IU leaning on guards during trip to Arkansas

The first sign arrived when few were watching.

It was during Indiana’s closed scrimmage against Loyola Chicago on Oct. 28 when Archie Miller initially saw the potential in his backcourt. Across the summer months, the second-year IU coach was like many, in that he wasn’t quite sure what his point guard position would look like come the fall. He knew he had options, but he also wasn’t sure where the bulk of the minutes would go.

But as he watched his backcourt handle their counterparts from an experienced Final Four participant, Miller realized he might just have something here.

“(I) kind of took a step back and said I could see something working here,” Miller said.

Now, in the middle of November, Indiana’s backcourt seems to be coming together organically. Freshman Robert Phinisee has a tight grip on the starting job at the point, sophomore Al Durham is doing a bit of everything while playing off the ball and five-star freshman Romeo Langford is everything Indiana hoped he would be.

It’s early, of course, but through three games, Indiana is getting exactly what it needs from its guards.

“As we’ve moved through it, we’ve been really solid at that guard spot,” Miller said. “And if you get Devonte (Green) back, you have another guy that can obviously play. So we feel good about that when we’re healthy.”

IU’s backcourt passed its first test of the season in Wednesday’s showdown with No. 24 Marquette. The Hoosiers’ three-guard starting set combined for 47 points in the 96-73 victory, totaled 15 assists against only three turnovers and, perhaps most importantly, they joined forces to limit Marquette’s potent point guard Markus Howard to a rather pedestrian performance, at least by his standards.

“Going in, we knew how good Markus Howard was and we knew how capable was he was of scoring,” Durham said. “So we prepped for that all week, just to get our minds right to make sure we’re guarding him. So that just translated to the game. I feel like our coaches really set us up to execute the game plan.”

Indiana’s next test comes this afternoon at Arkansas, where the Hoosiers will trust their young and talented backcourt to steer them into a showdown with the Razorbacks.

Facing Arkansas presents a unique challenge for Indiana, which will spend 40 minutes contending with coach Mike Anderson’s high-pressure defense.

Through two games against Texas and UC Davis, Arkansas is averaging 19.0 forced turnovers per contest.

“You really have to be organized in your press attack, and then you have to be really organized what you do when you get it in and how you’re going to play,” Miller said. “They’ll play a lot of different styles where they’ll switch 1 through 5 on the ball, they’ll switch 1 through 5 off the ball, their press will make it hard to get it in, and then once you cross half court, you have to be organized. It’s not going to be one of those deals where you’re going to be able as a coach to control the game, so to speak. They have to play.”

That’s what makes these first two weeks so encouraging for Miller and the Hoosiers, with a backcourt that appears ready for the challenge.

The only glaring concern right now is IU’s injury list, which has hit the guard and wing spots particularly hard. After the Marquette game, Miller was not optimistic about Green’s and Zach McRoberts’ odds to play at Arkansas while they continue to deal with nagging injuries. A thigh injury for Green and a bad back for McRoberts kept both players from dressing against Marquette.

Foul trouble could be particularly costly in this kind of matchup, which could force Miller to get creative. Freshman wing Damezi Anderson is already being thrust into a larger than expected reserve role, and Miller has spoken openly about playing Juwan Morgan more on the wing inside of bigger lineups designed to relieve pressure on the backcourt.

As important as IU’s guards will be today, the Hoosiers’ big men will have their own major objective — contain sophomore forward Daniel Gafford, a preseason first team All-SEC pick for the Razorbacks. Gafford is averaging 16 points and eight rebounds through Arkansas’ first two games.

“He’s probably the premier big guy in the country in terms of running to the rim,” Miller said. “His north-south, 94-foot game is as good as it gets, and him getting off of ball screens and getting to the rim and then finding him, that’s something that, for all of our frontcourt players, is going to be important to understand.”