When Indiana fans get their first look at new head coach Mike Woodson’s approach on both ends of the floor in just under a month, it won’t resemble what they reluctantly grew accustomed to over the last four years.
The pack-line defense has been packed-up and moved out.
Same goes for the more structured offensive approach of the Archie Miller era.
And at least until the ball tips on Nov. 9 in Bloomington, the change has produced more smiles from the players — when they catch their breath.
One of the overarching themes of Woodson’s approach to the game is intensity, and that isn’t just for the intangible benefits. The way he wants to play on both ends requires a new level of effort in practice that the returning players aren’t necessarily accustomed to.
“This team is probably doing more running than they’ve probably ever done,” Woodson said on Friday at the Big Ten’s media day. … “My level of playing hard is a little bit different than what most young players think.”
Preseason All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis said during the team’s foreign trip to The Bahamas that he is in much better shape than he was a year ago. There are multiple layers to that. The “big hunk,” as Woodson referred to Jackson-Davis live on the air of the Big Ten Network on Friday, focused on his conditioning during his own offseason program, and he of course didn’t have the same obstacles stemming from the pandemic like he did in 2020 offseason.
But Jackson-Davis also sees a difference in the organized team activities and practices under Woodson.
“It’s a lot of running,” Jackson-Davis said. “Our warm-up every day takes like 30 minutes and its just like straight conditioning.”
That conditioning will be critical on the defensive end. From the moment the ball tips next month, fans will notice something very different about the way IU is guarding.
After their first made basket in The Bahamas and for much of two games there, the Hoosiers picked up and guarded full court.
And at least in part because of the personnel he has available, Woodson expects that approach will become part of his team’s new defensive identity.
“I think we’ve got guards who are capable of getting up the floor and picking up (full court),” Woodson said.
This won’t be a full-court press where Indiana is trying to turn teams over and create chaos, but instead, IU will just be utilizing the quickness and lateral abilities of its guards to make things uncomfortable.
“I’m not trying to steal, I’m just trying to add valuable pressure early and take time off the (shot) clock, and make guys work to bring the ball up,” Woodson said.
This approach paid major dividends in The Bahamas, as IU’s opponent BC Mega never seemed to get comfortable initiating their offense and committed 39 turnovers over the two games.
“I thought that (the full court pressure) was a bonus for us in The Bahamas, because Khristian can do it, Xavier, Tamar, Rob, they can get up the floor and pressure a little bit,” Woodson said. “So we’re going to stay with it, because it gets us started earlier from a defensive standpoint with the other four guys who are playing behind it.”
When opposing teams do get into the half court, the preferred approach will be to play man-to-man, switch screens as much as possible, and play with an overall more aggressive style than what we’ve seen from recent vintage IU teams. While the pack-line was focused more on closing off driving lanes and closing out on shooters, Woodson will be more likely to be aggressive, extend the defense a bit, and jump some passing lanes. The particulars of course will be dictated by the specific scout of an opponent, especially in the Big Ten.
Defense is where Woodson has focused early and often during his time with the players. He sets the bar high on that end and will favor players who fit, with good effort and the ability to guard multiple positions.
“Defensively I’m a demanding coach,” he said. “When you don’t do it right, I keep making you do it until you do it right. We’ve kind of assembled a nice defensive system that they kind of understand. .. I’ve always coached the defensive side of the ball first because I know if we can build a good foundation defensively we’ll put ourselves in position every game to be in a game and possibly win the game.”
On the other end of the floor, the plan is to allow the players to play instinctively in a modern, up-tempo and well spaced style that the guys are jazzed about.
“Coach Woodson’s big thing is playing defense,” senior point guard Rob Phinisee said. “He says if we play defense and stop guys we can have fun on offense. So everybody’s locked in on the defensive end, and we’re really just trying to make plays that translate to offense.”
Before each season at this time of year Miller spoke about his desire to play faster on offense, but it never really materialized. In fact, IU got slower over time, with an average offensive possession length of 17.2, 17.5 and 18.1 second over his last three seasons, the latter coming in at No. 259 nationally.
One reason why Miller was never able to give his offense a turbo boost was personnel. You need a point guard who is wired to go at all times, and Woodson believes he has that in Xavier Johnson.
“Xavier has been great because he changes the game with his speed,” Woodson said.
When he commits himself to pushing the pace Phinisee seems to be in his element as well, something that might help him play more freely and think less this year.
You also need big men who are in shape and prepared to run for 30 minutes or more if you want to successfully play up-tempo.
Jackson-Davis was out-running everyone in The Bahamas. He seems to be ready to keep up with Johnson in the open floor, and he talked about what else will be different on the offensive end under Woodson.
“His style is really pushing the pace and trying to get the ball out, less systematic, more motion oriented, where guys are playing different positions and going different places on the floor,” Jackson-Davis said. “It’s almost like positionless basketball.”
When the Hoosiers have it in the half-court Woodson intends to space the floor and give his big men opportunities to touch the ball on the perimeter. In many ways the offense will be running through veteran big men Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson while they are away from the basket.
Phinisee believes they are both ready to take on that challenge.
“Both of their perimeter games have improved,” he said. “They are able to create and penetrate from the wings. The way our offense is, they actually dictate things a little bit.”
More than anyone, Jackson-Davis thrived under the old system, so there are challenges for him.
But to be drafted where he hopes to be, he’ll need to prove himself in an NBA read-and-react style that pulls him away from the basket.
“That’s been a big adjustment for me, especially after being in a system,” Jackson-Davis said. “Just catching the ball and being able to make plays instead of having to dribble and hand it off or do something (scripted) of that nature.”
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