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What To Watch For: Indiana opens 2020 campaign against Tennessee Tech

After a suspended season and a long eight months and 13 days, the Indiana men’s basketball team will finally get to play another game. Indiana opens its shortened, 27-game season against Tennessee Tech on Wednesday night inside an empty Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

Rob Phinisee looks to pass in last year’s win against #11 Ohio State in Bloomington. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

The Golden Eagles are coming off a 9-22 season and are making their first trip to Bloomington since December 2017.

The Ohio Valley Conference squad has seven upperclassmen on the roster and returns its leading scorer from a year ago in Jr. Clay who averaged 13.4 points per game.

However, Tennessee Tech will be without its head coach for the season-opener, announcing Tuesday night that John Pelphrey tested positive for COVID-19 and would not be traveling to Bloomington. Assistant coach Marcus King will serve as the acting head coach.

The Hoosiers are fortunate to be playing, though, as numerous game cancellations and postponements are already wreaking havoc throughout the college basketball landscape.

This is likely going to be a common theme throughout the season and something Indiana continues to navigate.

“I think we’ve tried to handle it the best we could just in terms of, we roll with the punches,” Indiana head coach Archie Miller said, “and we have to be ready to go with the game plan if things change.”

Beyond the many concerns surrounding COVID-19 and its impact on the Hoosiers’ season, there’s also a number of questions about what year four of the Miller era has in store.

The starting five

Plenty of offseason speculation has centered around Indiana’s starting five.

Though the Hoosiers return four starters in junior guard Rob Phinisee, senior guard Al Durham, sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and fifth-year center Joey Brunk, the wonder is who will fill the fifth spot.

It very well could be one of the three key returning bench players, including sophomore forward Jerome Hunter, junior forward Race Thompson or sophomore guard Armaan Franklin.

Hunter is a very logical choice as a 6-foot-7 wing who can shoot it well and play defense, along with his exceptional length and athleticism. The Ohio native is expected to take a big step forward this year if he can remain healthy.

If Thompson were to start alongside Jackson-Davis, it would likely mean Thompson would be playing the power forward position. In turn, Brunk would likely move into a bench role and have Jackson-Davis at the center spot with Franklin or Hunter taking the fifth and final starting spot.

A lineup with Thompson and Jackson-Davis together would give Indiana added versatility when running up and down the floor and create a mismatch for the opponent of Jackson-Davis at the five.

Meanwhile, Franklin is a bit of a wild card but is expected to improve and has a real chance to contend for a starting role. The sophomore showed plenty of skills and potential as a freshman, but he’ll need to put it all together in a consistent effort this year. The 6-foot-5 wing is known for his versatility and athleticism and could see the floor more if his shot improves.

Improved shooting?

A key criticism and struggle in Archie Miller’s time at Indiana has been good shooting from the 3-point line.

Last year, the 3-point field goal percentage marginally improved but still was only at 32.6% as a team. More consistency is required for Indiana to be more successful from beyond the arc this year.  Players such as Durham, Phinisee, Hunter and Franklin will all be looked upon to improve the perimeter shooting struggles.

The four freshmen are all capable shooters as well, given their high school pedigrees. Anthony Leal in particular was known as a marksman while playing at Bloomington South High School.

Overall, Durham is expected to lead the way as a senior for the team’s outside shooting.

“Al Durham is our best shooter,” Miller said. “I think he is a guy you can really count on.”

Miller also mentioned that Phinisee and Hunter, along with Durham, would round out the team’s top three shooters at this point.

Which freshmen play — and how much?

One of the bigger storylines is how much action do the freshmen quartet of Leal, Khristian Lander, Trey Galloway and Jordan Geronimo receive. With a roster of only 11 scholarship players, it is very likely that all of them will play at some point. They will come in different capacities, though.

“I think our young guys are all going to see the floor at different times,” Miller said. “I feel like all four of those guys have earned their way to be able to see action early in the season.”

Lander, a coveted five-star recruit, could see the most minutes as a backup point guard to begin the season, providing relief to Phinisee and adding a spark off the bench. Lander’s best traits are his dynamism, playmaking ability and quickness with the ball. If he can provide consistent help in scoring and initiating offense, that would be a major plus for Indiana’s success.

However, distinguishing where Galloway, Leal and Geronimo fit in the rotation and separate from each another is difficult to tell.

All three typically play out on the wing and have similarities to their game. How each performed this offseason will be indicative on how the minutes are laid out early on and this will be something that shows itself as the early portion of the schedule plays out.

With Geronimo standing 6-foot-7 and showing tantalizing athleticism, it’s possible he sees time at the four if Indiana chooses to play fast and go small, or if some of the big men are in foul trouble.

Galloway and Leal are both gritty defenders and capable shooters. As mentioned, shooting is a glaring weakness for IU, and if Galloway or Leal — or any of the other freshmen — can find their stroke from the perimeter, it’ll help them earn more minutes, and quickly.

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