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TOM DAVIS: Indiana gets road win, so what is next?

Indiana's Justin Smith plays against Minnesota in a game Saturday in Minneapolis. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana men's basketball coach Archie Miller directs his team against Minnesota in a game Saturday in Minneapolis. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana's Robert Johnson eyes the basket as Minnesota's Dupree McBrayer defends in the first half of a game Saturday in Minneapolis. (By The Associated Press)
Minnesota's Jordan Murphy (3) and Jamir Harris (4) cover Indiana's Aljami Durham (1) during the first half of a game Saturday in Minneapolis. (By The Associated Press)

Indiana overcame its depleted lineup Saturday and battled to a 75-71 win at Minnesota to even its Big Ten record at 2-2 (9-7 overall).

Was the win surprising given the fact that regulars De’Ron Davis and Collin Hartman missed the game with injuries?

Not exactly, but give credit to the Hoosiers because their effort was far more impressive than its preceding game (a loss) at Wisconsin four days earlier.

“It was a gutty win by our guys on the road,” first-year Indiana coach Archie Miller said afterwards. “It is very difficult in this league to find a way to do that.”

True, but let’s be honest, Minnesota, without starters Reggie Lynch and Amir Coffey is a mediocre team.

The Gophers’ next to last possession (a pair of hurried, terrible shots that never came close and didn’t have to be taken when they were shot) demonstrated that level of bad basketball to the fullest extent possible.

The fact that Minnesota isn’t that good was one reason an Indiana victory wasn’t surprising, while the other is that the Hoosiers are maddeningly inconsistent, if they are anything, this season. With this group, anything is possible on any given night.

Miller’s team opened the season in Bloomington by getting routed by Indiana State and 19 days later played No. 1-ranked Duke to the final minutes.

In the next game?

The Hoosiers opened emotionally flat and got rolled by Michigan.

Next?

Beat Iowa handily.

Next?

Got smoked at Louisville.

Next?

Rallied to upset No. 18 Notre Dame in overtime.

Next?

Lost by 20 to Fort Wayne. In Bloomington.

So losing to a mediocre (and injury-riddled) Wisconsin squad and bouncing back to beat a similar Minnesota team really is what this immature and inconsistent Indiana squad exemplifies.

“Every team is a little bit different,” Miller said, “but (a road win) shows you how together you are and how tough you are.”

That must of have been the Gatorade talking, because the aforementioned history of this team shows that how it will perfom Tuesday against Penn State (6:30 p.m., BTN) at Assembly Hall is anyone’s guess.

The Hoosiers could play well and be “together” and “tough,” or they could lose by double digits and make a number of bonehead plays at both ends.

Miller has no more clue how his team will play than the Hoosier players do. That isn’t cynicism, that is reality, and everyone that has watched Indiana over the last 10 weeks would (or at least should) agree.

RELATED STORY:TOM DAVIS: Has Archie Miller improved Indiana basketball? Nope.

But here are some things that I do know about this particular team moving forward.

• Smith plays

With the absence of sophomore center Davis, who is expected to miss the remainder of the season with an Achilles injury that was suffered Thursday in practice, Miller had to move junior forward Juwan Morgan to the five spot and insert freshman forward Justin Smith into the starting lineup.

And the kid responded.

Smith scored 20 points on 7 of 10 shooting in 26 minutes.

“I was really proud of Justin,” Miller said. “He really stepped up and played today for us on both ends.”

The 6-foot-7 athlete did make a number of really good plays, but he also had his freshman moments defensively, as well. However, for the rest of this season, Smith needs to start and play 30 minutes per game.

“Justin’s quick,” Miller continued, “and he has a good lower body, that is his strength.”

• Now doesn’t matter

There are a number of reasons why Smith should play extended minutes, one of which is that the next nine weeks of basketball isn’t about trying to accomplish anything this year, it is about preparing the program for next year.

Miller can’t say as much, but this group isn’t going to make the NCAA Tournament, so he needs to manage the program that best sets it up for a successful 2018-19 season.

That means a number of hard decisions need to be made, which won’t be popular in the locker room, but it’s about doing what is best for the program in the long term, not the next two months.

One of those decisions involves freshman guard Al Durham.

• Durham is the point

Miller started fifth-year senior Josh Newkirk at the point Saturday, but Durham ran the offense down the stretch, and he should do so for the rest of this season.

Durham should play the point for 30 minutes each game, while Newkirk plays 10 as his back-up.

It’s not that Durham is great in the role, because he isn’t. He looked really shaky at times Saturday. But he needs to be much better at the task next October and that growth can be expedited by letting him endure growing pains now. And he will. Frequently.

And again, let’s be honest, it’s not like Newkirk has been some phenomenal player.

In Saturday’s game, Newkirk made the decision to throw the ball to the non-offensive Zach McRoberts at the 26-foot mark with the shot clock winding down.

He later drove to the middle of the lane and left his feet with nowhere to pass, resulting in a turnover with the game hanging in the balance. They were just dumb plays made by a guy with his experience.

• Johnson and Green play off the ball

Both senior guard Robert Johnson and sophomore guard Devonte Green have to play with as little thought and responsibility as possible, so make their jobs simple.

In the case of Johnson, he does a nice job handling the ball on pick and rolls, but he is not a point guard, so all he should think about is making cuts offensively, driving the ball, and taking catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. That is all.

In the case of Green, he plays no more than 10 minutes per game as a back-up to Johnson and he just focuses on shooting 3-pointers and driving the ball. His primary impact needs to be made at the defensive end of the floor for the rest of this year. If he is good defensively, his minutes can increase as long as he plays with intellect offensively.

• Moore plays

Freshman center Clifton Moore has only played 23 minutes this season, but with at least 15 games remaining, he needs to add about 75 to 120 minutes to that total.

Again, this season is a wash, so let him play five to eight minutes per game, regardless of opponent, every single outing.

This will better prepare Indiana for next season, not just due to Moore’s development, but it will provide an insurance policy for the enigmatic Davis.

Miller has no idea what Davis’ mindset, conditioning or effort will be a year from now. Heck, before the injury, he didn’t know which Davis would show up in tomorrow’s practice. So develop Moore and let the competition unfold for the starting job next season.

In addition to Moore playing in games, he gets additional work done in the weight room and individually on the court with an assistant beginning today. I’d assign a specific assistant to manage the “Clifton Moore project” until October and he gets a $50,000 bonus out of Miller’s pocket if Moore morphs into a reliable and effective player next season. Yes, I am dead serious.

Indiana played better Saturday than it did at Wisconsin, which is a credit to the Hoosier players and coaches. However, it still has a very long road ahead before its level of intellect, execution, and passion – at both ends of the floor – are acceptable and/or consistent.

For the rest of this season, Miller needs to focus on young player development, as well as those areas and however the wins and losses come, then so be it.

When the Hoosiers take the court next November, they need to be more skilled, more intelligent, and more emotional than this group has proven that it can consistently demonstrate.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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