Problems in "Iniana" - Where's the D?

A controversial team at Three Man Weave HQ this year has been the Hoosiers of Indiana. Tom Crean loyalist DJ Dimes gushes about the talent (fairly), and it’s easy to see how this collection of players should be a destroyer of worlds offensively. A four-year starter at PG who can create and shoot, a hyper-athletic and bouncy center who can attack the rim, shooters and wing slashers galore, plus a matchup nightmare in tweener Troy Williams all indicate a points bonanza. If IU spaces the floor correctly, opponents basically have to pick their poison. Currently #6 in kenpom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ranks, this strategy seems to be working – so why has their trip to Maui been a less-than-encouraging display? The answer, of course, is their defense – after a nightmare 2014-15 (214th in adjusted efficiency, last in the Big Ten by a significant margin), the screws needed to tighten on that end for IU to emerge as the legit contender many thought they could be. 

The year started fine defensively with solid outings against Eastern Illinois, Austin Peay, and Creighton (an offense I regard highly, with a lot of shooters surrounding a jitterbug point guard). It seemed like Crean had, at the very least, beefed the defense up enough to allow the offense to determine the team’s ceiling.  Freshman center Thomas Bryant was the key new piece, a rim protector who could cover up some of the perimeter’s defensive issues, but as almost all freshmen do, he has faced some early hiccups in Hawaii. It’s not all Bryant – a lot of the perimeter guys continue to offer little to no help, and he has given IU a degree of shot-blocking they simply didn’t have last year – but UNLV, St. John’s, and Wake Forest exposed some significant flaws.  They’re not season-sinking issues, but if they persist, IU will struggle to find enough stops to pull their defense up to “mildly respectable.”

Easily the biggest problem is ball screen defense. It’s a combination of factors, but the biggest is that Thomas Bryant just isn’t comfortable playing away from the basket and helping on drivers yet. Opponents know he’s the primary rim protector, and forcing him to guard a ball screen on the perimeter is a very basic strategy to bring him away from the rim and mitigate his shot-blocking prowess.  Saint John’s had repeated success with the same on-ball scheme: a wing trails point guard Federico Mussini on the right side as he crosses half court; Mussini then reverses it to the trailing wing, who immediately receives a screen on the right side from Bryant’s (or fellow big man Max Bielfeldt’s) man.  This allows the wing (often Felix Balamou) to have a slight head of steam as he comes around the screen.  Two main defensive philosophies commonly prevail here as – Bryant can either hedge hard, meaning he comes out beyond where the screen takes place and forces the ball-handler to belly out backwards, or he can drop off away from the screen and contain penetration that way. Instead, Bryant ends up caught in no man’s land, and with Balamou already in attack mode, Bryant is unable to recover. The Johnnies first figured out this weakness a little over midway through the first half: 

Bryant is square to Balamou, but he is too far from Yankuba Sima (the screener). Balamou is able to split this gap, forcing the defense to collapse as he gets into the lane, which resulted in an open corner 3 for Ron Mvouika.

Emboldened by the success of that set, the Johnnies ran it several more times in succession.  Bryant grew more wary of the split, but was then caught leaning the wrong way as Balamou beat him around the edge for lay-ups/fouls. 


As I mentioned before, these are not all Bryant’s fault. The Johnnies have put him in a difficult spot; by clearing out the entire right side of the floor (no corner shooter), there’s no wing help to dig down and deter Balamou’s right hand drive. You’ll also notice how easily Balamou’s man gets screened in each picture. Again, St. John’s was running this on consecutive possessions, so that defender (frequently Troy Williams) had to know it was coming, but every time, he gets hung up on Sima for too long to recover to his own man, leaving Bryant out to dry.  IU doesn’t seem to have a clearly defined plan to deal with this type of play. The on-ball defender was not jumping under or over the screen; rather, he just kind of allows himself to be picked off while meekly going over the top. Tom Crean gets criticized for many things, but not communicating a strategy (or reinforcing that strategy) for how to deal with this play (which single-handedly allowed the Red Storm to stay in the game) is indicative of a major Crean gripe: he simply doesn’t make good enough in-game adjustments.  Saint John’s went back to this several times in the second half as well, and only the unlikely combo of Nick Zeisloft and Max Bielfeldt was able to properly defend it and avoid giving up a scoring opportunity (by having Bielfeldt extend further out, forcing the ball-handler toward the sideline, and Zeisloft working hard to recover as fast as possible).  This wasn’t just a new issue that came up against St. John’s, either – watch as Bryant softly defends against Wake Forest’s Bryant Crawford, allowing him an angle to the rim: 

