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IU basketball: The backcourt is improved this year but still the team’s biggest question mark

Guard play has been a major issue for Indiana over the last few seasons.

Truth be told, the issue goes back to the departure of Yogi Ferrell, which not coincidentally was also the last time the Hoosiers made the NCAA Tournament.

There is little doubt that Indiana’s backcourt is the best it has been since then, but as we saw on Wednesday night at Wisconsin, it is still a work-in-progress.

Let’s take a look at the two primary issues that confront first-year head coach Mike Woodson.

Point guards inconsistent

Xavier Johnson’s speed and playmaking ability were known quantities when Indiana recruited him as a transfer from Pittsburgh.  But so was his propensity to play inconsistently, and allow his emotions to get the best of him at times.

Never was the Johnson roller coaster more apparent than at Wisconsin on Wednesday.  He had seven points, six assists and five rebounds before halftime on 3-of-6 shooting, but made just 1-of-10 shots to go with two turnovers and just one assist after the break.  Johnson appeared frustrated, allowed himself to be bothered by the officiating and physical play, and as a senior point guard, didn’t seem to have an answer for the defensive changes Wisconsin made.

Johnson’s assist rate is 27th in the country, but his usage rate is also higher than Trayce Jackson-Davis, a less than desirable result given their relative offensive efficiency.  He’s the point guard, so much of the offense should run through his decision making, and so far Johnson is making career-best overall (46.9 percent) and 3-point (45.5 percent) field goal percentages.  The question will be, how do those numbers hold up in league play against high-end talent and coaches, in big-time environments.  So far he is 5-of-21 from the field in the Big Ten.

Johnson is aggressive on the ball, but he is committing his most fouls per game (3.2) of his career, causing his minutes per game (22.6) to be the lowest of his four seasons.  And that means Indiana must look to its bench.

The Hoosiers have an apparent luxury in a second fourth-year long-time starter backing-up Johnson at point guard.  But thus far the song has remained the same for Rob Phinisee.  Through no fault of his own he’s had a career plagued by injuries, and that has been the case once again as he deals with a calf issue.

Phinisee’s career has been a story of moments that give hope surrounded by a now well-established norm.  And things seem to be trending in the wrong direction.  Thus far he has career lows in field goal percentage, assist-rate, turnover-rate and steal percentage.  Those are the verifiable numbers.  According to the eye-test, the offense slows down and the ball doesn’t move as crisply with the Lafayette product on the court.

And then there is former 5-star Khristian Lander.  He has clearly made progress.  The more confident second-year player is making 45 percent of his shots and has proven to be a real threat when attacking in the open court.  Lander is a good passer, and he has a chance to surpass Phinisee if he can improve his judgement on offense and continue to make strides on the defensive end.

There is just no doubt right now that Johnson is the right answer as the starting point guard.  He gives IU the greatest chance to win — but he can also send things into a tailspin rather quickly.  Woodson’s greatest challenge this season might just be whether he can harness all of that energy into something that much more often than not is a positive for Indiana.

Kopp and Stewart one dimensional

Photo By Andrew Mascharka/Indiana Athletics

Woodson needed 3-point shooting to make his offensive system work.

So imagine his two best 3-point shooters, Parker Stewart and Miller Kopp, also presenting one of his greatest conundrums on his first Hoosier squad.

Stewart has been lights out from beyond the arc, making 24-of-49 (49 percent), and Kopp has been effective as well, converting on 11-of-29 (37.9 percent).  But the question is, what else is this pair giving IU right now at a level that wins games at the upper-end of the Big Ten?

Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard quickly realized he had to run both players off the 3-point line after getting blitzed in the first half on Wednesday night.  The results were staggering, as both Stewart and Kopp were shut out in the second half in Madison.  Both tried to probe off the bounce but neither has the high-end speed to get past above average defenders and break down a defense.

Neither player is particularly effective on the ball on defense either, something that will continue to present challenges, especially with them on the court together.  Not every Big Ten team has someone has effective as Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, but there is enough high-end wing talent in the league to be a cause for concern.  It wasn’t by chance that Anthony Leal played the key minutes late in the second half against Wisconsin over Kopp as IU looked for answers against Davis.  Leal might just supplant Kopp if he can keep making shots because in most other aspects of the game he appears to be better.

Another clear answer would appear to be more of freshman Tamar Bates, who is everything Stewart and Kopp are not — a three-level scorer and a better defender.  But he is 18 to their 23 and 22, respectively.  Is he ready?  And can he shoot as effectively?  So far Bates has made 37 percent of his threes and 57.1 percent of his twos.  There will be highs and lows as with any true freshman, but the answer it would seem would be to plug in Bates as the two, bump Stewart to the three, and have Kopp come in off the bench for both Stewart and Race Thompson.

Kopp and Stewart are both highly valuable to this team, but matchups will likely determine just how effective they can be, and it would seem the better answer would be less rotations with them on the floor together to minimize the compounding effect of their overlapping deficiencies.

It is worth noting that Trey Galloway had firmly positioned himself into the rotation before breaking his wrist, at times even as a primary ball-handler, so Woodson’s hands have been somewhat tied.  Galloway is in many ways the opposite of Stewart and Kopp, a high-end playmaker, and a strong defender with a questionable 3-point shot.  When he returns in a few weeks Woodson should have even more flexibility.

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