Mike Woodson could not have been more clear a year ago.
Whenever he was asked about the rollout of his system prior to his first season as the IU basketball head coach, Woodson would quickly remind his team was mainly focused on the defensive end.
For those who wanted to hear more about how he was going to fix the broken offense, it became a predictable response. But the results on the defensive end say Woodson was right to emphasize defense first.
A lifetime in the game has allowed Woodson to quickly dissect the strengths and weaknesses of a team. He was an assistant coach on the NBA champion 2004 Detroit Pistons, one of the game’s best ever defenses. Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince weren’t walking through the doors at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, but Woodson knew if he was going to flip the switch on his largely inherited first IU team, it was going to come via the defensive end.
There was much to be done last summer to overhaul the defensive approach in Bloomington. When asked about Archie Miller’s pack-line defense, Woodson famously asked “what is that,” as he turned his sights on what he termed a “hard-ass” defensive approach that emphasized heavy ball pressure and switching on screens.
But there were many more intricacies than even long-time college assistant coach Kenya Hunter appreciated when he signed on to stay with IU during the Miller to Woodson transition.
Woodson was well-known for his spread offense and an emphasis on 3-point shooting from his time in the NBA. But what was his defensive style, and how would it translate to the college game? What Woodson did at Indiana last year left an impression on Hunter.
“The number one thing was his defensive philosophy and principles and how we deal with different situations,” Hunter said during an interview on The Coaching Ladder on Twitter Spaces when asked what Woodson was able to bring from the NBA to college.
“And that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned in this past season with Coach Woodson. I mean how we guard ball screens, you know, most coaches in college that I’ve been around, you cover a ball screen in a certain way, whether you hard hedge it or you down the ball screen.”
Hunter says what really stood out with Woodson’s approach was how multifaceted it was.
“With Coach Woodson, we guarded a certain way too, but he has this saying, the “what ifs.”
“Okay, ‘what if we want to hard hedge it but they get over or they reject it. Now what’s the rotations of it?’ And we break down the rotations of if we don’t hedge the ball screen the correct way and it goes the other way.”
Hunter’s explanation helps the untrained eye appreciate better the need to spend a whole offseason focusing on the defensive end. Teaching all 13 players not just the overarching defensive principles, but multiple layers that must be executed on a moment’s notice takes time.
The results speak for themselves. Indiana finished with the best adjusted defensive efficiency in the Big Ten a year ago, forcing teams into the second longest possessions and the second worst effective field goal percentage, while generating the highest block rate in the league. That last aspect was one of many layers that had to be learned, as Trayce Jackson-Davis went from protecting the help side to aggressively hunting blocks. His block rate nearly doubled, and saved many possessions in the process.
While many point to Jackson-Davis and Xavier Johnson’s late surges on the offensive end, truth be told it was team defense that saved the season and sent the Hoosiers to their first NCAA Tournament in six years. In the second halves of its first two Big Ten Tournament games, Indiana held national top-30 offenses Michigan and Illinois to 28 and 30 points, respectively.
“One thing he (Woodson) said, we wanted to have the best defensive team in the Big Ten,” Hunter said. “Even in his first year we were able to accomplish that.”
Now the question, with most of the roster back and well-schooled in Woodson’s defense, how good can they be this time around?
“I just think that having a number of guys coming back on this roster with four incoming freshmen, I think we can do the same things and be even better because of the understanding of how the principles work,” Hunter said. “Different actions in situations, I think our guys are gonna have a better understanding of them.”
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