Credit - IU Athletics

Indiana Basketball: The Missing Ingredient in the Hoosiers’ Defense

Legendary Indiana basketball radio voice Don Fischer isn’t exactly impartial when it comes to the Hoosiers.  He isn’t thought of as a harsh critic either.  That’s why when he said this on Monday on the Dan Dakich Show, our ears perked up —

“My biggest concern with this team right now is they don’t have an edge.  There’s gotta be a fire in your gut.  There’s gotta be an ability to go out there and be excited to play the game.  I’m talking about the fire in the belly, the want to compete, the want to go out there and take somebody’s head off.”

He’s the voice of the Hoosiers for a reason, and in those four sentences he pretty much captured the sentiments of the vast majority of the IU fan base.

Those comments from Fischer were before Tuesday night’s game at Northwestern — a contest that resulted in IU’s fifth straight loss on the season.

Most opinions coming out of that Northwestern game formed a consensus that IU competed much harder against the Wildcats.  Bodies were on the floor and the Hoosiers were effective rebounding the basketball.

But of course the outcome was the same.

The blame is being placed at the feet of the IU offense, and for good reason.  Averaging just 57 points per game in their last three contests, Indiana is getting very little production out of its half court sets.  With defenses packing the paint and daring Indiana to shoot over the top, the Hoosiers have hit just 18% from long range in those three games.

How could an offense that was clicking along at 65% from the field in the process of dropping 96 points on now No. 12 Marquette suddenly be this bad?

One thing for sure is the fact that defenses have made adjustments.  A smart coach knows that Evan Fitzner isn’t going to beat you off the dribble, and that you are better off taking your chances with Romeo Langford shooting three-pointers.

But that Marquette game was about more than Indiana’s offense.

Image result for indiana marquette
(Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It was the Hoosier defense that jump started the 23-point November blowout.

Marquette guard Markus Howard turned the ball over on two of the Golden Eagles’ first three possessions, helping Indiana run out to an 8-2 lead.  Through the first eight minutes of that game, Indiana was 7 for 8 on transition shots, most of which were created by live ball turnover situations.

In the first 12 minutes of the game, IU had forced seven Marquette turnovers.

Now look at the turnover totals that Indiana has forced during its five game losing streak:

  • Michigan – 3
  • Maryland – 9
  • Nebraska – 12
  • Purdue – 11
  • Northwestern – 5
  • AVERAGE =  8

For the sake of comparison, the worst team in the NCAA’s Division One right now for turnovers forced per game is Idaho.  The Vandals are averaging 9.4 turnovers forced per game on the season, or 1.4 more than what IU is forcing during this losing streak.

Oh, and Idaho is 4-13 on the season.

Is The Pack-Line Defense a Bad Fit For This Particular IU Basketball Roster?

Let’s get this out of the way first.  We aren’t suggesting that the pack-line defense is a flawed concept.

Tony Bennett, often thought of as one of the masterminds of the pack-line, routinely has his Virginia squad ranked as one of the best defenses in the country.  The Cavaliers are currently ranked second in KenPom adjusted defense and they have been in the top 25 in that category every year since 2012, and in the top 10 in seven of those eight seasons.  The pack-line works.

It does have its critics however.  And yes, we know, you likely thought “yeah but UMBC” as a reflex upon hearing Virginia or Tony Bennett.

There is merit to remembering that epic David vs. Goliath, No. 1 seed vs. No. 16 upset by UMBC.  The Retrievers illustrated how the pack-line can be broken with good three-point shooting and getting out in transition before the defense gets set.  We’ve certainly seen both of those variables doom Indiana in recent weeks.

Like any defense, the pack-line can have its shortcomings.  But when done right, it is beyond debate at this point — it works.

First, it is important to understand what the pack-line defense is.  It is a man to man defense, but it is an adaptation from more traditional man-to-man defensive concepts.  Bennett’s father Dick is actually credited with inventing it.

Image result for devonte green defense
(Photo by Josh Eastern/HN)

In a traditional man defense, a defender will typically follow his man wherever he goes on the floor and will actively deny passing lanes between his man and the ball.  In the pack-line, an imaginary line is drawn inside the three-point line, and the defense doesn’t look to extend much beyond it.  Outside of the “pack-line”, passing lanes are not denied and offensive players, other than the player with the ball, are not closely guarded.

It’s a defense that is content to let you pass the ball around the perimeter and shoot contested three-pointers.  In the spectrum of basketball defenses, it might be thought of as a more passive defense, with some concepts similar to playing a zone.  Of course if the pack-line is done right, there is nothing passive about it at all.

And that’s where we go back to Fischer’s comments.  A team that plays without an edge might not be ideally suited to play the pack-line.  They might be content to sit back behind that pack-line, whereas if they were drilled daily to get out in passing lanes and create havoc, it might just light that fire in the gut that he referred to.

The pack-line is never going to be a defense that averages 20 forced turnovers a game.  Virginia’s defense is always respectable (top 50 turnover percentage in 2017 and 2018) but rarely elite in that regard.  But eight?  Something is wrong here, and it certainly isn’t adding any juice to a flailing half court offense the way it managed to on one now outlying night against Marquette.

Make no mistake here — Archie Miller isn’t going to change his defense.  The defense is going to change his players.  Or perhaps instead, Miller is going to have to find players that fit his defense.

It took Tony Bennett a couple years to do that.  While Virginia has been top 25 in adjusted defense the last eight years, they were outside of the top 70 in his first two seasons — campaigns that saw the Cavs go a combined 31-31.

As national analyst Jeff Goodman said yesterday, Tom Crean left the cupboards bare when he left Indiana.  Goodman was referring to a void in overall talent, but he could have just as well been referring to a lack of “Archie’s guys.”

Miller is going to need time to have a roster loaded from top to bottom with both the talent and characteristics that fit his system.  That is just the unfortunate reality that has surfaced in recent weeks.

And as Don Fischer suggested, it wouldn’t hurt if Miller found some guys that were a bit more excited to play the game too.

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