BLOOMINGTON – Indiana coach Archie Miller said on his weekly radio show Monday he feels the Hoosiers’ backcourt is on the verge of breaking out.
“If you can get two or three of them playing really well at the same time, our team is so much better,” Miller said. “That’s the quest. That’s the challenge.”
Guard play will be critical moving forward as the Hoosiers (11-3, 1-2 Big Ten) host Northwestern (5-8, 0-3) on Wednesday at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall (7 p.m., Big Ten Network). Indiana is coming off a 75-59 loss at No. 12 Maryland on Saturday, a game in which the Hoosiers trailed by as many as 30 points. It was the second time this season IU trailed by 30 in a road Big Ten game.
Indiana returns home, where it is 9-1, and is facing a Northwestern team that has lost four straight and is seeking its first conference win. Still, Miller is wary of the problems Northwestern can present.
“They are playing bigger bodies,” Miller said. “When they are healthy, they can mix up their man and zone. They are very tight (on) defense, make you shoot 3s. You’re not going to get a lot of easy baskets.”
To date, Indiana’s guard play has been spotty at best. Senior guard Devonte Green scored a career-high 30 points in IU’s best win so far this season, an 80-64 drubbing of now No. 10 Florida State. Green scored much of his game-high 18 points against Maryland in garbage time when the game was out of reach.
Junior point guard Rob Phinisee has been injured on and off this season. Phinisee stepped up with a season-high 16 points and hit big shots in the extra session of IU’s 96-90 overtime win over Nebraska, but has regressed since, averaging 2.3 points with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4-to-5 over his last three games. Junior guard Al Durham was ejected for a flagrant foul on an elbow to the face of an opposing player in IU’s 71-64 loss to Arkansas on Dec. 29. Freshman guard Armaan Franklin scored a career-high 17 points against Notre Dame but has averaged just 3.5 points and shot 0-of-7 from 3-point range in his last two games.
As a team, IU posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 7-to-14 in its last outing at Maryland.
“Our assist totals are down, and to me we should be a higher assist team because of the way we’re trying to play with as many guys as we have running, and we have a lot of different guys moving the ball,” Miller said.
Miller said the lack of quality ball movement also is contributing to IU’s struggles from the 3-point line. The Hoosiers have shot just 22.3 percent (21-of-94) from 3-point range over their last five games.
“Our perimeter guys have to recognize how teams are starting to play us,” Miller said. “They got to be ready to shoot off inside-out passes. They have to be ready to pass the ball when a team collapses, the defense and then that guy has to be ready to shoot. We’re not getting enough rhythm, good looks in the course of a game.”
Defensively, Miller said IU has to play harder for longer stretches and create more runout opportunities off steals and deflections. In its last outing, Maryland outscored Indiana 25-9 in points off turnovers.
“Our steals, deflections and loose ball plays, activity on defense have to go up,” Miller said.
Miller said being more careful with the basketball also is a priority. Without Phinisee being healthy enough to be a true lead point guard early this season, IU has had to mix and match with Durham, Green and even Franklin running the offense for longer stretches.
“We’ve been decent at taking care of the ball,” Miller said. “I think part of our turnover problem continues to be making the play harder than what it really is, and we’re taking some real sort of medicine right now and learning the hard way losing leads and turning the ball over.”
Indiana junior forward Justin Smith said the Hoosiers need to stay the course and learn from mistakes to avoid the same kind of January meltdown the team endured last season.
“As the season goes on, the games get tougher and we have to learn how to win those games,” Smith said. “We just have to stay with it, keep believing in what we’re doing and we’re eventually going to get over the hump.”
On Monday’s radio show, Miller praised the effort and improvement junior center Joey Brunk is showing on the glass. Brunk has posted three straight double figure rebounding games and is averaging 11.7 rebounds over his last three games. “He’s a much better defensive rebounder in traffic and just being able to gobble up balls,” Miller said. “It’s a sense of pride for him. Three straight double figure games on the glass is huge.” … Miller said senior forward De’Ron Davis “earned his minutes” he played against Maryland based on how he’s performed in practice of late. Davis had a season-high six points and three rebounds in 17 minutes against the Terrapins. “He’s practicing hard, and he’s probably doing as well as he’s done in that area since I’ve been here,” Miller said. “Good things will happen if you stay with it.”