Breaking down Indiana’s historically bad defense, and why their season’s at a crossroads

AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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DURHAM, N.C. — Before we can talk about what’s wrong with Indiana on the defensive end of the floor, before we can even think about discussing how to fix the issues that are plaguing the Hoosiers, we need to understand just how bad things are right now.

On Wednesday night, the Hoosiers went into Cameron Indoor Stadium — a place where Duke hasn’t lost a non-conference home game since Feb. 26, 2000 — and shot 50.7 percent from the floor, hitting 7-for-17 from beyond the arc while turning the ball over just nine times. They finished the night scoring 1.19 points-per-possession (PPP).

On the road.

Against the No. 7 team in the country.

And they lost by 20.

That’s incredibly difficult to do.

But that’s what happens when a defense allows an opponent to more-or-less look like the Harlem Globetrotters. Chew on this for a minute: Duke finished the night, according to KenPom, scoring 1.52 PPP, an insanely high number regardless of who the opponent is. This didn’t come against some run-of-the-mill opponent that Duke paid five figures to fill a spot on their schedule. It came against Indiana. The last time a team scored more than 1.5 PPP against a high-major opponent came in March of 2011, when Ohio State whipped up on Wisconsin at home.

That night, the Buckeyes shot 14-for-15 from three.

That was an NCAA record.

So it’s not exactly stretching the truth to say that Indiana, on Wednesday night in Durham, North Carolina, put together one of the worst defensive performances in NCAA history.

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“I’m sure they would have wanted to play better defense,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “But we were playing good offense.”

“For a period of time there, we just kind of scored.”

Once we get past the analytical breakdowns, once we get over the discussion of whether or not Indiana should be a man-to-man team or strictly play zone or continue to throw junk defense after junk defense out there, hoping the powerhouses in the Big Ten aren’t as adept at figuring them out as Duke was on Wednesday, what you come down to is that quote from Krzyzewski.

A quote as unintentionally damning as any of Duke’s 19 offensive rebounds or 11 three-pointers.

“For a period of time there, we just kind of scored.”

And he’s right.

Indiana was up 24-20 with 9:30 left in the first half and Duke proceeded to close the half with a 31-18 run in which they scored on 14 of their 15 possessions. Twice, during that stretch, the Blue Devils got offensive rebounds off of missed free throws, which is inexcusable.

Here’s the kicker: Duke really didn’t do anything complicated offensively. This wasn’t some magisterial coaching performance by the man with more wins than any one else in the sport, the discovery of a fatal flaw in Indiana’s defensive schemes. Duke’s game-plan was as simple as simple gets. They wanted to isolate Bryant in ball-screen actions against man-to-man because Bryant cannot guard ball-screen actions against man-to-man. They wanted to attack Indiana’s defenders off the dribble because Indiana’s perimeter players can’t stop dribble penetration. They wanted to get Jefferson the ball in the high-post against IU’s zone because Jefferson could distribute from that spot on the floor. And they wanted to attack the offensive glass because Indiana’s front line has no idea the kind of physicality that it takes to rebound the ball at this level.

That’s basic stuff.

And Indiana let them do it, all of it. Whatever Duke wanted to do on Wednesday, they did.

The part that frustrates the Hoosier faithful, the reason that my mentions on twitter filled with vitriolic tweets from people with red IU logos in their avatar every time I happened to mention Indiana’s defense, is that none of this is new. None of it is. Not just this season, either. This was Indiana’s issue last year, when they finished 214th nationally in defensive efficiency despite having one of the nation’s ten most potent offensive.

I spoke with multiple coaches that have handled scouting and game-planning for the Hoosiers, and the answers were all the same. They were all answers that I probably could have gotten if I just talked to the Cameron Crazies sitting behind me:

  • “They’ve been awful in ball-screen coverages. Watching the tapes of the [their] games, against their man-to-man defense, we wanted to take advantage of that.”
  • “We wanted to put them in as many step-up ball screens as possible to get our guards going down hill, let our guards try to come off it and make plays.”
  • “You slow them down offensively by making them take the ball out of bounds.”

That last quote is an angle I didn’t even think about until.

This Indiana team really is an offensive juggernaut. They were last year and they are again this year. They have a trio of guards who are really difficult to keep out of the lane, they’re loaded with shooters and Troy Williams is a matchup nightmare at the four spot, but perhaps more than anything, where they’re the most dangerous is in transition because it’s just so difficult to locate all of the guys that are able to shoot on this team.

But that transition game, that potent offensive attack gets hurt because IU can’t get stops, meaning they can’t get out and run, meaning the best part of their offensive arsenal is limited because they’re unable to get stops.

The way that I see it at this point, there are two main issues with Indiana’s defense. One of them is fixable, and one of them may not be:

The biggest issue at this point is that the Hoosiers are not a team with a defensive identity. Case in point: when you play Duke, you know what they are going to do on the defensive end of the floor. Opposing coaches don’t even need to bother watching them on that end of the floor. They can use the same scouting reports that they did 20 years ago.

