When Fred Glass hired Archie Miller, he said he believed he could be “a 20-year guy” who would define an era with the Indiana basketball program.
He seemed to check every box Glass could possibly ask for. He’d grown up the son of a Western Pennsylvania high school coaching legend and was the sort of player Indiana fans tend to adore — an undersized but heady and gritty point guard and lights-out shooter. He spent eight years as an assistant coach, working under Herb Sendek, Thad Matta and his brother Sean, and six years as a head coach at Dayton where he reached four NCAA Tournaments including an Elite Eight in 2014. He won at least 25 games in each of his last four seasons there and the Flyers won the Atlantic-10 title in each of his last two seasons.
He had a sense of the region and the fundamentally sound style of basketball Indiana fans wanted to see. He wanted to build his program on defense and in-state recruiting. He was the only coach Glass interviewed in person. It seemed like an obvious fit, an easy decision.
And yet four years later, Miller finds his employment up for debate as the Hoosiers are in danger of their first losing season since 2010-11. With four straight losses, they appear to have played themselves off the bubble with a 12-13 overall record and 7-11 Big Ten mark with a game Saturday on the road at Purdue, the in-state rival Indiana hasn’t beaten since 2016. In four seasons Miller has only had one team good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, which was last season when there was no tournament because of the pandemic. At 20-12, even that team was expected to be in the bottom half of the seed list.
If Miller had a five-year contract, he’d probably have very little chance of being retained. But he has a seven-year deal and if he’s fired before March 31, 2022, he’s owed 100 percent of his remaining salary which in this case would be nearly $10.5 million. Indiana would pay that in monthly installments and it would be mitigated if he gets another job between now and what would be the end of his contract, but tacked on to whatever they would have to pay a new coach, it’s a sizable investment especially considering the drain the pandemic has taken on athletics department finances nationwide.
So athletic director Scott Dolson will have to take a step back and look at the big picture before he makes that investment, even if it’s with some well-heeled donor’s dollars. He’ll have to consider everything Miller has accomplished, everything he’s failed to do, and what the future might look like if he sticks around. Here’s a look at some of the areas of program development Dolson might consider and Miller’s successes and failures in each.
In no facet of his program has Miller turned more heads than the recruiting trail. Even though Indiana and everyone else in the college basketball universe knew that the Hoosiers wouldn’t have Romeo Langford for more than a year, earning the commitment of the fourth-leading scorer in Indiana high school basketball history and the most coveted recruit from Indiana since Eric Gordon was still an emphatic statement that under Miller, the Hoosiers would be the team to beat for in-state recruits.
Since then, Miller has stuck to his promise to take an “inside-out” approach to recruiting, looking in the state first before branching out. The state has rewarded him. Langford was the first of three straight Indiana Mr. Basketball award winners that he landed with McDonald’s All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis following Langford and Anthony Leal following him. The Hoosiers might have had four straight if point guard Khristian Lander had stayed for his senior year at Evansville Reitz instead of reclassifying, which in itself was a significant story and indicator that the Hoosiers had maintained some recruiting juice. Seven of the 12 players on the current IU roster are from the state of Indiana, the others being guards Armaan Franklin, Rob Phinisee and Trey Galloway and center Joey Brunk, a transfer from Butler.
However, the Hoosiers haven’t grabbed every great in-state recruit — Michigan State’s Aaron Henry, Kentucky’s Keion Brooks Jr., and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and Brandon Newman are among the most notable targets who ended up elsewhere. Though they removed Lander from the 2021 class where he was the top-rated player before his reclassification, there were seven other in-state players in the 247Sports.com top 200 and Indiana didn’t get any of them. The Hoosiers lost out on Trey Kaufman and Caleb Furst, two forwards who have signed with Purdue, which is a concerning sign especially considering how interested they were in Kaufman. Also, not every in-state recruit they have taken panned out. Damezi Anderson scored 2,210 points at South Bend’s Riley High School, but he scored just 82 in 39 appearances in two seasons at Indiana before transferring to Loyola (Ill.)
