Indiana made a living early in the season against smaller mid-majors dominating the paint, winning the rebounding margin and getting to the free throw line.
As it turns out, those early contests were good preparation for the more difficult portion of IU’s schedule, including Sunday’s game against Arkansas (10-1).
According to KenPom, the Razorbacks are one of the shortest teams in the country, coming in at No. 281 nationally in average height.
Playing under first year head coach Eric Musselman, Arkansas’ top five players in terms of minutes are all guards that are 6-foot-5 or shorter. 6-foot-6 forward Adrio Bailey joined a four guard starting lineup in the Razorbacks’ last contest, a 72-68 win over Valparaiso.
Musselman knows that Indiana prefers to start a three forward lineup that will present challenges for his smaller squad.
“Indiana, as far as points in the paint and drawing fouls, they’re as good as anyone in the entire country,” Musselman said. “They’re going to pound the ball in possession after possession after possession. We’re going to have to guard that paint.”
Indiana (11-1) has faced its own share of challenges when facing smaller, more perimeter oriented teams, particularly on the defensive end.
Whether it was Wisconsin and Notre Dame’s big men playing on the perimeter, or Nebraska and Louisiana Tech’s four guard lineups spacing the floor and getting out in transition, the Hoosiers have had a hard time guarding the ball against smaller teams.
Arkansas’ personnel perhaps aligns best with Nebraska and Louisiana Tech, and both squads put out some decent film to help the Razorbacks prepare for IU.
Indiana jumped out in front of the Cornhuskers and Bulldogs before both stormed back behind fast-paced small lineups that put Indiana’s big men out on the perimeter attempting to match up with smaller, quicker guards.
After IU raced to an early 13-4 lead against Nebraska, Husker head coach Fred Hoiberg had the right adjustments. Nebraska used their smaller lineup and spread out IU’s defense, beating the Hoosiers with cuts and drives to the basket. On the other end Nebraska went with a variety of defensive looks including a lot of zone that kept the ball out of the paint and forced IU into a perimeter shooting team. Indiana shot 5-of-25 from long range.
“We can’t guard the ball. Guard your man. Keep it as simple as that right now,” Indiana head coach Archie Miller said after the Nebraska game. “We’re getting picked on on the bounce.” … “And I would say just in general tonight we were very spaced out, very man conscious, not very good from a positioning standpoint.”
With a similarly small and quick lineup, a win over Louisiana Tech a few weeks earlier followed much the same script, and the Hoosiers compounded things with mistakes.
After Indiana led 39-16 with 7:29 to go in the first half on Nov. 25, the game started to change. As the Bulldogs stepped up the intensity, IU coughed the ball up 12 times in the second half and shot poorly, allowing Louisiana Tech to pull to within ten points. IU shot just 32 percent from the field and had just three assists in the second half.
Indiana wasn’t much better defensively as the Bulldogs were able to get to the rim and get good looks early in the shot clock. Louisiana Tech scored 59 points over the last 27:29 of the game, and Miller wasn’t pleased with the defensive effort in that contest either.
“We’re not guarding and setting the tone for long stretches,” Miller said after the Louisiana Tech game. “You’re seeing very few shot clock violations. You’re seeing very few long possessions by the other team. You’re seeing quick shots in transition. You’re seeing fouls. You’re seeing drives that relate to threes.”
The blueprint seems to be there for a team like Arkansas. Frustrate Indiana when they have the ball including some zone looks, and turn defense into transition offense. Spread the Hoosiers out when you have the ball, and force IU’s big men to guard the perimeter.
The equalizer for Indiana might be that they should have a fully healthy and game-conditioned backcourt for the first time all year.
Point guard Rob Phinisee missed the Louisiana Tech game and was still shaking off rust against Nebraska. Senior co-captain Devonte Green left the Nebraska game in the second half with an injury.
If he is so inclined, Miller could consider going with some three guard lineups against the Razorbacks, especially now that freshman Armaan Franklin seems to have found his shooting touch. That’s something that Miller alluded to even before Franklin’s 17 point outburst on Saturday against Notre Dame.
“They (the guards) can all play together,” Miller said on the Friday before the Notre Dame game. “There’s going to be some times maybe where we have three of them on the floor in special situations, pressure offense, zone offense, end of game.”
Arkansas’ smaller rotation could be one of those situations that necessitates some three guard lineups for IU, especially if the Hoosiers are losing the trade off, and aren’t able to fully capitalize on their size advantage in the paint and on the glass.
But whether it is two or three guards on the floor, Miller knows what he needs the most from his healthy quartet of ball handlers when they are in the game.
“As I look at them in evaluating the group, not the individual player per game, it’s the group, what are we getting from them in terms of making their teammates better and what are we getting from them on the other end of the floor in terms of being rock solid defensively and being able to hold their own, Miller said.
“Those are two areas, assist-to-turnover, defensive responsibility. If those two areas are pretty good on a game-in, game-out basis, I can say that our guards are doing a nice job.”
A healthy backcourt that facilitates the offense and stays in front of the basketball defensively might just be the cure for some of Indiana’s struggles against smaller lineups.
But Arkansas might just be the most talented of the smaller teams that Indiana has faced. And the Razorbacks certainly seem ready to test that theory in Indiana’s final non-conference game of the season.
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