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A new era of Indiana men’s basketball

What we know and what questions still linger

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

At 6 p.m. Eastern tonight, most of us will get our first glimpse at Mike Woodson’s Indiana men’s basketball team. The Hoosiers have played some exhibition games in the Bahamas that seemed encouraging, but the games weren’t televised and there were some mixed opinions about the level of competition the Hoosiers saw against Serbian club BC Mega.

Tonight’s matchup with Eastern Michigan, which ranks 297th on kenpom.com, should not be a close game, nor will it tell us much about this year’s team. Nonetheless, the fact that we are no longer being subjected to Archieball is plenty to be excited about. Woodson has made it clear that he wants to bring a faster pace and a free-flowing offense to Bloomington, so hopefully the days of multiple 10-plus minute field-goal droughts per season is over.

Despite the overall buzz around the program, there are some big questions surrounding the team this year. Woodson has never coached a college game before tonight and the roster he acquired may not be a good fit for Woodson’s preferred four-out, one-in offense. Here are some of the biggest unknowns facing the program entering tonight’s game.

Shooting

It’s not a secret that Archie Miller’s achilles heel (archilles, if you will) was the lack of three-point shooting. Archie never had a team that shot higher than 32.4 percent from deep, which allowed opposing defenses to pack the paint and largely shut down the offense all together. Part of this was by design, as he so stubbornly tried to resist the trend towards more three-point shooting across every level of basketball, and part of it was due to the fact that he simply did not recruit good shooters.

Woodson will have some more firepower this year, bringing in Northwestern transfer Miller Kopp, highly touted freshman Tamar Bates, and Parker Stewart. Stewart is technically an Archie recruit, but he never suited up for Indiana during Miller’s tenure. Both Kopp and Stewart are starting, suggesting that we should see more three-point attempts right out of the gate. What remains to be seen is whether the roster upgrades will provide enough firepower for Woodson.

Stewart and Kopp saw their three-point averages dip in their last seasons of college basketball. Stewart, who transferred to UT-Martin from Pitt to play for his late father, took three more attempts per game at UT-Martin, which partially explains his three-point percentage dipping from 38.6 percent to 34.8 percent between his freshman and sophomore years.

Kopp, on the other hand, has had two seasons of shaky shooting – 31.9 percent as a freshman and 33 percent as a junior – versus one good season, when he shot 39.6 percent from deep as a sophomore. The other transfer, Xavier Johnson, has consistently had a three-point percentage in the low 30s through his first three years of college basketball.

Besides those three, Woodson will have to make his new concepts work with the same guys with whom Archie failed to score. Anthony Leal could certainly turn into a knock-down shooter if given the chance and both Khristian Lander and Rob Phinisee have the potential to hit threes at a better rate than they have thus far. Still, it would be foolish to think that the shooting woes will disappear overnight with a new coach.

The rotation

Perhaps the biggest difference from any Miller team is the suddenly crowded backcourt that Woodson will have. As mentioned above, he brought in two high-level guards in Johnson and Bates, plus a shooting specialist in Stewart. Woodson also retained three Miller-era guards, Phinisee, Leal and Trey Galloway.

Announcing Johnson and Stewart as starters gives us some insight as to how the rotations may work, but starting doesn’t always correlate to minutes played (look at Joey Brunk) and each player brings something different to the table. Stewart is a proven shooter with some athletic and defensive limitations; Leal is a bigger guard who can shoot but not a huge threat off the dribble; Galloway showed promise as a freshman with his defensive effort and athleticism; Phinisee is one of the better on-ball defenders in the conference; Bates is a high-level athlete who can genuinely play both guard spots; and Lander showed flashes of his potential as a 17-year-old in college last season.

Woodson will have plenty of options given these various strengths and weaknesses and it wouldn’t even be surprising to see multiple lead ball-handlers on the floor at once if Lander or Phinisee can shoot well enough to play off-ball some. He’ll also be able to switch to some defense-first rotations like pairing Phinisee with Galloway or Bates if the competition warrants such a move.

Defense

Speaking of defense, it’ll be interesting to see the level of emphasis Woodson places on that end of the court this year. Both Tom Crean and Miller suffered greatly from putting too much emphasis on one end of the court, while seemingly neglecting the other. In Crean’s last year, Indiana had the 27th-best offense in the country, according to KenPom, while the defense was ranked 104th. In his best year in 2019, Archie had Indiana playing the 25th-best defense while the offense sat in 65th place nationally.

Dane Fife has overseen some pretty solid defenses in his time as an assistant at Michigan State, so hopefully he can implement something similar in Bloomington. Aside from expressing confusion as to what the pack line defense is, Woodson has been relatively silent on how he wants his team to defend. He has said he wants better on-ball defense and fewer switches, but otherwise his focus has been on revamping the offense. We aren’t likely to learn much about this team’s on-ball ability tonight against such an overmatched group, so this will be something to keep an eye on as the season plays out.