Hey, enough with this COVID-19 business.
Let’s talk some basketball. Real basketball. Like X’s and O’s. If only just for a few minutes.
As it stands right now, there is going to be a college basketball season. And Indiana head coach Archie Miller likes what he sees from his team thus far.
There is only one holdover left from the Tom Crean era, and that player, Al Durham, never played for the former IU coach.
This is the year that IU basketball should take on the identity that Miller is looking for, and he already sees a dramatic change after six weeks on campus.
“Definitely by far and away the most together and best leadership that we’ve had, and also just the maturity of our new guys coming in have really just fallen in line and not missed a beat,” Miller said in a virtual press conference on Tuesday night.
Former Crean players De’Ron Davis and Devonte Green graduated, and another former Crean recruit, Justin Smith, has transferred to Arkansas.
The culture of the Indiana program is undeniably changing. Now the question is — will it lead to improved results on the court?
The roster turnover creates an opportunity to address the glaring weakness of Indiana’s last few seasons — the offense.
In 2019-20, Indiana played to its perceived strength — its size. That mean a three forward starting lineup including Smith, Joey Brunk, and Trayce Jackson-Davis.
While the trio brought advantages, none of three were a consistent threat to score beyond eight feet from the rim.
That made Indiana relatively easy to guard, and the whole scheme was a diversion from how Miller really wants to play.
How will things look different this year?
“Much more in the realm of how we want to do it — more perimeter oriented with more guard play,” Miller said.
Interestingly enough, it is the youngest player on the team, 17 year old point guard Khristian Lander, that cemented the notion of playing smaller.
Lander, a five-star recruit from Evansville, Ind., reclassified into the class of 2020 and joined his new teammates earlier this month.
“Once Khristian joined it was inevitable that we were going to have to be able to play Rob (Phinisee), Khristian and Al (Durham) together,” Miller said. “I don’t know if that (particular) combo works the best or the most, but it’s going to give our perimeter guys way more opportunities to get out there and play three guard lineups.
“We’re going to be a more guard oriented team and play three perimeter players either around Trayce and Joey like we did a year ago, or we’ll play with some even smaller stuff with Jordan Geronimo and Jerome being a more perimeter oriented guy out there around one of those guys.”
Although Lander and Phinisee are point guards, they both play with a scoring mentality. It is clear that IU will be using not just three-guard lineups, but also two point guard lineups.
That is something that Phinisee believes can work well.
“I think we’ll complement each other really well,” Phinisee said about playing with Lander. “He’s very quick and likes to attack off of ball screens. I feel like in the new offense we have we’ll both be able to play together and be able to create for each other.”
Phinisee didn’t expand much on what precisely that new offense will look like. We’ll leave the nuances for another day. For now, a smaller, faster, more perimeter oriented and versatile attack is what you should expect.
And that extends to Jackson-Davis.
The sophomore forward paid close attention during his freshman season, and Jackson-Davis knows that if he can also expand his game out to the perimeter Indiana will be that much more difficult to defend.
“Not being able to space the floor really hurt parts of my game,” Jackson-Davis said. “Teams being able to pack it in, they kind of learned that late in the season. As I watched some of the other players, Kaleb Wesson, Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu all being able to step out and shoot the ball really opened the offense, and a lot of their players did well from that.”
With a reliable perimeter shot Jackson-Davis knows that he can help his team win more games. At the same time, he can turn himself into a NBA Draft Lottery pick in 2021.
That’s why Jackson-Davis turned his focus almost exclusively to scoring away from the basket this spring and summer.
“I’ve been really working on my jump shot, stretching the floor is going to be a big key for me this year,” Jackson-Davis said. “During the quarantine that’s all I’ve been working on is my jump shot, just shooting the ball a ton.”
Of course Jackson-Davis isn’t the only player that needs to improve their perimeter shot.
Only one returning player, Al Durham, shot better than 34 percent from behind the arc last season.
The movement to a more perimeter focused attack will fall flat if Indiana doesn’t also become a better shooting team in 2020-21.
Miller knows that of course, and he sees the potential.
“I hope our skill level goes up,” Miller said. “Our turnovers go down, our shooting percentages go up, and our style is a little bit more uptempo. I feel like we have a more skilled team.”
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