Early in the season, it looked like an offensive identity was emerging.
Transition offense. Offensive rebounds. Dominating the paint. Getting to the foul line.
With Indiana’s newfound “Big Ten size” as head coach Archie Miller has referred to it, the Hoosiers appeared to have found something sustainable.
After finishing 11th and 10th in Big Ten games over the last two years in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, any approach that yielded better results was a welcomed sight.
But in high major college basketball, no punch happens without a counter punch.
Transition offense, offensive rebounds, dominating the paint and getting to the foul line is countered with getting back on defense, blocking out, clogging the paint, and not fouling.
And at the high major level, teams have the athletes and the coaches to effectively counter an identity, especially if it is only just emerging, and fragile.
That’s what appears to be happening as Indiana attempts to traverse the more difficult part of its schedule, and at the core of the emerging scheme to defend IU is all too familiar problem.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said this about the gameplan he designed for Indiana’s offense.
“We wanted their perimeter players to get as many shots up as we could,” Musselman said on Sunday night after his team rallied to defeat IU 71-64 in Bloomington.
After a respectable start to the season shooting the ball from three-point range, the wheels have come off for Indiana over the last four games.
Against UConn, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Arkansas the Hoosiers have shot 17-of-76 (22.4 percent) from long range. If you take out Devonte Green’s out-of-body 5-of-7 performance from distance against Florida State, the Hoosiers are just 24-of-98 (24.5 percent) over the last six. Those six games represent IU’s only contests against high major opponents this year.
The shooting slide has resulted in Indiana dropping to just 31.4 percent on the season after a respectable start. By comparison, the Hoosiers shot just 31.2 percent last season, a performance that most deemed unacceptable.
During that 2018-19 campaign, one opponent after another packed its defense in the paint in order to collapse on Juwan Morgan and cut off driving lanes for Romeo Langford. In essence, make someone else beat you — and for the most part Indiana couldn’t do it — unless Green and/or others had an outlier performance.
The names have changed this year, but the scheme is by and large the same — and unlikely to change.
“I thought that by eliminating Trayce Jackson-Davis’ inside shot attempts and trying to make them beat us from the perimeter, I thought it changed the game a little bit for us,” Musselman said.
Musselman’s Razorbacks were able to effectively pull off taking away inside shots despite starting no one over 6-foot-6 and playing no one over 6-foot-8. That’s hardly Big Ten size.
With teams now forcing Indiana to win from the perimeter, cracks in that once promising identity are appearing. After shooting a best-in-the nation nearly 30 free throw attempts per game over the first 11 games, IU has averaged just 15 attempts over the last two. After shooting better than 50 percent from the field in each of the first five games, IU has eclipsed that mark just once in the last eight, and the Hoosiers have shot 42.4 percent or worse in five of its last eight contests.
Looming for Indiana are much bigger teams that should have a much easier time contesting Indiana’s paint game if the Hoosiers remain one dimensional.
If IU wants to be that paint dominant team despite being below average shooting from the perimeter, they are going to have to find a way to impose their will. That means one of two things — double down on the commitment to transition offense, or figure out a way to get the ball into the post.
Indiana cannot have halves on the offensive end like their second against Arkansas, where the transition offense disappeared, and the ball seemingly never entered the paint.
They cannot have a nine minute stretch to end a game where their most productive offensive weapon, Trayce Jackson-Davis, doesn’t get a field goal attempt.
Jackson-Davis scored 16 of his team leading 20 points against the Razorbacks in the first half. According to Musselman and Miller, most of those first half points came from transition rather than anything IU was able to manufacture in the half court.
Although it is a staple of Miller’s offensive scheme, transition offense has been hard to come by during his tenure in Bloomington. That is especially the case in the Big Ten, where most teams are well schooled in getting back on defense, and most players have the physical tools to complete the task.
That leaves the half court to produce points, and that leaves us back where we started. Either Indiana finds a way to impose its will in the paint, or it starts knocking down perimeter shots. With the former showing much more promise than the latter, Miller spoke after the Arkansas game about what needs to change for Indiana to get better looks for its big men.
“We’re not moving,” Miller said. “And we didn’t move enough to be able to get him (Jackson-Davis) moving around. If you want to stand on the block and have a guy front you the whole game and say, hey, throw it inside, throw it inside, it’s not that easy. It’s just not that easy to fire the ball inside 50 times when they’re fronting the post and they’ve got guys on help side.
“You’ve got to be able to move around and screen the defense and execute. There were a few times we called the play we didn’t execute the play.”
Better movement was a point of emphasis coming into the season as Indiana transitioned from a more ball screen oriented attack.
For Miller, better movement is the key to getting the ball in the hands of his best offensive weapons, and facilitating his once-emerging offensive identity.
Unless Indiana finds some answers offensively fast, the only movement might be a season change of direction, from forward to reverse.
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