The post-game press conference with Indiana head coach Archie Miller after a too close for comfort win over Northwestern on Wednesday night felt more like a group therapy session rather than the dissection of a basketball game.
If you had walked into the room uninformed you might have guessed that we were discussing a 3-12 team rather than 12-3.
But like you and me, Miller knows that those 12 wins, and especially the victory over Northwestern, don’t tell the full story.
To even the casual observer, something doesn’t seem right with this group. To the head coach, something seems very wrong.
“Very concerned with our group right now, just in terms of where our brains are, where our minds are and what we’re about,” Miller said.
While we don’t know all of the layers embedded in that comment, whatever is going on with Miller’s third Indiana team is manifesting into some erratic play on the court. Within games it is like a switch is flipped, and Indiana is suddenly mentally steamrolled. Take a look at IU’s last four games:
- A 29-19 Indiana lead over Big Ten basement dweller Northwestern turned into a 50-40 deficit, a 31-11 run.
- A 36-33 deficit at Maryland turned into a 71-41 hole, a 35-8 run.
- A 61-52 lead at home against Arkansas became a 71-64 loss, a 19-3 run.
- A 40-23 lead over Notre Dame became a 59-54 deficit, a 36-14 run.
While allowing the big runs is concerning, equally confounding is the fact that IU was good enough to build the big leads in the first place.
How can a team be that consistently inconsistent over the course of two hours?
The pattern is now clear. The Hoosiers are losing focus within games, and unable to sustain energy for 40 minutes.
But rather than trying to figure out “what” is going on, Miller seems focused more on the “who”.
Apparently lines were drawn and names were called out in a charged up post-game locker room on Wednesday night.
And things are about to change.
Since September Miller has proclaimed on several occasions that all eleven of his scholarship players were capable of playing, and that individuals were going to have to sacrifice for the good of the team when it came to playing time.
No names were specifically mentioned on Wednesday night in the press conference, but suffice it to say that all eleven scholarship players will not be seeing the floor on Saturday against Ohio State.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t necessarily know right now if the 11-guy rotation is going to work,” Miller said. “I just don’t know necessarily if that’s the best thing moving forward if we’re not going to get all 11 heated up and playing as hard and as unselfish as we possibly can.”
A lack of toughness and effort has seemed to plague all of Miller’s Indiana teams, and he seems intent on leaving anyone on the bench who isn’t giving the requisite effort — even if that means not even going to his bench.
“It may be five. It may be just five,” Miller said regarding how many players might see the floor prospectively. “I don’t know.”
Things got so dire from an effort standpoint against Northwestern that Miller had to abandon his philosophy in order to artificially charge up his team.
Typically content to sit back and run his more principles oriented pack-line defense, Miller had his team pick-up full court in the second half.
“It was very desperate. It took urgency and it took desperation to sort of kick us into gear,” he said.
And it worked. After trailing 50-40 in the second half, IU closed out the game on a 26-12 run over the last 12 minutes, which roughly corresponded to the defensive adjustment.
“We know how good we are defensively,” junior co-captain guard Al Durham said. “So we knew if we locked in on defense we could get out and run and play our game. So I feel like we just amped each other up and played off each other. And anything I can do or my teammates can do to amp up each other and get us going, we’ll do.”
If the problems with this team were confined to the defensive end, perhaps none of this would be so troubling.
But while it was a defensive adjustment that helped spur IU to a win over the Wildcats, defense has been the better half of Indiana’s scheme for most of this 2019-20 season.
Prior to the Northwestern game Miller spoke extensively about the need for better passing and ball movement that leads to more assists.
What he saw against the Wildcats was more of the same, at least from some players.
And that left Miller and others within the program perplexed.
“When you’re fighting to pass and everybody on the team and on the bench and in the locker room knows it’s the thing we need to do better and we’re talking about it a lot every day and the ball won’t move, people look around and say why isn’t that happening? We just worked on it,” Miller said.
But the answer in Miller’s eyes isn’t about the “why” either. He now seems intent on focusing in on who, whether it is one or more players, is not taking what is being worked on at practice out to the court on game day.
And for that individual or those individuals, it may be difficult to see the court on Saturday against Ohio State.
“We’ve got to figure it out, like I said, who is not moving it. And then we move him on and we get somebody else in the game who will move it, because we’re not moving the ball well right now, Miller said.
“We’re not a very sharp oriented offensive team because of it and we’re turning it over. And we’re unsure of ourselves. We need to get confidence in moving the ball and trusting what we’re doing and we need guys who believe in that and we’ll be all right, and the competitive spirit of our group will get better.”
Miller seems to believe that the issue is more than just about a player or players not doing their jobs.
It is more than just using the bench as a tool to get a point across.
For a team searching for its soul, searching for its identity, and searching for cohesion — Miller seems to believe that there is an element on this team working directly against all of that. Perhaps it isn’t intentional, but it is nevertheless happening in the coach’s eyes.
“You see the same things happening mistake-wise that we’re not making any improvement in that area. And it takes the camaraderie out of your group,” Miller said.
All but one of Indiana’s remaining 16 regular season games are against teams that are ranked in the top 40 according to KenPom. The lone team that doesn’t fit that description is Nebraska, who took IU to double overtime in Bloomington.
Miller knows it is a now or never situation. He doesn’t need you to tell him what happened last year.
And because of all that, the team he puts on the floor is going to start looking different.
“We’re just searching for ourselves again rather than unconditional approach and buy-in in terms of how hard it is to win a game and how fun it is to compete in that environment out there, Miller said.
“Moving forward, we need to know what we’re getting. And I think as a staff, as you’re kind of coming in here right now, we can really take some of the confusion out by not worrying about playing; we just play as many guys as we need to play to win the game and who is playing the hardest, because you’re not going to be able to compete against Ohio State or anybody after that or moving forward, each game down the line as teams keep getting better, if you’re still standing in the same conversation.
“We’ve got to get out of that and we’ve got to get better and get back to playing team ball again and playing hard and not worrying about it a whole lot.”
One could easily speculate on who the odd man or men out are going to be on Saturday. There seemed to be a clear inflection point in the Northwestern game, when IU was down by 10 in the second half, when the defensive adjustment was made, when you could hear a pin drop in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, and when it felt like a season, and maybe even a coaching tenure was about to implode.
At the second half under twelve media timeout with IU trailing 50-40, out of the game went Devonte Green. Race Thompson and Jerome Hunter exited shortly thereafter. Damezi Anderson and De’Ron Davis never saw the floor at all in the second half.
The allocation of minutes may not tell the entire story. For example, Green was also noticeably limping at times on Wednesday. Injuries might have played a role in who saw the floor late in the game.
The Hoosiers went with six players in the final 10:38 of the game — Al Durham, Armaan Franklin, Rob Phinisee, Joey Brunk, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Justin Smith.
While Miller said he’d go the whole game with just five if he had to, and he went with just six down the stretch, neither of those scenarios is likely on Saturday against the Buckeyes. Some of the five that didn’t play down the stretch on Wednesday will see the floor on Saturday.
But the rotation is clearly going to be smaller, and the starting lineup is likely to change. Feelings are going to be hurt.
And maybe, just maybe, messages will not only be sent — they will be received, and things might finally change.
Miller knows better than anyone that enough is enough, and he can wait no longer for everyone to get on board. The train is leaving the station, with or without you.
“We’ve got to punch through this wall right now,” Miller said. “I’ll say if you’re not ready to go on Saturday, that’s a problem.”
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