If you were to have designed in a laboratory a foundational five-man class for a new Indiana basketball coach in the 21st century, it would have looked a lot like the national top-10 ranked group Archie Miller signed in 2018.
In itself it constituted a modern basketball lineup with a pure point guard, three wings who were prolific high school scorers listed between 6-6 and 6-7, and a high-energy 6-8 forward who could work as a small-ball five man. That sort of length is also a prerequisite for the pack-line defense Miller brought to Bloomington, as Virginia’s best teams under coach Tony Bennett have been built on those body types.
Geographically, the class established Miller’s presence in the state with three recruits from Indiana and in the greater Midwest region with another signee from Columbus, Ohio. And the one player who wasn’t from a border state was from Philadelphia — part of the Mid-Atlantic megalopolis where the Hoosiers have had success with out-of-state recruits over the last decade.
And, of course, it included one of the most decorated schoolboy basketball players in the vaunted history of Indiana high school basketball, a top-10 recruit and McDonald’s All-American whose signing established by itself that under Miller, Indiana would always be the team to beat for the top prospect coming out of the state’s high schools, or at least out of IHSAA.
But three years after that class arrived in Bloomington, just one player from the class remains on the roster and the coach who recruited it is also gone. Archie Miller’s foundation caved in, leaving him without a job after four years in Indiana. The only player remaining faces an uncertain future under new coach Mike Woodson, as Woodson’s first roster addition was a transfer who plays his position. It would be unfair to call the group a total failure, but it’s also clear that its inability to lead up to its promise is the reason the Hoosiers are in the midst of another coaching transition
The most recent blow to the class came Thursday when Indiana announced that redshirt sophomore forward Jerome Hunter would not return for the 2021-22 season. Each offseason since it arrived, one player from the Class of 2018 has transferred out with center Jake Forrester moving on to Temple after his freshman year, wing Damezi Anderson going to Loyola (Ill.) after his sophomore year, and now Hunter moving on after his third year in the program. Romeo Langford entered the NBA Draft after his freshman year as expected, and now only point guard Rob Phinisee remains.
Langford’s lone season with the Hoosiers was considered a disappointment at the time, mostly because the word “savior” was connected to his name more than a few times before the season and he failed to get the Hoosiers into NCAA Tournament and didn’t play in the NIT once they got a berth in that event. However, he did come the closest to living up to what he was billed to be. He didn’t overwhelm opponents like he did at New Albany High School, but he averaged 16.5 points per game in 2018-19 making 53 percent of his two-point shots, which made him one of the most effective guards in the country inside the arc. He made just 27.2 percent of his 3s, but he did play with a busted right thumb for most of the year, which had something to do with it. He was an All-Big Ten pick — second team by the coaches, third team by the media — and drafted in the lottery by the Boston Celtics with the No. 14 overall pick in the first round. He hasn’t made a major impact for them yet, but he’s at least hanging around on the roster and usually operates on the second unit.
None of the rest carried as much hype with them, but they all arguably missed the mark of expectations by wider margins.
Forrester didn’t stick around long, failing to break into the rotation as a freshman and deciding quickly to move on. He appeared in just 13 games as a freshman and played a total of 55 minutes. He’s been effective with a better opportunity at Temple, averaging 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds over two seasons.
The Hoosiers could have very much used the player they envisioned Damezi Anderson becoming. He was a 2,000-point scorer at South Bend’s Riley High School and had excellent shooting range for a 6-foot-7 wing. He had the body to play either the small or power forward spot, or even the shooting guard in big lineups. But he never seemed to have a full grasp on what Miller was asking him to do, especially on defense, so he never became a steady part of the rotation. He was 15 of 65 from 3-point range (23.1 percent) so he didn’t shoot his way into playing time either. He averaged 10.9 minutes per game in his time at Indiana, but took a number of DNPs, and left after last season when he saw the Hoosiers bringing in more wings in Trey Galloway and Anthony Leal and realized there weren’t any more minutes coming his way.
Hunter was held back in large part by factors beyond his control. After what was by all accounts an excellent preseason in 2018-19, he missed the season because of surgery to repair a leg condition that neither Indiana nor Hunter ever disclosed, and that Hunter kept particularly close to the vest. He was admittedly never as explosive after the injury as before, he struggled to regain his endurance, and he never regained the form that made him a top-75 recruit out of Pickerington (Ohio) North High School in the Columbus area. He hit 44 3-point shots over two seasons at a 32.4 percent clip, which helped the Hoosiers space the floor some, but his defense was suspect, so he started just four games over two seasons. He scored 6.3 points per game this season in 19.6 minutes, which represented progress from his redshirt freshman year, but it certainly wasn’t what he or Indiana expected from him by Year 3. He seemed to be a good fit for Woodson’s offense as a shooter, but the signing of Northwestern transfer Miller Kopp assured that Hunter wouldn’t have a clear path to playing time. Hunter hasn’t spoken publicly about the transfer yet, and his high school coach and his trainer did not respond to phone calls, texts or emails from the Daily Hoosier this week, so it’s uncertain whether Hunter decided to leave on his own or if it was suggested to him by the coaching staff. One way or the other, Hunter will not make the leap Indiana fans were anxiously waiting for him to make, at least not in an Indiana uniform.
That leaves Phinisee, who was ahead of the curve when he started his career but has mostly stayed in the same place since he arrived. He started 29 games as a true freshman when he had the highlight of his career to date, a buzzer-beater to knock off Butler in the Crossroads Classic. But since then his numbers have been consistently mediocre. He’s never shot better than 37.4 percent from the field, never averaged more than 7.3 points or 3.4 assists per game and never posted an offensive rating higher than 96.0.
Phinisee still appears to be part of the plans for Woodson and his staff. Assistant coach Dane Fife lauded his defensive capability, calling him the best on-ball defender in the Big Ten. But their first order of business once they figured out what players would return was to grab a transfer point guard in Xavier Johnson from Pitt, whose scoring average in 2020-21 (14.2 ppg) was exactly double Phinisee’s (7.1 ppg) against comparable competition. Phinisee can obviously come off the bench and he can play off the ball as a complimentary ball-handler with Johnson, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll beat Johnson for the point guard job straight up.
Even if Phinisee maintains a starting job, the foundational class for Archie Miller will at most provide one pillar for Mike Woodson to build on. Which is, of course, a reminder of just how difficult it is to build a program.
Woodson’s path will obviously be different. He inherits an All-American in Trayce Jackson-Davis, who comes in with a much more extensive resumé than the best players Miller inherited from Tom Crean. Because of the nation-wide personnel shake-ups caused by COVID-19 — a 2020-21 season that cost no one a year of eligibility and a one-time transfer exemption — recruiting from the transfer portal will be just as important to him as high school recruiting for at least a full recruiting cycle if not more. But it is a reminder that things don’t always go as planned, players don’t always become who they appear to be on paper, and just a handful of misfires can sink a coach’s tenure.
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