And guess what play UNLV started with on their very first offensive possession? Seriously, you’ll never guess. Oh, you said high pick and roll? Damn, you nailed it. Dave Rice is not a popular coach around 3MW headquarters, but credit to him here – he had apparently done some effective short-notice scouting. UNLV ran it on the left side instead, but the set-up is the same: 

In both plays, Bryant is in solid position and appears ready to cut off the angle. But he isn’t quite physical enough in doing so, and both Crawford of Wake and Pat McCaw of UNLV (shout out to CBC High School) are able to finish through him at the rim. Bryant probably blocked those attempts 9 times out of 10 in high school, but it’s much tougher against D1 athletes. Remember, though, these are only his 4th/5th/6th college games. His athleticism and length should make him a strong defender before all is said and done, and experience should help him immensely. He'll see his mistakes on film and understand that he needs to cut that angle just a little harder. 

Bryant’s post cohort, Max Bielfeldt, does a better job against ball screens positionally.


However, he doesn't have the upside that Bryant does and struggles when isolated against more athletic players. For instance, Devin Thomas of Wake beat him to Thomas's left hand several times (he’s lefty), including an emphatic dunk in the first half. The team’s defensive ceiling can’t be reached without Bryant at the heart of it. After all, no one else on the roster can make plays like this:

No issues showed up as prominently as the pick and roll defense, but isolation proved to be an issue as well – all three teams had success isolating Robert Johnson and Nick Zeisloft, so much that IU switched to a 2-3 zone against the Johnnies and Rebels. Against the Johnnies, IU allowed easy penetration while in that zone and had to come right back out. It was more effective against UNLV, but eventually, penetration and cutters gashed it for too many layups. The Hoosiers came out of it after 3 minutes and never went back to it. The zone is probably not a long-term solution to the team’s man-to-man issues. 

Communication also seemed suspect. James Blackmon had a couple instances early against UNLV where he switched at an ill-advised time or was too slow to switch, both of which led to made Rebel threes. The Hoosiers need to be sharper and more vocal when dealing with screens – if a switch is going to happen, both players need to be on board. In other situations, the Hoosiers simply didn’t match up correctly in transition or after a sub, which also led to some easy opportunities. It sounds simple, but talking to each other and communicating solves so many defensive breakdowns. 

The final major flaw I continuously noticed was over-helping in situations where it wasn’t necessary. Kinda picking on Blackmon at this point, but in this screen against St. John’s, he’s in no-man’s land between his man in the corner (a shooter) and the man with the ball. The driver isn’t in a threatening position at this point (let him shoot a 12-foot floater over someone!) – and even if he was, Blackmon isn’t close enough to help – and yet Blackmon allows an open three off of a kick out. 


Two games later against UNLV, Blackmon is again caught digging too far down, helping a teammate who is in good position and doesn’t need it, and it leads to another open three. 


Blackmon needs to be smarter about when he helps – digging into the post or onto drivers is definitely a useful skill, but he should be mindful of when his teammate is in control of the matchup. And even when it is the right time to dig, he needs to be ready to scramble and close out hard on his man. 

Overall, the defense wasn’t catastrophic in Maui – per kenpom, the Hoosiers gave up 1.11, 1.07, and 0.99 points per possession to Wake Forest, St. John’s, and UNLV, respectively – but it’s definitely the Achilles heel for a team with an offense as prolific as theirs. Time and repetition should help some of the issues, but Crean needs to decide on a clear strategy for defending ball screens. The players need to take it personally when their man scores, and concentration cannot lapse from possession to possession; the Big Ten is too good for that. With a road game at Duke coming up (#1 in offensive efficiency) plus a neutral court battle against Notre Dame (#5 in offensive efficiency) before conference play starts, the Hoosiers will have chances to show improvement – or be cut apart yet again.