The Blue Devils play half-court man-to-man. They extend their defense on the wings, taking away swing passes, and they switch all exchanges 1-through-4. What this does is eliminate the ability for opponents to get into their sets and run their offense and forces offenses to rely heavily on the ability of their guards to make plays going one-on-one. They also don’t want to help on drives, particularly when they’re playing a team like Indiana, a team with a myriad of snipers salivating for their next rhythm, catch-and-shoot three. It puts the onus on individual perimeter defenders. They have to stop their man or they’re giving up a bucket. This is why teams with talented play makers in the back court — like, for example, Miami last season — have success against Duke.

Indiana doesn’t have an identity defensively.

I spent my Wednesday night sitting court side, trying to track what the Hoosiers were doing defensively. I counted at least five different defenses that they played: man, a 2-3 zone, a 1-1-3 zone, a 1-2-2 press and a defense where they switched between man and zone in the middle of the possession.

“They were going man and then turning their man to a zone,” Jefferson said. “It was really weird. You don’t see that a lot. It was kind of different.”

The problem was that it was difficult to identify what, exactly, they were running because, at times, I’m not convinced the players actually knew themselves. It was unnecessarily complicated, and when you’re a team that’s struggling to find their way on the defensive end of the floor, the answer isn’t to start trying a myriad of junk defenses.

“No question you have to simplify,” one high major coach told NBCSports.com. “Be good at one defense. Focus on doing one right. If you try to have an elaborate defensive package, you’ll end up being lukewarm at them all. They need to analyze what they do best and stick to it.”

As of today, according to Synergy’s logs, Indiana’s man-to-man defense is their best defense, at least on a per-possession basis. But the problem is that A) that man defense isn’t very good at all, and B) those numbers don’t factor in that they’ve played games against teams like Alcorn State, Eastern Illinois and Austin Peay.

Talk to the coaches that scout them, that game-plan for them, and it’s fairly clear: Indiana cannot play man-to-man, not unless they get markedly better at it. Crean knows this. His press conference after last night’s loss lasted all of four minutes and three questions from the media. And when he wasn’t snapping at reporters for asking if he was concerned about just how atrocious his team was defensively, he repeatedly said things like “We were not nearly good enough on the ball tonight defensively” or “We didn’t get enough rebounds.” He made sure to point out — three times — that it’s only December 3rd and we’re only eight games into the season. They have time to get better.

But where Crean believes the issues they have defensively are a result of effort and execution, that may not actually be the case.

Which brings me to Indiana’s second issue:

“I don’t think it’s an effort thing. A lot of it’s personnel driven,” another high-major coach said. “I don’t know if they’ve got the quickest bigs. That has a lot to do with it. I think you’re going to see them play more zone as the year goes on because of it, because everyone is going to take advantage of [their man defense].”

Bryant just isn’t ready to be the game-changing defensive presence we thought he would be, and that’s not something that is an indictment on Crean or Bryant. He’s a freshman big man and freshmen big men tend to take time to adjust to the college level. In high school, they’re essentially told to stand in the paint, be really tall and get the rebounds and block the shots that tall people are supposed to.

Now?

He has to learn defensive schemes and be able to move his feet on the perimeter. He has to deal with trying to rebound the ball against the likes of Marshall Plumlee, a physical 7-foot senior that spent the summer in the national guard, and Amile Jefferson, as savvy of a college four as you’re going to find.

It would be best if he could be a complimentary piece to a front line at this point, much the way Diamond Stone is at Maryland.

But Indiana doesn’t have that luxury. Hanner Mosquera-Perea is gone. Emmitt Holt is gone. If Bryant isn’t in the game, Crean’s center is Max Bielfeldt, a 6-foot-7 land warrior that averaged career-highs of 5.1 points and 3.6 boards as a redshirt junior at Michigan last season.

Ready or not, Bryant has to play.

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That is the crux of Indiana’s issues defensively, and I promise that I’m not trying to pin this all on the play of a freshman. That’s not fair. If anything, the blame falls on the coach — and the former players that prioritized weed and booze over playing for the Hoosiers —  for putting him in a situation where he has to play 30 minutes a night.

There’s so much more at play here.

James Blackmon Jr., Yogi Ferrell and Robert Johnson are all quick enough to be very good perimeter defenders if they want to be. To this point in the season, they haven’t been.

Troy Williams has the athleticism to be a game-changer in this system, a guy that can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break himself. He didn’t get a rebound in the first half and finished with just three on the night.

Speaking of rebounding, Duke grabbed 19 of an available 35 offensive rebounds. That should never happen. Bryant goose-egged on the glass.

Seriously.

Indiana’s starting center didn’t get a single rebound in a game where Duke got 19 offensive rebounds. The Hoosiers leading rebounder was Robert Johnson, who grabbed six boards. Two of them came in the final five minutes which is the only reason that Indiana’s leading rebounder was “deadball rebounds”, a stat used when a carom goes out of bound and ends up in their possession.

Indiana’s personnel isn’t ideal, but the effort isn’t there, either.

They were humiliated on national television on Wednesday night, putting their season at a crossroads. If things don’t change, if the Hoosiers can’t figure out a way to play with pride defensively, they’re going to end up missing the NCAA tournament.

And Crean may not be able to last the season in the pressure-cooker that Bloomington has become.