basketball. This isn’t an 82-game season. I think if you look around the country, you’re going to see a lot of teams playing, six, seven, eight guys. There’s a lot of guys playing 35 minutes. And they’re getting it done. With us, we need to have a better mindset in terms of finishing, have an expectation of being able to play hard all the way through.”
The Hoosiers don’t have anyone averaging 35 minutes per game, but they do have three players who rank in the Big Ten’s top 15 in minutes per game in sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (32.9 mpg), senior guard Aljami Durham (31.1 mpg) and sophomore guard Armaan Franklin (31.1 mpg.) Three more players — junior guard Rob Phinisee, redshirt junior forward Race Thompson and freshman wing Trey Galloway — average more than 23 minutes per game.
So Miller acknowledged that fixing the fatigue issue rests partly on his shoulders. In freshmen Khristian Lander, Jordan Geronimo and Anthony Leal, he has three players who have each totaled fewer than 100 minutes in the season’s first 10 games. Lander, a five-star recruit who reclassified to be on this team, is averaging a modest 9.6 minutes per game. Leal and Geronimo are averaging 11.2 and 7.3 minutes per appearance respectively, but Geronimo has appeared in just six games and Leal five.
It isn’t easy when games are close, Miller said, but he admitted that he has to be willing to stick with them for longer periods in games to both help them build confidence and mature and to preserve energy for the rest of the veterans.
“Our bench has to be a focal point here going forward,” Miller said. “We’ve had some of our best performances when we’ve played the most guys. Games are obviously very, very intense right now. Possessions matter and trust is everything … but we’re going to move forward trying to do a better job of obviously improving our depth. It’s needed. It’s a must, and I think it will help us in the long term.”
Miller said he feels increasingly confident in all three freshmen, and he especially needs to give more minutes to Geronimo, a bouncy 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward. The Hoosiers have been shorthanded in the front court thanks to senior Joey Brunk’s back issues, and after his surgery last week, it’s uncertain whether or not he will return to the lineup this season. That leaves Jackson-Davis and Thompson as the Hoosiers’ only options at center. Both also play power forward, which leads to extensive action for both of them. Any minutes they can get from Geronimo and redshirt sophomore Jerome Hunter at the 4 gives Jackson-Davis and Thompson a chance to rest.
Geronimo’s inexperience has shown in limited minutes, but so has his potential. He has shooting range, and has knocked down two of his three 3-point attempts and five of his seven field goal attempts. He also has nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 44 total minutes, though his four turnovers and four missed free throws in that limited time are a bit of an issue.
“Jordan Geronimo has to play moving forward,” Miller said. “He’s just too active. He’s too physical. He gives us another body. Frontcourt players need an opportunity to have another forward in the game.”
Miller said that so far this season he’s frequently relied on experience, and he’s also kept veterans in the game who were struggling to help them find a groove. But after the defensive breakdowns he’s seen in the first three games and the apparent need for fresh legs, he sees no other option but to expand the rotation.
“My concern and my hesitance at times has been trying to get our core seven or eight guys who have played minutes in big games to play big-game minutes for us right now,” Miller said. “So those other guys don’t have the heat on them. But no question about it, it’s a commitment to the bench. It’s a commitment to a rotation. We have to find ways to give guys more confidence. They have to earn it while they’re in the game and do well, but the coach has to obviously stick to it a little bit and play through it whether it goes good or bad.”
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