It is a common refrain in the media room by the players.
Under the direction of third year head coach Archie Miller, Indiana works on defense a lot in practice.
Whether it is to get his young squad indoctrinated into the principles, or perhaps a recognition of where his team’s potential strengths lie, when you come to a Miller practice right now you had better be ready to work on the defensive end.
The extra effort appears to be paying off.
“We went from a bad defensive team in November, to an average defensive team in December, to now as January has grown, (we are) pretty good,” Miller said on on his radio show on Monday night.
The improvements were clear to Miller in his comparison of his team’s play in December at home against Nebraska, and this past weekend on the road against the Cornhuskers in Lincoln.
After giving up 1.1 points per possession in Bloomington against Nebraska, Indiana was able to work that number down to .98 in the rematch despite playing on the road.
“We did a much better job containing the dribble, and even guarding them past the second pass,” Miller said. “I thought we answered the bell on that and had some really good possessions defensively.
“When we struggled to score with a big lead and they started to chew into it, we continued to defend and got some stops which helped us hold that lead the whole time.”
That latter point highlights why defense is such a point of emphasis with Miller. With his team struggling to consistently make shots, Miller needs something that can carry Indiana through what has become all too familiar — scoring droughts.
So they keep working at it.
“We’re better right now than we were a week ago, we’re way better than we were two weeks ago,” Miller said. “When we started the month out at Maryland, I look back at what we were doing there and where we’re at right now, and we’re a more connected team. We’re a more familiar team defensively.
“Now you’re starting to get into those 50/50 plays, making more hard plays at the rim, competing a little bit longer in possessions to dig down, playing through slumps and runs, now playing on the road.”
One area that continues to be a struggle at times on the defensive end is when Indiana’s big men attempt to hedge on high ball screens, leaving the rest of the team vulnerable on the back side. A common tactic by opposing offenses is for the player who is being guarded by the hedger to quickly slip to the rim.
In Joey Brunk and Trayce Jackson-Davis, Miller has two new players this year that have had to learn how to play defense so far away from the rim.
Miller said he sees Brunk improving in many facets of the game in his first few months in Bloomington, including guarding on the perimeter.
“He’s getting better defensively at ball screens,” Miller said.
Jackson-Davis credits his upperclassmen teammates for helping him to be in the right place.
“On the court Justin (Smith) is really putting me in position on defense,” Jackson-Davis said. “I think the last few games the defense has really carried us.”
Indiana has held each of its last four opponents under a point per possession, which is something of a benchmark for good defense in college basketball.
By comparison, at the defensive low point of the season, Wisconsin scorched Indiana for 1.34 points per possession in early December — a season worst figure.
The Badgers jumped out to a quick 19-4 lead over IU in the first six minutes of that game in Madison last month as the Hoosiers struggled on both ends of the floor early.
It is Miller’s hope that even when the shots aren’t falling like that day against Wisconsin, his defense will keep IU within range.
“I think its the one thing you can carry on, is your effort level and your ability to defend without worrying about a whole lot. Our team has grown in that area, and we talked about it today (Monday),” Miller said. “If we’re pretty good now can we get to good by the end of the week? If we’re a little better by the end of this week, can we as we get into February can we start to get to that level of we’re playing great on defense?”
Improving defense has been a trend in each of Miller’s seasons at Indiana. Better play on that end of the floor helped IU finally dig out of a 12 of 13 game losing stretch last season and nearly sneak into the NCAA Tournament back door.
Miller hopes that he has his team ahead of that curve in 2020 as they embark on a final 13 games where every opponent is ranked in the top 40 according to KenPom.
The schedule is unforgiving, but Miller is trying to get his team to a point where his defense will keep things competitive in each contest, irrespective of what is going on with the offense.
“That’s what we have to build to,” Miller said. “We still have some youth, some inexperience in January, but we’ve broken through that ‘hey we’re young,’ or ‘hey you’re new.’ That’s not the case anymore.
“You’re a player here now, and you know what to do. We’ve got to do it longer, better, concentrate more, communication is probably the one thing that I think that we’ve still really struggled with as a team all year. Right now, if we could just pick up our communication just a little bit better, it would probably save us six more points a game defensively just by talking.
“We’re on a quest to improve and our guys have absorbed a lot and think that’s why we’ve improved in that area.”
Just how far has Indiana come defensively? That question could be answered this week.
While the recent improved play has come against some of the lower level teams in the Big Ten, that won’t be the case on Thursday night.
And while Miller has been focusing on making big picture strides to have his team peaking defensively in February, he certainly won’t be looking past the next opponent — perhaps the best offensive team in the conference.
“It’s about Michigan State right now on Thursday night, and you control what you can control,” Miller said.
Led by All-American point guard Cassius Winston, the Spartans rank No. 7 nationally in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency.
“We’ve got an opportunity to prepare, and be ready, and play right now the most consistent team (MSU) in our league so far,” Miller said.
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