Following a loss at Rutgers Tuesday evening, Indiana coach Mike Woodson did not like being pressed on the substitution patterns he utilizes.
Why does he elect to have four or five of the starters sitting on the bench at the same time?
“I’m not going to sit here and answer that question when it comes to the fans or you,” Woodson said. “I elected to go to my bench, which I’ve done this season, and I’ve gotten some good results here and there.”
While Woodson certainly is under no obligation to explain or justify his lineups to the fans or media, it is reasonable to raise questions.
Especially after performances like we saw at Rutgers.
Woodson’s Hoosiers were up 18-11 with 9:40 left in the first half when he took Malik Reneau out of the game. He was the third Hoosier starter sent to the bench, joining Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway. Then Woodson took out Kel’el Ware with 8:00 remaining — after the lead had shrunk to 20-17. By the time Woodson brought Reneau and Ware back in the game at the 5:22 mark, it was 20-19 Indiana. Obviously, not a lot of scoring happened by IU during that span of the game. And it gave Rutgers momentum they never really relinquished.
Woodson likes to say he can’t play his starters 40 minutes per game. And while that’s reasonable, IU has very little margin for error right now when it comes to making the NCAA Tournament. So giving the starters all the minutes they can handle without a major impact on their performance also seems reasonable. Woodson did that a year ago with Trayce Jackson-Davis. And it doesn’t address the central question he dodged. Should Woodson set up his rotations so he always has three or even four starters on the floor at the same time?
The data says yes.
According to statistics by CBB Analytics, among lineups with enough minutes and possessions together to qualify, six of Indiana’s top seven lineups from a plus/minus standpoint contain four starters. For that purpose we consider both Gabe Cupps and Xavier Johnson starters, since they both have been in that role for substantial stretches of the season.
The lone exception is a unit consisting of Anthony Leal, Trey Galloway, Kaleb Banks, Anthony Walker and Malik Reneau, a group you may recall was very effective down the stretch against Kennesaw State — a game when IU was missing Kel’el Ware. It appears safe to call that group an outlier at this point.
One of Ware or Reneau appear in all of Indiana’s top-nine lineups, and they both appear in six of the top nine. So a clear message seems to emerge from those points — don’t ever play a lineup without at least one of Ware or Reneau on the floor. That seems eminently doable since Reneau is more than capable of holding down the five spot when Ware is out of the game. And Mackenzie Mgbako could hold down his more natural stretch-four position when either of them are on the bench.
Trey Galloway is in nine of the top-10 lineups from a plus/minus standpoint. So despite his struggles shooting the basketball this season, it seems like a good idea to maximize his time on the floor. And he does lead the team in minutes played.
Some of Indiana’s worst performing lineups include both Kaleb Banks and Anthony Walker on the floor together. Banks is a regular among some of the worst performing lineups, but he also appears in one of the top-seven when he’s paired with four starters. Same with Walker.
So again, the message from the data seems to suggest the trouble begins when multiple starters come out of the game at the same time. The data also suggests the offense stagnates when Indiana has a lineup heavily influenced by the bench, and that’s understandable. To this point players like Banks, Walker, Leal, and Payton Sparks have not made major impacts on the offensive end. That’s part of the story here — relative to other high majors, Indiana does not have much offensive firepower on its bench. And certainly not enough to play lineups with three and four reserves at once. You’re risking a scoring drought and a run by the opponent.
Looking at it all another way, Sparks, Banks, C.J. Gunn and Anthony Walker all individually have a negative box score plus/minus on the season. While that doesn’t conclusively condemn any of them on an individual basis, it does call into question the merit of stacking them together in a lineup on the floor.
Woodson doesn’t need to answer the media or fans when it comes to his substitution patterns. And nothing productive will result from him discussing any of this publicly.
But it does seem prudent to conduct a behind-the-scenes examination of his approach. He typically tightens rotations as seasons progress, so he’s probably already well ahead of anything we’re suggesting here.
And the likely outcome will be Woodson landing on more staggered substitution patterns, where only one starter leaves the game at a time.
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