Indiana looks fast so far, but it would be wise to avoid quick conclusions.
While he and his coaches and teammates feel the need for speed, Tamar Bates says he knows there will be fewer transition opportunities as the season progresses.
Beginning on Friday evening at Xavier, when IU faces its first of 24 high major foes, the opposition will be more athletic, longer, and better schooled on what we are seeing from Indiana through two games.
Since KenPom started tracking average possession length in 2010, Indiana has only had one team under 16 seconds per trip, and it was a pretty good one. The 2012-13 Hoosiers averaged 15.7 seconds per possession (No. 10 nationally) while spending much of that campaign ranked No. 1 in the country.
Through two games against admittedly suspect competition, IU stands at 14.8 seconds (No. 33 nationally) per offensive possession, easily the least amount of time they’ve spent on that end of the floor since the data has been measured.
While Crean’s IU teams were often thought of as playing fast, the 2013 squad was his only Indiana group that came in under 16.9 seconds per possession or ranked inside the top-70 in the country based on offensive possession length.
But does a fast offense correlate to success? Crean’s second-best IU team, the 2015-16 league champs, were his second fastest on offense, so there was some connection for his teams. But when widening out, things aren’t as clear.
It likely comes as no surprise Nebraska has had the Big Ten’s shortest offensive possessions in each of the last three years correlating with Fred Hoiberg’s tenure as head coach — and the Cornhuskers have finished last in the league each of those seasons.
Conversely, Iowa has been top-two in offensive possession length each of the last four years, and that’s a program that has trended in a positive direction over that span, including a Big Ten Tournament title in 2022.
Both of last year’s national finalists were top-100 in offensive possession length with champ Kansas coming in at No. 43. In 2021 Baylor wasn’t particularly fast (17 seconds, No. 140), but their opponent in the final Gonzaga was (14.4 seconds,, No. 3). In 2019 Virginia was one of the country’s most methodical offenses. Their 20.9 second possessions were No. 351.
Clearly there’s much more to successfully playing fast than just pushing the pace. Teams have to keep turnovers down, they have to have personnel comfortable playing fast, and it certainly doesn’t hurt if their defense is forcing the issue with disruption on the other end.
A 28 percent defensive turnover rate has been much of the story for IU through its first two games of this season. Indiana has caused 40 turnovers to start the campaign, leading to a lot of quick opportunities going the other direction. That’s one of the main reason why Bates believes Indiana looks faster so far.
“It’s a credit to what we want to do on the defensive end,” Bates said. “We want to get stops and get out in transition and get easy baskets. We want to take advantage of those opportunities as much as we can.”
Also contributing — Mike Woodson isn’t worried about who leads the break.
If you want to play fast — truly, breakneck fast, there’s no time for finding the point guard. Get it, and go. That’s led to some early mesmerizing moments watching Indiana’s big men lead the break over the last few weeks. And it’s a philosophy the second-year IU head coach has brought with him from the NBA.
“I started this in Atlanta coaching the Hawks, and when I coached the Knicks, I got away from the whole conventional way of, well, the big gets it off the board, he gives it to the guard, he brings it up,” Woodson said last week. “We’ve got a number of guys, we work on ball handling drills, that I feel good about guys making plays in the open court and being able to push to initiate our break.
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“Now, until you prove me wrong, then I’ll scale you back and take the ball out of your hands and tell you that hey, you’ve got to play the conventional way. But Race (Thompson), Malik (Reneau) and Trayce (Jackson-Davis) have proven that they can make basketball plays in the open court.”
While Woodson is comfortable with his big men initiating, it’s often who is finishing that determines success in transition.
Who can play fast without making mistakes? Who can slash to the rim and finish? Who can make trailing threes? Who has the stamina to maintain the pace over the course of a game?
Woodson admits it, he wants to play faster than last year’s 17.6 seconds per possession that came in No. 176 nationally.
But as Hoiberg knows all too well, wanting to do it and succeeding are two different animals. Woodson says conditioning and personnel are two gateways to making it all come together. The true art as a coach might just be matching a style with a roster, and Woodson believes he’s got a group that can run this year.
Indiana has its most talented point guard duo in recent memory in Xavier Johnson and Jalen Hood-Schifino. Both are very good in transition and seem to prefer that style, and Woodson’s early rotations seem to indicate he plans to have at least one of them on the floor at all times.
And Woodson’s bench seems to be particularly adept at playing up tempo. Early this season they’ve stepped one foot on the floor when coming into games, and the other on the gas, and the results have been eye-opening. IU’s bench has outscored opposing benches 96-17 through two games.
“Last year we just didn’t have a lot of guys that could handle the ball and make basketball plays and do things off the bounce individually,” Woodson said. “That’s no knock to anybody that we had last season, it’s just we didn’t have that makeup of the team.
“I think with the guys that have come back to us that they have gotten better like the Tamar Bates, the Gallos (Trey Galloway), even (Jordan) Geronimo has been able to put the ball down on the floor and make a basketball play, and then the new guys. All those guys can do that.”
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