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Indiana’s two-point guard conundrum and the newfound urgency to solve it after Al Durham’s injury

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Indiana’s offense struggled against Texas, but it especially struggled when Rob Phinisee and Khristian Lander played together

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

I went for a run Tuesday afternoon a few minutes after the Indiana-Texas game tipped off – actually, scratch that, it was the Texas-Indiana game. It’s a good thing I did, too, given the one to two inches of snow on the ground, because that meant I was already numb when it came time to speed through the game on my DVR. Thankfully, the recording mercifully cut off with 3:54 to play.

Indiana’s 44 points and its 23.9-percent shooting were the lowest in the Sports Reference era (the 2010-11 season to present), and a program that has found new lows in its 3-point shooting in the last few seasons once against floundered on offense.

I believe flounder may have actually been one of the fish that ESPN color commentator Bill Walton listed during one of his stories in which he referred to Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout as “the fish man,” which is apparently what either Walton or Walton’s then-eight-year-old grandson called Trout one time at a game. Either way, listening to Walton rattle off various species of fish was more entertaining than the Hoosiers’s offense for most of the afternoon.

I paid special attention during the game to IU’s lineups that featured both junior Rob Phinisee and freshman Khristian Lander – the Hoosiers’s two primary ball-handlers. Not only is it not sustainable (from both a recruiting and a rotation perspective) for Phinisee and Lander’s minutes to be mutually exclusive, but I had wondered this fall if some of the Hoosiers’s better lineups would come with both players on the floor.

And now, after Al Durham was helped into the locker room during the game with a nasty-looking ankle injury, Archie Miller’s hand may be forced to play Phinisee and Lander at the same time even more than he was previously prepared.

In the eight offensive possessions in which both point guards were on the floor*, Indiana scored three points.

*before my DVR recording cut off the last four minutes

Trayce Jackson-Davis was responsible for all three points, with two coming in transition on a play in which neither Phinisee nor Lander was involved, and the other point came at the free throw line.

That’s 0.38 points per possession, according to my phone’s calculator app.

While offering all necessary disclaimers, such as...

  • Eight (8) possessions is obviously not many
  • It’s the third game of the season
  • Texas might be pretty damn good
  • We’re in the middle of a pandemic and none of this really matters at all!
  • Lander is supposed to be in high school right now

...it’s how Indiana got to those three points that’s most concerning.

Indiana’s lack of scoring with Phinisee and Lander on the floor together wasn’t for a lack of ball movement (an average of 3.8 passes per possession) nor a lack of paint touches (at least one paint touch in six of the eight possession), but in part because whichever player didn’t have the ball seemed to frequently be relegated to the weak-side corner.

And here’s almost the exact same screenshot, except Phinisee and Lander are in the opposite positions from the play above.

Texas was often willing to play off of whichever one of Indiana’s point guards was positioned off the ball in the corner, and all too often the Hoosiers were either unable or unwilling to get them the ball, or even better – unable to move them to a spot on the floor where they could do more damage.

Here, enjoy this set in which ~~both~~ of Indiana’s point guards are stuck in opposite corners, while Armaan Franklin worked to initiate the offense after the initial action stalled out.

Phinisee didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer against Texas, while Lander was 0-for-2. The former shot 32 percent from deep in his first two seasons and the latter is 1-for-8 through the first three games of his career, and neither player seems particularly suited to be relegated to a supporting role as a corner 3-point shooter, especially when Texas showed that opposing defenses will be willing to sag off them and clog the paint for the Hoosiers’s other four players.

You can get away with Nick Zeisloft fading down from the wing to the corner – hell, you might be able to do the same with a guard as talented as Robert Johnson when he played alongside Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. – but that’s probably not a winning formula with Phinisee and Lander this season.

But then again, maybe the plan this season was never to maximize the overlap in the Venn diagram of Phinisee and Lander’s minutes. Lander has come off the bench in all three games this season, and coming out of the under-16 timeout in the first half against Texas, Indiana’s three guards on the floor were Durham, Franklin and Trey Galloway, so Miller played a lineup with neither Phinisee nor Lander before he played a lineup with both players.

Miller called Durham – IU’s second-leading returning scorer – “doubtful” for Wednesday’s game against Stanford, per the IndyStar’s Zach Osterman, but not much is known about his status beyond that.

With Durham and center Joey Brunk (IU’s third-leading returning scorer) both banged up, that makes Phinisee the Hoosiers’s second-most productive returning player from last year’s team. Lander is Indiana’s ninth-highest rated recruit in the recruiting rankings era, per 247Sports, which puts him behind Thomas Bryant and ahead of Trayce Jackson-Davis.

They’re too talented to be cleanly divided into “first-team point guard” and “second-team point guard.” There’s a reason every analytical basketball story you’ve read in the last five years has included the word “positionless,” and two primary ball-handlers is probably a more realistic lineup feature in 2020 than two traditional bigs.

In an injury-free season, Indiana was going to need to find a way for the first two chosen point guards of the Archie Miller era to share the floor offensively, and now with an injury to a starter, that need is only magnified.