Hoosiers back to work for non-conference finale

Last week, the tone changed.

After Indiana’s second embarrassing home loss of the season, a 92-72 defeat to Fort Wayne, Archie Miller felt compelled to push his players. So the first-year IU coach was a self-described “raving lunatic” as he hawked over his team’s practices leading into the Hoosiers following game against Tennessee Tech.

Miller seemed to capture his players’ attention, as they responded with an 87-59 victory over the Golden Eagles. And now that the Hoosiers have returned from their brief Christmas break, the coach is leaning on that same hardened approach.

“We have to keep our foot down, and we have to be a very goal-oriented team right now,” Miller said Thursday. “We have to be a very driven team, individually and as a group. And we have to be pushed. Our staff has to be pushed. We have to push our players, our players have to push one another and the competition, the competitiveness, the spirit of what you do every day matters right now a lot.”

Players scattered from Bloomington for a four-day break after the Tennessee Tech contest, traveling home to visit family and friends before returning for a Tuesday practice.

Back at the team’s Cook Hall facility, Miller was preaching focus while his Hoosiers attacked drills in preparation for tonight’s non-conference finale against Youngstown State.

Right now, with IU still trying to establish a level of consistency, Miller isn’t letting up.

“I think just the intensity level (has been increased),” senior guard Robert Johnson said. “We’re really trying not to continue to make the same mistakes. Once that happens, there’s punishments in practice for that. So, I think in that way, we’re getting better.”

Miller singled out freshmen Justin Smith and Al Durham as two players most rejuvenated from the time off, though the timing of the break seemed to be beneficial for everyone.

“I think every coach and player had a few days to themselves to take a deep breath,” Miller said. “As we returned, I thought we had some guys with some freshness about them. There’s some energy about getting back to work, but obviously getting a little bit of time away, it’s always a good balance.

“We’ve had good workouts since we’ve been back. And I think getting back to the floor on Friday is important as we get reengaged here, as we go through the beginning of the Big Ten.”

As the new calendar year approaches, Miller is pondering his New Year’s resolutions. At least with his team, he has a few wishes for the final two-plus months of the season.

Wide-ranging defensive improvement, along with gains inside the halfcourt offense remain priorities for Miller. It’s also his stated objective to have a team playing its best basketball toward the end of Big Ten play.

The contest with Youngstown State, IU’s lowest-rated opponent on the schedule, serves as one final tuneup before conference season begins in earnest.

Right now, with a trip to Wisconsin looming on Tuesday night, Indiana is intently working to fix itself.

“These last three or four days heading into Youngstown State have been important as we get our practice routine back, because we know very seldom are we going to have multiple days in between a lot of games,” Miller said.

“… We’re working on ourselves. To be good, to be great in the hardest moments of the season, in your biggest games, you can only really rely on you. And you’ve got to be able to execute the things that you’re trying to do offensively and defensively.”