Archie Miller watched Monday’s national championship game, and he had a question — perhaps the same question you had.
“Why can’t Indiana become North Carolina?” Miller asked a quintet of newspaper reporters earlier this week.
Only the way Miller said it, a punctuation mark might have been more fitting, as that line helped wrap up a lengthy discussion recruiting at IU.
The question is only natural, especially given the Hoosiers’ impressive win over the Tar Heels at Assembly Hall some five-plus months ago.
IU went on to miss the NCAA Tournament. UNC went on to win a national title.
And it made for a certain symmetry on Miller’s first day on the recruiting trail Thursday, when he spoke with New Albany’s Romeo Langford, the No. 2 player nationally in the class of 2018, for the first time. Also on Thursday, Langford had a visitor in New Albany by the name of Roy Williams, as the Tar Heel coach visited just three days after cutting down the nets in Phoenix.
It illustrates the mountain Miller must climb, and the ground he will have to make up in recruiting circles, something that can’t be done overnight.
“You can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be about the great players here, do everything we can,’ and the next thing you know, about four months go by and you did nothing,” Miller said. “We have to follow through on everything.”
Part of that follow through involves making IU a destination spot for high school basketball coaches in the state.
“I want to bring the high school coaches to Bloomington. They have to have the ability to come to Bloomington and be with us,” Miller said. “One, obviously workouts and open door policies and things like that for practice, that’s a given, but I also think we’re going to really strive to bring a coaching philosophy weekend, things like that, to Bloomington where once a year we can get them all here and they can watch a weekend of practices, spend time with us, speak.
“But I want an environment in Bloomington where they are No. 1, welcome, whether they have a player or not, but No. 2, I want them to feel like this is an extension of what they do.”
That’s all part of the “inside out” recruiting approach Miller discussed in his opening press conference, an idea he elaborated on in a lounge just outside the Hoosiers’ locker room on Wednesday. This time he referred repeatedly to “the bread basket” of recruiting, starting in-state and moving into the surrounding states in a manner not unlike Bob Knight in his hey day at IU, something reinforced for Miller by his former boss at Ohio State, Thad Matta, who had a national runner-up finish in 2007 with 11 of his 12 roster players hailing from Indiana or Ohio.
“It’s something we’re going to talk a lot about,” Miller said. “It starts in Indiana. If you can get here in a car, that’s when your greatest results are going to happen, because you’re going to get these people to your campus more than you ever would before.”
Miller admits the landscape has changed, thanks in no small part to TV and the Big Ten Network in particular, with players seeing a wider range of potential destinations than ever before.
“For whatever reason, I feel like the Big Ten model is different than a lot of places,” said Miller, who has played and coached in the ACC, coached in the Pac-12 and coached in the Big Ten. “Success in the Big Ten revolves around the borders of your school, revolves around the walls of the state of Indiana. The kids that grow up and love IU, kids you find that can come here and have great experiences are kids that are going to do your work for you 10 times fold in recruiting.”
That recruiting now also includes the potential for one and done players, a label that has only applied to Noah Vonleh and Eric Gordon among IU players in the last decade.
Miller isn’t adverse to recruiting a potential one and done player like Langford, but he has no plans on imitating Kentucky either.
“They’ve got to fit me, and they’ve got to fit Indiana University,” Miller said. “To be honest, there’s probably only about 10 one and dones (each year), and there’s 50 that think they’re one and dones. If you take the 40 who aren’t one and dones but think they’re one and dones, that’s where problems arise.
“If you were able to get the great one and done, and they’re about winning and they’re truly winners, about playing and doing it the right way, again absolutely, especially when it comes down to doing the job in school and then having the ability to come back like the Cody Zellers right now, like Noah Vonleh, guys that are great kids, that are smart and are about winning. When it gets delicate is when you start to just try to hit the home runs and bring the guys in here that aren’t about winning, aren’t about going to school — that’s when it doesn’t work.”
As a point of reference, again, North Carolina.
The Tar Heels haven’t had a one and done player since Brandan Wright in 2007. What their title-winning roster did have was a strong local flavor among the 13 scholarship players — five North Carolina natives, two natives of neighboring states Virginia and South Carolina, three more from traditional ACC footprint states Maryland and Georgia, two from ACC expansion state Florida and one national recruit from Texas in top NBA prospect and All-American Justin Jackson.
You could make a similar case for the best IU team of the last decade — the 2012-13 Hoosiers. Of their 13 scholarship players, seven were either Indiana natives or played their high school basketball in the state, one had Indiana ties, one was from border state Kentucky and four were national recruits from Florida, Alabama or Maryland. That Indiana team also had four in-state walk-ons.
“I’ve always said in this day and age with talented coaches, talented resources, relationships, if you have the best of the best (on staff), don’t be surprised if you can’t hit a difference maker out of the park who loves Indiana, loves your staff, but they come from (for example) New Jersey,” Miller said. “Nothing wrong with that. It can’t be what you do every day, but there’s nothing wrong with those impact guys, those difference makers.”
And those difference makers may not necessarily fit your prototypical Indiana basketball player, as Miller sees diversity as a good thing, even if it always circles back home.
“A lot of how I am, how I’ve been groomed as a coach, in some cases, some of those city kids, they fit me a little bit,” he said. “I like a little of that city, like a little of that toughness, like a guy with a harder edge that maybe is coming from a different way of thinking, but without a doubt it starts and stop with your bread basket.”
It’s feeding the Hoosier faithful from that bread basket that is most satisfying for everybody, making it no surprise that Miller would bring up the name of two of the most popular Hoosiers in recent history — Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell.
Those players were an inextricable part of the success IU had in their careers, particularly as seniors. And the fact that they were Indiana natives, players that fans and alumni alike could truly call Hoosiers, made the love affair that much deeper and richer.
And Miller realize he doesn’t have to go far to find the next Hulls or Ferrell.
“You cannot spread yourself thin (in recruiting),” Miller said. “You cannot step up to the T-ball field and start swinging for the fences, because that’s how you miss, miss, miss, miss, miss.
“Because at the end of the day, 90 percent of the decisions being made with the best players in the country start and stop with distance from home. That’s just how it is.”
Which brings Miller to North Carolina, a team that has figured out how to play that game and play it successfully — partly out of necessity due to the ongoing NCAA investigation into academic fraud — but it’s an approach that seems rather applicable to Indiana.
“If you look at who’s consistently knocking on the door (of a national championship) right now,” Miller said, “they’ve found a way to get their guys developed, ways to get kids older and have kids that — Hey, he grew up two hour from Chapel Hill and loves North Carolina; He has somebody around him who grew up loving North Carolina.
“And you understand that’s not always been the case at North Carolina. They’ve changed their model a little bit, but that’s the perfect model.”
And like a preacher getting to the point of his sermon, Miller then asks and answers his own question.
“Why can’t Indiana become North Carolina?
“I have no idea why not.”
Sports writer Jeremy Price can be reached at 812-331-4342 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JPPrice.