And out-of-state recruiting hasn’t gone that well. They’ve been in Top 10s and Top 5s for a number of 247Sports Composite top 100 out-of-state players, but Jerome Hunter at No. 59 and Class of 2021 center Logan Duncomb at No. 74 — from Columbus and Cincinnati in the border state of Ohio respectively — are the only ones they’ve landed. Jordan Geronimo, a Newark, N.J. native who played prep school ball in New Hampshire, ranked just outside the top 100 and Jake Forrester of Harrisburg, Pa., was in the top 150, but that represents the entire out-of-state non-transfer recruiting haul from classes 2018-21.
And all told, Miller and his staff have simply not been able to put together a complete team. His 2018 class, the one that included Langford, did not end up providing the foundation that it was expected to, even considering the obvious expectation that Langford would leave for the NBA for a year.
Miller tried and failed on several occasions to recruit over Crean holdovers and was only partially successful. Guard Devonte Green and forward Justin Smith were both frustrating players prone to mistakes, but Miller never had enough players who could match or exceed their production to put them on the bench and they were two of Indiana’s three leading scorers last season before Green graduated and Smith transferred to Arkansas.
Senior guard Al Durham was the No. 230 player in the Class of 2017 and was always limited by his skinny frame, but he started over 90 games at Indiana and scored over 1,000 points. That’s a credit to his hard work, will power and versatility, but it is also an indictment of Indiana’s recruiting that he’s had to be such a critical piece. There have been headline victories and it matters that Miller was able to land elite in-state prospects, but at no point in the past four years have the Hoosiers fielded a top-five caliber roster in the Big Ten.
Indiana recently posted a graphic on its program Twitter account pointing out that Armaan Franklin, Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis are three of the five players in the Big Ten with the biggest improvements in scoring average from last season to this season. Franklin ranks second on that list behind Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell. The graphic was hashtagged “Player Development.”
It was an apparent rebuttal to media and fan critique of Miller and his staff’s ability to draw individual improvement out of players and it was a fair one. They have arguably become the Hoosiers’ three most dependable players this season. Franklin, who was the No. 151 player in the Class of 2019, went from finishing last season as an end-of-rotation player to starting nearly every game this season as Indiana’s top perimeter scorer and defender. Thompson, the No. 134 player in the Class of 2017, has become a force at both ends as the Hoosiers’ starting power forward. He’s fourth on the team in scoring (9.6 ppg), second in rebounding (6.4 rpg), first in field goal percentage among players who have taken at least 50 shots (52.5 percent), second in blocks (32) and tied for first in steals (26). He even has 34 assists to 28 turnovers.
Jackson-Davis was a McDonald’s All-American, so it’s not much of a surprise that he’s been extremely productive, but he still made a sizable leap from his freshman year to his sophomore year, averaging nearly 6 points per game more than he did a season ago with 19.4 ppg. He was a third-team All-Big Ten pick last season and will likely be a first teamer this time.
Juwan Morgan turned into a star and All-Big Ten player under Miller his first two seasons after being a bit player for two seasons under Crean. The IU staff has to get credit for Durham’s development as well. He arrived at Indiana about weighing about 160 pounds at 6-foot-4, and he’s now listed at 185. Whether that’s generous are not, it’s at least not laughably so. And although he certainly isn’t a dominant Big Ten guard, he is a productive one — a 1,000-point career scorer, he’s third on the team with 11.3 points per game. He’s also the second-leading 3-point shooter and leading free throw shooter.
But there are too many Indiana players who haven’t made the leaps they were expected to make. Anderson and forward Jake Forrester were supposed to be at least credible role players, but Forrester left after limited time as a freshman and Anderson was gone after his sophomore year. Jerome Hunter’s fate was largely determined by the undisclosed leg condition that erased his freshman year, but he hasn’t been quite what his pedigree suggested either.
And of course, the biggest strike against Miller in terms of player development is the stagnant career of Rob Phinisee. Phinisee was a winner in high school, and Miller trusted him enough to make him the starting point guard at the beginning of his freshman season. He’s had some strong defensive performances and he’s made some big shots, but it’s hard to argue that he’s a significantly better player than he was as a freshman. In fact, even though he’s healthier than he was a season ago, his numbers are down across the board — points, assists, rebounds, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage have all taken a dip. Blocked shots, of which he has 10, is one of the few areas in which he’s seen an increase. His 7.1 points and 2.6 assists per game are pedestrian figures for a starting Big Ten point guard, and for one with 67 starts in his career that stands out. Miller has been telling him for years to be more aggressive and only sometimes does it it appear to make an impact.
