It sounded like the kids in the back of a car during a long drive home.
“When can we come back? When can we get back? When are we getting back?”
Instead, after nearly three months away from organized team activities, that was how IU head coach Archie Miller described the enthusiasm he is hearing from his players as they waited for the green light to return to campus.
Amid the chaos and upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, in many ways it has been a long drive back towards something that resembles normalcy.
And now finally, Miller can turn towards the backseat and give an answer.
That’s the date set by IU Athletics for the men’s and women’s basketball players to return to campus and begin participating in voluntary team activities.
To be sure, home won’t look quite the same as it did when everyone left in March.
There will be screenings, exams, masks, social distancing and everything else we have come to know over the last three months.
That’s all stuff that most have come to expect, if not accept.
But whatever the nuisances and nuances might be, Miller has a team that is genuinely excited to get back together in a couple weeks.
“There is an anxiousness about being together for the first time in the offseason,” Miller said on a recent podcast with IU radio voice Don Fischer.
In a normal offseason that enthusiasm might be aimed at getting in the car and heading the opposite direction.
“Most guys (think in a normal offseason), man if I could get a couple weeks off, or I didn’t have to see coach, or I don’t have to lift weights, I’ll take that,” Miller joked.
It goes without saying that this offseason has been anything but normal.
After it beat Nebraska on March 10, Indiana appeared to be on track to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
Instead, before anyone knew what hit them, seasons were canceled and players were sent home.
Seniors De’Ron Davis and Devonte Green will never get another chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
For their former teammates that will finally return to Bloomington in a couple weeks, the abrupt ending has manifested into a renewed determination.
Credit – IU Athletics
“It’s almost as, if your appetite didn’t get filled,” Miller said. “I think that’s been one of the more motivating things in talking to our players over these last ten weeks, our returners and our incoming guys, is really unfinished business. You want to get started again.
“I’m excited that there’s an appetite. There’s a hunger right now to be together and get started.”
When he sees his players on Zoom meetings or FaceTime, Miller sees what any coach would hope to see in terms of chemistry and togetherness.
“There’s an anxiousness to get back and get back to work,” he said. I think that’s a positive that our guys are excited about wanting to be around each other and get back. There’s an anxiousness about playing again.”
For the first time in his tenure at IU, Miller will have upperclassmen in the program that he recruited out of high school. He’ll also have two seniors, and seven players that have been with him for at least a season.
In those groups Miller sees a different kind of resolve.
“As the program has turned over a few years, there’s some returning guys with a lot invested. You have a lot of experience that played in a lot of games this year. You (also) have a group of newcomers that are excited to join a team that feels like they’re going to be good.”
Now entering his fourth season at IU, Miller too of course has a lot invested. And a lot on the line.
He’s recruiting well enough right now that most fans are being reasonably patient.
And although it hasn’t been at the pace that anyone hoped for, there has been progress with the results on the court.
Perhaps IU would have made the 2020 NCAA Tournament, and that would have helped ease the pressure a bit.
But as Miller said, that appetite wasn’t filled.
Miller’s job is safe, but a fourth straight season with no NCAA Tournament wouldn’t be comfortable situation for him.
He knows it is time to take a big step.
And he is aiming high.
“For us it’s that next step,” Miller said. “We have to find a way to compete for the Big Ten championship. That’s what it’s about right now. We have to start getting into that mindset.”
Finally everyone can begin the process of working together as a team towards those goals.
Things are starting to look familiar.
And the car is about to pull into the driveway.
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