Indiana has a had a few overarching on-court issues throughout this turbulent 2023-24 season.
But one clear contender for the top challenge plaguing these Hoosiers would have to be their 3-point defense.
First let’s take a step back.
Now in his third season as head coach at Indiana, the analytics say this is Mike Woodson’s worst performing defense overall. And you’d find few who follow this team closely who would argue against that.
Indiana’s KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency ranks No. 75 in the nation at the moment. They were No. 45 according to that metric a year ago, and No. 25 in Woodson’s first season. So your eyes aren’t failing you — there has been a clear decline.
It has been reasonable to wonder whether Indiana’s two big lineup featuring Kel’el Ware and Malik Reneau has contributed to the shortcomings on the defensive end, especially on the perimeter. Factor in Mackenzie Mgbako’s slow start learning Woodson’s defense, and Xavier Johnson’s injury and unceremonious return, and you have some of what seems like the obvious variables conspiring to drag down IU’s defense.
With Reneau and Mgbako probably playing out of position, especially on defense, and Mgbako and Johnson not playing up to their potential on that end, red flags have emerged. Teams are hunting threes against IU, typically by screening the ball, driving or posting the ball — and forcing scheme-mandated help that requires a quick recovery over a wide gap.
Relative to their D-I peers, opponents are disproportionately taking threes against Indiana (41.5 percent of all shots, No. 304 nationally). More than anything else, we’d argue that has led to Indiana’s struggles on defense, including many of the offensive rebounds IU has allowed.
With Ware out with an ankle injury each of the last two games, Woodson was forced to tinker with his starting lineup. And one thing is abundantly clear — the juxtaposition of Indiana’s defense at Wisconsin and at Illinois was night and day.
At Wisconsin Indiana started Payton Sparks at center, and against Illinois, Woodson moved Reneau to center and started Anthony Walker at the four. Sparks played 29 minutes at Wisconsin, Walker played 31 minutes at Illinois. Indiana gave up 1.4 points per possession at Wisconsin, and 1.03 at Illinois — both national top-10 teams in offensive efficiency.
Of course that is only two games, so clearly not enough to draw definitive conclusions.
We’ve seen this dynamic at play previously when Ware missed the Kennesaw State game with an illness. It wasn’t until Indiana went with just one big, and Reneau at center, that the Hoosiers were able to consistently get stops on defense and avoid the upset.
So has Woodson seen enough to start playing more smaller lineups?
“All Big Ten teams are not small playing like that,” Woodson said of Illinois on Saturday. “Illinois is pretty much the only team that plays like that, so they force your hand.
“It would have been interesting if big fella’ (Ware) did play, where I could fit him in.”
Indiana was switching one through five on Saturday. That was made possible by Walker’s versatility, along with Mgbako and Johnson improving. By switching, Indiana avoided getting caught up in the screens and beat on dribbles drives — factors that have led to many of the wide open threes.
Obviously Indiana cannot bench Kel’el Ware. If he was available on Saturday, Woodson would have played him.
But it does leave you wondering.
Indiana was bad on the offensive end at Illinois, but that wasn’t a new development. The Hoosiers are No. 111 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and that too is a three-year low under Woodson.
Perhaps there is a middle ground? Could Woodson play Reneau and Ware 30 minutes apiece, a lower number for each that keeps them both fresher? Of course he should never play without one of them on the floor. That should mean IU plays half the game with both and half with one on the floor.
It isn’t clear what that will deliver. Perhaps this is a poor roster construction conundrum no lineup will solve, especially without more offensive production from the backcourt.
But these are desperate times, and that doesn’t feel like an overly desperate measure.
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