Let’s just be blunt: To start the season, Indiana’s defense was a constant punchline.
For as good as the Hoosiers’ offense was, Tom Crean’s group stumbled out of the gate to a 5-3 start mainly due to a lack of defensive effort, intensity and execution.
Through eight games, the Hoosiers had faced four top-100 KenPom opponents. Against those teams, IU allowed 78.2 points per game and went 1-3. Lapses in communication became the norm, and Hoosier fans once again grew restless.
For starters, Crean has simplified the scheme. At the beginning of the season, IU would try to morph from a zone into man-to-man in the middle of a possession, seemingly in an effort to confuse the opponent. It usually just confused the Hoosiers.
Credit to the head coach for trying to get exotic, but give him even more praise for realizing what wasn’t working and adjusting accordingly. The Hoosiers are now capable of playing several defenses – they had a huge comeback win against Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic playing mostly zone, and they still have that in their back pocket if necessary. But in conference play, they’ve mostly played man-to-man. Most importantly, they've stopped switching in the middle of possessions. That's enabled communication and trust between players.
The simplicity theme applies to Indiana’s pick-and-roll defense, too. Early on, sometimes the coaching staff would ask freshman center Thomas Bryant to hedge on ball screens; other times they’d ask him to trap. Bryant didn’t seem to be confident in doing either, and Crean has simplified IU’s coverage. These days, Bryant looks like a force to be reckoned with on both ends.
The Hoosiers are playing a more conservative scheme that is right up ex-NBA coach Tom Thibodeau’s alley – have the big man patrol the paint to seal off drives as opposed to blitzing ball-handlers well beyond the 3-point line. As a result, the Hoosiers are surrendering open mid-range shots as opposed to 3’s and layups. That’s a good thing.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Crean is giving defensive-minded freshmen OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan more playing time. Anunoby, especially, has been a revelation. The 215-pound forward combined to play 13 minutes in the Hoosiers’ three losses – he’s averaging 15 minutes per game in conference play.
The Hoosiers are a significantly better defensive team with Anunoby on the floor, as he’s one of their best rebounders and gives maximum effort at all times. Indiana allows 92.1 points per possession with him on the court compared to its 97.1 mark as a team. The same applies to Morgan, though to a lesser extent. He’s not the offensive player Anunoby is (who’s draining 63.6 percent of his 3’s, by the way), but opponents score well below Indiana’s season average with Morgan in the game.
That’s created a trickle-down effect. Troy Williams has shifted back to the small forward spot, and with a three-headed monster of Yogi Ferrell, Robert Johnson/Nick Zeisloft and Williams, you can afford to sacrifice a bit of offense for defense. Even with James Blackmon Jr. out for the season, this team has more than enough firepower.
Crean is a polarizing figure in Bloomington, and for what it’s worth, Indiana’s Big Ten schedule has been favorable to date. The Hoosiers could revert back to their early season ways against stiffer competition.
But he deserves a lot of credit for this turnaround. Despite an abysmal start, IU is 201 spots higher in the defensive efficiency rankings than it was last season. Bryant is rounding into form at the perfect time, as is the team.
Indiana has three very winnable games coming up: at Minnesota, home against Illinois and home against Northwestern. It will most likely start conference play 7-0.
The Hoosiers had a lot of preseason hype, and it was easy to kick them to the curb after a poor showing at the Maui Invitational and at Duke. But with one of the top offenses in the country and a rapidly improving defense, things are looking up.
Indiana fans: It’s alright to be (cautiously) optimistic.