IU head coach Archie Miller opened his press conference following Saturday’s win over Portland State University by focusing on the positives. He focused on his team’s rebounding success and winning the game itself.
But his focus shifted quickly. The positives suddenly became negatives as Miller began to talk about his defense.
“To be honest with you, first week, if we don't get our defense going in another direction here, we're going to experience some really hard moments in games,” Miller said. “We can't get stops.”
IU allowed 1.08 points per possession to Portland State, a startlingly high number against a team IU was supposed to push past far easier than it did. Portland State shot 50% from three-point range.
That’s why defense is the focus for Miller and IU ahead of Tuesday night’s game against the University of North Alabama.
North Alabama is ranked 284th in the KenPom rankings, and 310th in adjusted offense. It is the third game of IU’s seven straight games against weaker, non-Power 5 opponents to open the season. It is another chance to for IU to clean up mistakes, facing an opponent where it can still afford to make them.
The adjustments on defense may fall on sophomore guard Rob Phinisee. Phinisee is still working back from an injury, which is why he hasn’t been in IU’s starting lineup in the first two games.
Miller noted Phinisee has played more minutes in games than he has in practice. He was rusty, but in the second half against Portland State, Phinisee was IU’s best defensive player.
“Defensively you saw glimpses,” Miller said. “When we needed to get some things done, he was really able to sit down and guard. In his defense, he's probably practiced 1/10th of what everybody else is. He is basically being tossed out there.”
Phinisee still isn’t back to full strength after suffering a lower abdominal injury before the season started. He's still is likely a few games away. He still might not crack the starting lineup Tuesday night, but his defense is something Miller wants to thread throughout the roster, whether or not the sophomore is on the floor.
Miller wanted his team to be built on defense, to have it be the mantra of a group that may lack the offensive firepower of the top teams in the Big Ten. Defense has always been Miller’s hallmark as a head coach. That’s why it bothers him so much that his defense isn’t where he needs it. Miller was asked 10 questions at his press conference Saturday, he mentioned his defense seven times.
“Right now for me this team defensively is not there yet," Miller said. “That's got to be our quest. With this team we got to find a way to get better fast on defense.”
The defensive struggles might not be enough to cost IU a win against a team like North Alabama, but it could come teams like Florida State University or the University of Notre Dame. It’s why Miller knows the defense must be cleaned up before the weak, nonconference play fades away, and the chance to make mistakes is gone.