It’s unfair to say that there has been no player development under Miller, but it’s also hard to argue that it has been sufficient.
Discussing in-game coaching is to a degree subjective. It’s hard to quantify the number of times a coach made the right call versus the number of times he made the wrong call, especially because some times the coach can call a play that should work but doesn’t because it’s poorly executed or someone decided to freelance.
It’s also sort of subjective to determine who draws up good plays versus who draws up bad ones. It can be argued that the way teams perform in the second halves of close games is a sign of good coaching, but teams of mediocre talent frequently fade in the second half because they were coached up well but ultimately inferior to their opponent and ultimately ran out of gas.
But a coach can much more easily be judged on how it improves or does not improve based on the standards suggested by the coach when he enters the program. And it can be judged by how his team performs over times in the metrics that generally decide games.
And by those metrics, the Hoosiers haven’t made nearly enough collective improvements to suggest that they’ve established the identity in four years that Miller expected them to establish.
First and foremost, Miller wanted to the Hoosiers to be a “nasty” defense, one that could smother teams with the pack line, making it nearly impossible to score in the paint and hard enough from the perimeter. Their overall numbers have been good and the defense is clearly ahead of the offense, but in league play they haven’t been nearly as stingy as in non-conference games, and, of course, those are the games that matter.
In each of the last three seasons the Hoosiers have posted adjusted defensive efficiency figures in the top 50 nationally and under 96 points per 100 possessions. This year’s team has taken a slight back step from last year’s at 93.8 and 43rd nationally after finishing 2019-20 at 92.7 and 26th nationally.
But in Big Ten play this season, the Hoosiers are 12th among 14 teams in the category at 106.0 points per 100 possessions. They’re 11th in effective field goal percentage defense at 51.4 percent and last against the 3 at 36.4 percent. They were better last season, but still not great, allowing 102.0 points per 100 and allowing teams to shoot 49.6 eFG%. For all the size they had inside, they were 12th in the Big Ten in defending shots inside the arc and 10th outside of it. The Hoosiers actually had their best Big Ten defensive season under Miller in his first year when they were fourth at 100.4 points per 100 possessions. They’ve never been under 102 in league play since.
And since the defense is good but not spectacular, it’s not good enough to make up for the weaknesses on the offensive end. This is actually the most efficient offense Miller has had at Indiana at 111.0 points per 100 possessions and it’s 49th overall and 10th among Big Ten teams. It’s 101.5 points per 100 in league play is fifth but it still gives them a negative overall efficiency margin.
The Hoosiers have been able to get by on free throw rate — they currently rank sixth nationally after finishing 36th last season — and get enough points on the line to stay close even with a modest percentage. However, they have never placed in the top 150 in effective field goal percentage or in the top 175 in 3-point percentage in Miller’s tenure. By contrast, each of Miller’s last five teams at Dayton finished in the top 100 in effective field goal percentage and three of them were in the top 60 in 3-point percentage. This is actually Indiana’s best 3-point shooting team under Miller at 33.6 percent and it’s not as good as his worst shooting team at Dayton, which made 34.3 percent of its 3s.
The Hoosiers don’t make up for it anywhere else either. They rank 82nd in turnover percentage, 232nd in offensive rebounding percentage and 140th in defensive rebounding percentage. They had a top-50 rebounding squad last season, but the statistics don’t show a stable identity and they don’t show a program that has evolved in a very positive direction.
The top-line numbers on Miller’s record are obvious in their mediocrity. He heads into Saturday’s game with a 67-56 overall mark and a 33-43 record in conference games. His first season was actually his best in league play when the Hoosiers were 9-9 and finished sixth in the conference. Even last season when Indiana would have probably made the NCAA Tournament had their been one, they still finished 10th in the conference standings with a 9-11 league mark.
The Hoosiers have some wins in Miller’s tenure they can be proud of. The victory over No. 18 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic his first year. The two upsets of an eventual Final Four squad in Michigan State and an upset of Wisconsin in 2018-19. Five wins over ranked teams in 2019-20 including Florida State, Michigan State and Ohio State. Two upsets of Iowa this season.
