Following IU’s Big Ten opener, a gritty 68-66 home win against Northwestern on Dec. 1, head coach Archie Miller entered the media room at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, settled into a chair behind a microphone and voiced his thoughts on the conference.
“I just can’t imagine playing in this league in January and February,” Miller said. “I just don’t see a team that’s not very good.”
While Miller danced around the subject in that postgame press conference, the sentiment remained. This year's schedule, beyond the opponents, is different.
The construction of IU’s 2018 slate is a combination of Miller’s desires and conference mandates.
The 2018-19 Big Ten season is the first 20-game conference schedule in college basketball history.
It means to complete a 30-game regular season schedule, Big Ten teams play two fewer non-conference games.
In preparation, all 14 Big Ten schools played a pair of conference games in early December 2017, before jumping back into non-conference action. Now, those December conference games are the Big Ten norm.
For Miller and the Hoosiers, this adjustment resulted in a brutal three-game sequence two straight years. In both 2017 and 2018 IU played Duke University in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, followed by two conference games before resuming non-conference play.
“I think this year every squad kind of knew coming out of the challenge, like ‘this is a serious week of opportunities for the league,’” Miller said after the Northwestern game. “It felt like a February week.”
Miller, sophomore forward Justin Smith and sophomore guard Al Durham have adapted together as each arrived at IU in 2017.
“I felt like we go through it one year, and I feel like coming back this year, you get used to it and you know the things to expect coming into conference play,” Durham said.
While Durham and Smith’s development is on the court, Miller’s has come on the sideline.
The second-year coach is leaning on starters like freshman guards Romeo Langford and Rob Phinisee, as well as senior forward Juwan Morgan, to secure Big Ten wins, but he is also giving those players rest during the break in conference games.
Miller has recently targeted role players like freshman forwards Damezi Anderson and Jake Forrester and sophomore forward Clifton Moore to receive more playing time.
“You always want guys who work hard every day to have an opportunity to contribute,” Miller said. “Those guys have been hungry to do so. All three of them had opportunities to do it.”
Anderson and Forrester each displayed scoring ability in the last two games. The former posted a career-best nine points against the University of Central Arkansas, while the latter scored 15 of his 23 points this season against UCA and Jacksonville University.
Meanwhile, Moore had a rare opportunity to play in a close game, contributing four rebounds against Penn State. He also matched his season-best of five rebounds against Central Arkansas.
Even junior guard Devonte Green played significant minutes against the Dolphins after Phinisee suffered a concussion.
“You never know with injuries and fouls who is going to get their number called,” Miller said. “I suspect we are going to be in some real dogfights in the next couple months, which is going to require our bench to go deeper.”
Entering conference play, the Big Ten boasts six top-25 teams in the latest Associated Press Poll. Purdue and Nebraska also received votes.
As Miller prognosticated in early December, the competition is ratcheting up. Early season woes are getting resolved conference-wide.
While Phinisee remains in concussion protocol, the Hoosiers haven't skipped a beat, finishing the non-conference season 11-2. But come the Jan. 3 date with Illinois, there isn't a bad team remaining on IU's slate.
“Pretty much all the teams are very good and can win a game on any given night," Smith said. "It’s going to be a dogfight every night, but we’re ready for it.”
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