ROSEMONT, Ill. – With a whopping seven new players suiting up for the Hoosiers this season – five freshmen, St. Mary's transfer Evan Fitzner and redshirt freshman Race Thompson – the Hoosiers have a variety of playing-time battles to settle.
At Big Ten Media Day near Chicago on Thursday, Hoosiers coach Archie Miller and his players made clear that integrating the new group into the rotation before the season starts is an urgent goal in practice. As such, the early workouts have had an even more competitive flavor than usual.
“All the guys are really getting after each other, there's never any slack off,” senior forward Juwan Morgan said. “Last year, there was times where you knew what team was going to win that day at practice. But this year, it's really competitive.”
Morgan related a portion of Wednesday's practice, which featured a spirited game of five-on-five with him, Romeo Langford and Devonte Green on one team and Zach McRoberts, Aljami Durham and Justin Smith on the other. They raced up and down the floor and neither scored many baskets because both were playing such solid defense, in Morgan's telling.
In those games, the reward for the winner is a momentary rest, while the losing team has extra running. Miller generally tries to let those quasi-scrimmages flow and make his comments and corrections after the games have finished, so the players can get used to running with each other.
“In a (real) game, (Miller) can't just stop the whole play and coach it up,” said Morgan, who was voted a team captain this season. “He lets it happen because even when (the freshmen are making mistakes), they're doing it at 100 percent and that's easy to fix. You can't fix effort.”
The young players especially have extra motivation in the scrimmages and in practice generally, because Miller has told them that their playing time will hinge on what he sees in practice. With so much new blood in the program this season, the second-year coach used the analogy of a “puzzle” that he and his staff are trying to solve before the season begins.
He wants practices to be as competitive as possible to see which players will rise to the challenge.
“We've set the bar high for our guys in terms of competition,” Miller said. “They're going to have to earn it every day. I think they understand that they're going against somebody that wants the same amount of minutes as them.
“A lot of it will depend on their development, how fast they can catch up to speed, so to speak.”
The battles in practice take on extra importance because the Hoosiers will have little time to figure out their chemistry once the season begins. They play Marquette and Arkansas within the first two weeks of the season and then endure a five-game gauntlet with matchups against Duke, Northwestern, Penn State, Louisville and Butler in an 18-day span from late-November to mid-December.
The schedule does a growing Indiana team no favors and Miller knows it.
“We're going to be tested very, very early and that's a good thing,” the coach said. “Your antennas are up, your opponent is good, you've got a respect level, you've gotta be ready.
“That's what I always say, you've got to gel, but your older guys have to be there for you right now.”
Morgan will likely be the go-to player early in the season while precocious youngsters such as Langford adjust to the rigors of college basketball. Morgan and Langford represented the Hoosiers on the preseason All-Big Ten team, the conference announced Thursday, and the degree to which they gel will have a significant impact on Indiana's success.