I'm gonna put this next sentence in bold and all-caps in hope that the message does not get twisted:
INDIANA'S DEFENSE IS STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO LEGITIMATELY CONTEND FOR A BIG TEN TITLE BUT IT HAS SHOWN IMPROVEMENT SINCE LAST SEASON.
Let's look at the defensive metrics for the Hoosiers as they headed into the Crossroads Classic last season, provided as always, by KenPom.com. I've elected to use their ranks relative to the rest of basketball during that season, especially in light of all the rule changes that went into effect for this season:
So far this season, Indiana's defensive renaissance (and I'm using that term about as liberally as a term can be used) has been fueled largely by a rediscovered ability to cause turnovers. They're become marginally above average in most defensive components (except for preventing offensive rebounds) but they are truly among the nation's best when it comes to steals (27th), an area they finished near the bottom at last year (319th). Even their above-average but not-incredible blocks ranking (92nd) is a massive improvement over last season's 251st ranking. Indiana currently has two players ranked nationally in both statistics individually. Troy Williams being one should be no surprise, Max Bielfeldt being the other might cause you to ever-so-slightly raise your eyebrows. James Blackmon Jr. is tied for second on the team with Bielfeldt in Steal%. Indiana has three players enjoying a Steal% over 3%, which is a huge improvement over last season's total of zero.
There is no question that Indiana's defense has improved from last season, but has it improved enough to matter? We knew Indiana probably wasn't going to achieve anything noteworthy this season without a previously unheard of one-year jump. Even if Indiana's defense doesn't slide down further when conference play picks up (like it did last season and probably will this year), its current statistical profile doesn't paint the rosiest picture. Here's the complete list of teams with top-5 offenses in terms of efficiency, that paired them with defenses that ranked outside the top-100 in the last ten years:
- 2014-15 Notre Dame: #2 Adj. O / #102 Adj. D (3-seed, lost in Elite Eight to #1 Kentucky)
- 2013-14 Michigan: #1 Adj. O / #109 Adj. D (2-seed, lost in Elite Eight to #8 Kentucky)
- 2013-14 Duke: #2 Adj. O / #116 Adj. D (3-seed, lost in First Round to #14 Mercer)
- 2013-14 Creighton: #3 Adj. O / #152 Adj. D (3-seed, lost in Round of 32 to #6 Baylor)
- 2013-14 Iowa: #5 Adj. O / #120 Adj. D (11-seed, lost in First Four to #11 Tennessee)
- 2011-12 Missouri: #1 Adj. O / #146 Adj. D (2-seed, lost in First Round to #15 Norfolk State)
- 2009-10 Cornell: #4 Adj. O / #174 Adj. D (12-seed, lost in Sweet Sixteen to #1 Kentucky)
- 2009-10 California: #5 Adj. O / #101 Adj. D (8-seed, lost in Round of 32 to #1 Duke)
- 2008-09 Arizona: #5 Adj. O / #155 Adj. D (12-seed, lost in Sweet Sixteen to #1 Louisville)
- 2005-06 Gonzaga: #1 Adj. O / #186 Adj. D (3-seed, lost in Sweet Sixteen to #2 UCLA)
- 2005-06 Notre Dame: #5 Adj. O / #143 Adj. D (Lost in second round of NIT to Michigan)
Of these 11 teams, 10 made the NCAA Tournament, 6 had a 3-seed or better, 2 made it to the Elite Eight, and 0 made it any further than that. Six of these teams either missed the Big Dance altogether or were bounced before the second weekend. History shows, fairly definitively, that teams with this kind of dynamic split between their two units aren't suited for a deep run in March. In fact, only one time (since Ken Pomeroy began tracking data) has a team enjoyed a top-5 offense and a 100+ ranked defense and made it to the tournament's final weekend:
- 2002-03 Marquette: #2 Adj. O / #119 Adj. D (Lost in Final Four to #2 Kansas)
Should be noted that Tom Crean, Dwyane Wade, and co. didn't merely lose to Kansas in the Final Four, but got beaten senseless, losing 94-61. Granted, they did dispatch of KenPom's #1 and #2 teams (Pittsburgh and Kentucky) on the way to that game (Kansas was #3), so it's not like they cake-walked to that game. It was a well-earned appearance and an unfortunate way to see a tourney run end.
Bottom line: history indicates that a team with Indiana's statistical profile is likely to make the NCAA Tournament, with a decent shot at a pretty good seed! However, they're less likely to stick around for very long, let alone be around for the last weekend. Indiana is unlikely to circle the wagons and come up with a passable defensive unit in time for the conference season, much less the kind of defense that typically wins the NCAA Tournaments. Many believed Indiana's defense would be better this year, if only because it didn't seem there was any way for it to get worse, and Tom Crean certainly has that side of the ball trending in the right direction. He's the only guy in the tempo-free era to get a team to the final weekend with this kind of split, and for a program likely to have massive turnover this coming offseason and a regime in desperate need of some positive momentum among the fanbase, he may just need to do it again.