BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – There are a couple of drink cups on the wooden bookshelves in Archie Miller’s office. Oh, and a couple of Indiana University work bags, the kind with the logo on them that you dish out to staff members – those are still wrapped in plastic.
And that’s it.
Everything else is bare. Blank. Clean. Which, for the moment, is exactly the way Miller wants it – both his workspace within Cook Hall, and everywhere else in his new program.
It is fresh-start time at Indiana – for the coaching staff, for the players, for the fans as well. Tom Crean salvaged Indiana basketball, pulling it off the slag heap of NCAA probation and other off-court issues, but never took the Hoosiers to the Final Four in nine seasons. Both the coach and the program likely will benefit from a fresh start.
Thus Miller has been given the task of elevating one of college basketball’s bedrock programs back into the company of the consistently elite. There are five national championship banners hanging in Assembly Hall that will silently remind the 38-year-old coach of the aspirations and expectations daily. Human reminders will be audible.
But this spring, right now, Indiana basketball might as well be Archie Miller’s bookshelf. It’s time to reboot – to start with nothing and build from there, a concept the new coach laid out for Yahoo Sports in his office last week.
“The big thing is to create the first identity opportunity,” Miller said. “Not culture.”
I stopped Miller there. Coaches love talking about culture – it might be the most popular buzzword in the profession today. What’s with the avoidance?
“I think culture is earned,” he said. “You don’t start talking about culture four weeks down the road. Our culture at Dayton was built over the course of hard wins and hard losses, overcoming adversity. Culture is resiliency, not ever bending away from what you want to be about. But identity is different – we can start to implement identity right away, every day.
“Culture is five or six years down the road – whatever they say about Indiana at that point, we’ve earned. But we don’t have one yet.”
So identity opportunities will be offered daily to the Hoosiers by their hyper-intense new leader, youngest product of a famed coaching family. Those identity opportunities will have a heavy accent on toughness and its natural byproduct, defense.
Indiana was a woeful defensive team for much of Crean’s tenure, just twice ranking among Ken Pomeroy’s national top 50, to the dismay of many Indiana fans. Last year’s team was a deal-breaking 104th in defensive efficiency.
Miller’s last three Dayton teams, all of which won at least 24 games, had an average Pomeroy defensive rating of 30th. And the undersized Flyers scrapped ferociously.
“We didn’t try to trick you,” said Indiana assistant coach Tom Ostrom, who followed Miller from Dayton. “We played half-court defense, we played as hard as you can, and we had a certain amount of grit and toughness.”
So the question is, can the defensively indifferent (or ineffective) players Miller inherited guard like his Dayton players?
“They’re going to try,” he said. “I think the hardest thing to do is to instill that defense is important. It didn’t happen overnight at Dayton – it took years, and it took winning games. I don’t think people are going to look out and immediately say, ‘Wow, they’re awesome on defense.’ But we’re going to never deviate from what’s important in this program.
“The identity and culture over time has to start and stop with playing real hard. We have to be one of those teams where everyone we play knows, ‘This is going to be a little different tonight. It’s going to be hard.’ That doesn’t mean we win every game, but everyone has to know it’s going to be hard.
“At Indiana, with the talent the size you can have, that’s the way it should be.”
The current roster has taken a significant talent hit in terms of NBA draft early entry: O.G. Anunoby, Thomas Bryant and James Blackmon all are staying in the draft, largely as expected; guard Robert Johnson still is weighing his options. If Johnson doesn’t return, Indiana will be without its top four scorers from last season’s 18-16 disappointment.
But Miller has gotten sufficient buy-in from both the returning players and three Crean recruits to foster hope that Year One will not be a backslide to the overmatched years of the early Crean Era. Collin Hartman, a starter who missed last season with a knee injury, has signed on for a fifth year. Guards Josh Newkirk (at 9 points and 3.6 assists per game, the leading returnee in both categories) and Devonte Green are capable. So are frontcourt players Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis.
Recruits Justin Smith, Al Durham and Clifton Moore should add depth, if not an abundance of star power. (Smith is the most highly rated of the three.) If Johnson returns to school – which would seem the wise choice – Miller will have plenty of pieces to work with.
But, in fitting with the bare-office theme, the coach is not stocking his personnel shelves with preconceived notions. He hasn’t watched film of his returning players, instead waiting to see what they will bring to the practice court.
“You can watch as much film as you want, but they’re not doing something I asked them to do,” Miller said. “I want to watch them do what we want them to do.
“This is a new canvas for a lot of them. In many ways for a player, when you see an opportunity, you get excited. You get motivated. Opportunity creates positive vibes.”
The next stage – and the most important stage, long-term – will be spreading those positive vibes to recruits around the talent-rich state. Crean had some notable successes with Indiana recruits like Cody Zeller and Yogi Ferrell, but there have been too many notable misses lately.
The last five Indiana Mr. Basketball winners all have been impactful college players, and all have gone somewhere other than Bloomington: Kyle Guy to Virginia; Caleb Swanigan to Purdue; Trey Lyles to Kentucky; Zak Irvin to Michigan; Gary Harris to Michigan State. This year’s winner, Kris Wilkes of Indianapolis, is headed to UCLA. Then there is Indy product Trevon Blueitt, starring at Xavier, and several quality in-state players who have gone to Butler in recent years.
The prohibitive favorite to be 2018 Mr. Basketball is Romeo Langford, a smooth wing player from New Albany, Indiana, just across the river from Louisville. Langford is the No. 3 player in the class according to Rivals.com, and the competition for his services is intense: North Carolina coach Roy Williams visited his school shortly after winning the national title; John Calipari and Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino have been in as well. And so has Miller, who spent the final three days of the spring evaluation period in New Albany, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
The new Hoosier staff is playing a bit of catch-up with Langford, but playing hard. Whether it works out with him or not, this is the beginning of an all-out push to regain control of the state.
“Recruiting Indiana is going to be the backbone of who we are,” Miller said. “Indiana has historically been great to IU, and we want that to continue. We have to find ways to bring guys here. Not everyone is for me, and I’m not for everyone. But it’s going to start here at home.”
That’s a message Miller and his veteran staff of Ostrom, Bruiser Flint and Indiana native Ed Schilling want to convey everywhere in the state, from Gary in the north to New Albany in the south.
“The entire staff is going to recruit the state, not just one guy,” Ostrom said. “We want to build relationships with all the coaches, whether they have a great player or not. If you add exceptional coaching to good players, it’s clear you start with the state of Indiana.”
And you start with a clean bookshelf. A clean slate. Under Archie Miller, Indiana is rebooting and reinventing, with an acknowledgment of its past but a clear understanding that what happens going forward is what really matters.
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