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Xavier Johnson, Khristian Lander and the ever-so-volatile group of Indiana point guards

If you look at the National Championship winners over the past 10 years in college basketball they all have one thing in common: steady and consistent point guard play.

College studs such as Jalen Brunson, Joel Berry, Ryan Arcidiacono, Peyton Siva and Kemba Walker — just to name a few — led their teams to a National Championship. While IU, a team that hasn’t made the NCAA since 2016, is far away from even reaching a Final Four, through 10 games Indiana is missing that steady point guard play. 

The highlight of IU’s 81-49 win over Merrimack on Sunday wasn’t a crazy statline or dunk from Trayce Jackson-Davis or a 3-point barrage from Parker Stewart and Miller Kopp — it was actually a substitution. As Khristian Lander trotted onto the court with 7:34 left to play, a sleepy Assembly Hall had one of its loudest moments of the day.  

While Lander may not have had his best moments when he played Sunday against the Warriors, it was a sight for sore eyes as the former five-star prospect hadn’t made an appearance since the road trip at Syracuse. 

Yes, Lander is a former five-star recruit, but you wouldn’t think that based on how little he plays. He’s averaging just under 13 minutes a game with limited appearances. 

Lander hasn’t been great but it’s hard to find your footing when you play limited minutes even in blowouts. 

Xavier Johnson looks for passing lanes in the zone against Merrimack. (Eden Snower/HN)

If you look down the stretch in the 64-59 loss at No. 22 Wisconsin last week, Woodson was persistent on keeping a struggling Xavier Johnson in the game to hold off the Badgers’ push. Well, we all know how that turned out, and many were calling for a substitution. 

Johnson finished the game shooting 4-for-16 from the field with four fouls. The Pitt transfer plays with a lot of emotion, which can be a good thing. Once he gets going downhill and in rhythm he’s hard to stop but if a few whistles or turnovers affect him it can be difficult to come back from. 

Indiana needed a new face and a change of pace, just something different, but it was too late. 

Unfortunately for Indiana, the two point guards in the rotation play on opposite emotional spectrums. Rob Phinisee is known for his collective composure and steady hand but he’s never been consistent. He’s never been able to just get you a bucket when you need one or lead the offense after a scoring drought. 

Can Khristian Lander be that eventual sweet spot between the two? 

I think he can. The talent is there, we just need to see more. He’s made big shots like he did at Syracuse and has shown his talent but the sample size is just so small. 

It was clear through Mike Woodson’s cautious tone in the postgame press conference that there are still a lot of questions surrounding Indiana’s point guard position. 

“[Lander] played seven minutes tonight. I thought he fit in just fine,” Woodson said. “We won the ball game. This is not about Khristian, this is not about Rob or Xavier, it’s about every individual that wears that uniform.”

Yes, Woodson is right, it’s never about just one guy and how much they play, it’s about the team and it’s about winning. But, beating Merrimack at home is a whole lot different then playing a top-25 team on the road like Wisconsin. You must have a reliable and consistent point guard and Indiana is still looking for that. 

While it may very well be Johnson and/or Phinisee who hits a consistent stride later on in the season, there’s no harm in plugging the holes, seeing what works and trying out different lineups with different guards.

As for now, the Hoosiers will continue to look for someone to step up in big games and get them over the hump.

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