But consistency has always been the issue. The Hoosiers are 3-9 after wins over ranked teams in Miller’s tenure. Their longest winning streak in Big Ten play this season was two games. They didn’t have a conference winning streak longer than two games last season either. They’ve only won three league games in a row three times in Miller’s tenure, four games in a row twice, and five or more never.
Some programs of historically equal stature have dominated the Hoosiers in Miller’s tenure. He’s 0-5 against Michigan, 1-6 against Ohio State, 2-5 against Rutgers, 1-4 against Wisconsin and most problematically, 0-6 against Purdue. He’s had Michigan State’s number in recent seasons with three straight wins over Tom Izzo coming into this season, but that changed this year when a downtrodden Spartans team beat IU twice in just over a week.
It’s critical to mention that the Big Ten has been historically powerful during Miller’s tenure, which makes it difficult to stage a rebuild. This year’s Big Ten is not only the strongest conference in the country based on KenPom.com’s metrics, which are based on adjusted efficiency margin, but the strongest on record going back to 2002 with a slight edge on the 2004 ACC. The Big Ten was also the strongest league last season and the second-strongest in 2018-19. It ranked fifth in his first year.
And this year’s Big Ten will likely send nine teams to the NCAA Tournament. It has four teams in the top 10 and three teams in the top five of the latest AP poll in No. 2 Michigan, No. 4 Illinois, No. 5 Iowa and No. 7 Ohio State. There are two more in the top 25 in No. 23 Purdue and No. 25 Wisconsin. Those six teams are also in the top 25 of the NET rankings and there are three more in the top 50. That certainly adds steepness to an uphill climb.
Miller will get the benefit of the doubt on what would have happened in 2019-20, as Indiana operated under the assumption that it would have gotten in the NCAA Tournament with their Big Ten Tournament win over Nebraska just before the pandemic cancellation appearing to have done enough to get them over the top. So he will not be judged as if he missed the tournament four straight years. But doing so in Years 1, 2 and 4 is enough of a problem.
Coaches with sub-par records have a better chance of sticking around through a tumultuous season if they can point to a potentially bright future that wouldn’t be possible if not for them.
Miller does have at least a couple of magic beans in his pocket that he can dream on. It’s not out of the question that he could get another year out of Jackson-Davis, who is currently projected as a second-round pick in the NBA draft, which means no guaranteed money. Armaan Franklin’s evolution sets him up to potentially be an All-Big Ten caliber guard next season.
Tennessee-Martin transfer Parker Stewart will give them a 6-5 guard with proven outside shooting range. Phinisee, Hunter, Thompson and Brunk will likely all be back and the freshman class has had some time to mature. Lander has started to show the dribble-drive skill and court vision that made him a five-star recruit in the first place. Geronimo has tons of bounce, length and athleticism and he can hit outside shots even at 6-foot-7. Galloway and Leal have shown flashes of who they are — a do-everything wing and a lights-out shooter — and if they come into their own as sophomores they can be major contributors.
But the Hoosiers only have so much coming that fans haven’t already seen somewhere. Center Logan Duncomb from Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati is the only freshman signee for the 2021 class and guard C.J. Gunn of Lawrence North High School is the only commit for the Class of 2022. They are the No. 74 and No. 107 recruits in their classes respectively, which suggests they can probably contribute immediately but not dominate before they’ve had some time to develop at the college level. Stewart fits a desperately needed role, but 19.5 points per game in the Ohio Valley Conference doesn’t translate to the same in the Big Ten. Perhaps the Hoosiers can expect more than the 9.1 per game he scored on a rebuilding Pittsburgh team in 2017-18, but only so much.
If all the stars align it’s imaginable for the Hoosiers to finish in the Big Ten’s top half in 2021-22 and maybe even if its top five. But they could also not and the Hoosiers could find themselves in the same spot a year from now. If Miller is still the coach, they would have saved themselves a substantial amount of money because his buyout drops drastically after next season.
But the question Dolson will have to ask himself is if it would be worth what he would have lost. Fan apathy has a cost associated with it as well, as it could hurt the Hoosiers at the gate next season if the pandemic ends and Assembly Hall can be filled to capacity again. There are bad optics associated with paying a coach so much to go away during a pandemic when so many people have lost jobs, but there are also bad optics associated with empty seats and frustrated fans. It’s a decision that isn’t particularly fair to thrust on a first-year athletic director, but it is one that for better or worse could define his tenure at Indiana.
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