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IU Basketball: While Archie Miller’s Threats Seem Idle, Does He Really Have Choices?

It has been a record-breaking season for Indiana.

No, there won’t be any meaningful updates to the media guide.  Not those kind of records.

We’re talking broken records, like the vinyl record, skipping on the turntable, saying the same thing over and over again.

As Indiana’s season has gone sideways, suggestions that things are going to change, that things have to change, have been heard on multiple occasions over the last six weeks.

That’s where Archie Miller’s frustration with his third Indiana team has taken him this winter.  As he said on Sunday, it isn’t just the losses, it’s how IU is losing.  Perhaps it is because there are only so many ways you can say it, but how his team is losing has Miller repeating himself.

Consider just a sampling of some of Miller’s public remarks about his team since early January.

After Northwestern —

“Like I said to them after the game, strength in numbers is only going so far right now,” Miller said.  “The number has to shrink, maybe, in my opinion for some guys to get a jolt.  We’ll have to find the guys ready to roll at the start of a game that are ready to play like we need to play, and like our fans and our crowd and everybody wants to see.”

After Purdue —

“As a coaching staff you have to play these games but at some point you have to draw the line,” Miller said.  “If you don’t really want to be a part of winning, then you have to not be a part of what we’re doing.  If you’re not progressing as a group and there is something wrong with the group then you have to stop what’s impeding it.

“At some point the coach needs to figure out who is not responding.  It’s not equal opportunity as you’re struggling.  It may be that this guy right here isn’t playing well.  Let’s play this guy and figure some things out.  This team needs a jumpstart.  We need some guys going out there that really want it.

“We have to go back to practice and see who is ready to go.  We have to line up on Thursday night with those guys.  If that’s six of ’em or eleven of ’em, whatever it may be.  The message has been sent that Saturday was really disappointing.”

After Michigan —

“This is not one where you say, ‘Flush it, we go on to the next one,’” Miller said. “This one is really disappointing.”

None of this is unique to this 2019-20 season.  Similar comments were made last season, most notably after a blowout loss at Minnesota where Indiana is set to return on Wednesday.

The Hoosiers have come full circle as they return to Minneapolis this week, but this time the concerns might just run deeper.

While there were tense moments in the locker room last year, eventually Miller get through to his team.  The blowout losses stopped and his team eventually started winning again, although it was too late to salvage an NCAA Tournament invite.

This year the broken record keeps spinning, but to this point no one has figured out how to take the needle off the album.

The head coach has suggested changes that do not appear to ever come, and the players have not responded like they did a year ago.

What is going on here?

Miller has the gun.  He’s telling you he has the gun.  What he’s not telling you — is that maybe he has no bullets.

Older Indiana fans might recall games where Bob Knight benched his entire starting lineup.  Such moments occurred most memorably at Illinois in 1985 and Minnesota in 1994.

What people need to realize is that Knight had won two and three national titles to those points, respectively.  He wasn’t looking over his shoulder even a little bit.

Miller knows that he has to just simply make the NCAA Tournament at some point very soon.  Throwing away a game to send a message might sound good in theory, but this is a coach that doesn’t have any games to waste right now.

While losses weren’t going to get Knight fired in the foreseeable future, if ever, Miller doesn’t have that same luxury.

Photo by Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

If Miller wants to send a message, he has to do it in a way that doesn’t materially impact his ability to win.

The third year Hoosier head coach did send senior guard Devonte Green to the bench after that Northwestern game, and he responded admirably with a 19 point effort in a reserve role against Ohio State in the next game.

Green has continued to come off the bench, and Miller continues to give the 6-foot-3 guard meaningful minutes.  Why?  Precisely because of how he performed in that Ohio State game, and against Iowa, Florida State and others.  On a team that lacks offensive firepower, Green’s potential to give the team a jolt is just too much for Miller to ignore.

It’s a similar story as you go up and down Indiana’s roster.

Bench Justin Smith?  Offensively that might not get you beat, but Smith is often Indiana’s best and most versatile defender.  There are matchups like Lamar Stevens, Joe Wieskamp and many others that quite simply no one else on this roster could handle.

Bench Rob Phinisee?  Look, let’s face it, Phinisee hasn’t been the same on the ball defender this year.  Perhaps his preseason abdominal injury is lingering.  But Indiana only has one true point guard on its roster, and Phinisee has been shooting the ball well of late. Benching the sophomore point guard would make little sense.

Bench Trayce Jackson-Davis?  While there have been the ups and downs that you expect from a freshman, surely you jest.

Bench Jerome Hunter or Race Thompson?  Quite simply, of course not.  While they are young, inexperienced and inconsistent, both players are trending in the right direction and bring things to this team that no one else can.

Bench Joey Brunk?  Maybe, but who is going to put a body on Kaleb Wesson, Luka Garza, or Jon Teske?  The pendulum could be swinging in favor of De’Ron Davis for the bruiser job if he remains more efficient offensively, but neither is a panacea when it comes to how Miller wants to hedge high ball screens and protect the rim, and both are a liability in IU’s transition offense.

Bench Al Durham?  Defensively that might not get you beat, but Durham is at times the only guard committed to transition offense and he is still shooting 35.5 percent from three-point range for a team that needs perimeter threats.  Plus, he is one of just three guards that Miller has shown a willingness to play right now with Armaan Franklin out of the rotation for the most part.  Is he going to play just two guards?

Franklin might be the one player that you could argue should be seeing more action.  He is more versatile than Durham and a better defender.  But he is also shooting 34.3 percent overall and 23.6 percent from three point range.  That’s not exactly the change that Miller is likely looking to pin his hopes on.  Not right now.

Tinkering with the starting lineup might help some out on the margins.  You won’t find many folks, if anyone, who are in love with having Smith, Jackson-Davis and Brunk all on the floor at the same time.

But again, this is more about changing hearts and minds, and finding more effort, toughness and leadership.  Tinkering with lineups might just be akin to rearranging deck chairs.

This team just kind of is what it is, especially for a coach that needs wins more than anything else with six games remaining in the regular season.  With a team that is not particularly skilled, Miller can ill afford to make drastic changes.

If there is one guy that is a problem in the locker room and bringing the whole team down, and those suggestions are out there, by all means send him to the bench and leave him there.

But otherwise, it is time to just put the empty gun away and stop talking about changes that really aren’t available.

It is sending the wrong message publicly, and most likely, the wrong message in the locker room.

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