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Tournament Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

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It's CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT TIME where the Hoosiers have always been known to thrive and have never ever flamed out early against an inferior opponent nope no way. Also Kyle comes up with a really great solution to Indiana's defensive woes.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

GAME INFO:

Who? Northwestern Wildcats (15-16 (6-12) #111 KenPom)  v. Indiana Hoosiers (19-12 (9-9), #55 KenPom)

When? Thursday, March 12, 6:30 PM EDT, ESPN2

Vegas? TBA

Pomeroy? INDIANA by 5, 68% chance of Indiana victory

_______________________________________

HERE WOULD YOU LIKE SOME FACTORS?

Four Factors

eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
INDIANA (Offense) 55.2% (16th) 17.3% (64th) 34.5% (70th) 33.2% (273rd)
NORTHWESTERN (Defense) 48.4% (142nd) 15.5% (341st) 30.2% (129th) 33.5% (103rd)

eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
INDIANA (Defense) 50.5% (229th) 16.1% (326th) 31.4% (193rd) 31.0% (50th)
NORTHWESTERN (Offense) 50.4% (106th) 18.2% (105th) 27.9% (256th) 28.4% (343rd)

Given that we played Northwestern a little over two weeks ago, I won't get in-depth as far as the Wildcats as an opponent, that information can be found in the preview I wrote last time. Instead, let's look at the Big Ten Tournament with a larger lens, what it means for the Hoosiers, and what they must do to pull themselves out of the rut. As usual, it's gonna get weird.

Life on the Bubble

Let's get a couple things straight: Indiana does not look anything like an NCAA Tournament-worthy squad and haven't for some time. But it's important to remember that a lot of teams make the field every year that don't pass the sacred "eye test." It's what makes the NCAA Tournament so great and, depending on your team's merit, so dumb. Even deeply flawed rosters make it in as double-digit seeds and get the exact same opportunity that undefeated Kentucky will get:

To play until they get beat.

Indiana's tournament hopes, while still definitely alive, are very much on life support. Bracketologists nationwide have them somewhere between a 10 and a 12 seed, with most placing them into the illustrious First Four in Dayton, Ohio. Which means Indiana will be playing in one of the first four games and must win to make it into the "traditional field." It can and has been discussed how lame it is that a team who started conference play with a 5-1 record is now in such a predicament, but nothing I'll waste time with here. It is what it is. I'd like Indiana to make the tournament over not making the tournament because I like having the opportunity to win championships.

I'm not a bracketologist, but it seems Indiana has a reasonable enough path in front of them: beat Northwestern and they're likely in. Lose to Northwestern and almost definitely be out. The Hoosiers remain in control of their own destiny and can certainly play their way out of Dayton with a strong showing this weekend. Should they clear Northwestern, they will then get a Maryland team they've beaten by 16 points aggregate, then a matchup with likely OSU/MSU before a finale with (probably) Wisconsin. If Indiana can secure a winning record in the tournament, they could elevate themselves out of the First Four altogether.

There's just one problem with that.

holy hell the hoosiers suck at this

Indiana has had a winning record in this tournament exactly once, in 2001 when they reached the final round before losing to Iowa. Since Crean took over, the Hoosiers have been bounced in their first game in all three "recovery" years, before back-to-back win-one / lose-one appearances in 2012 and 2013 before another one game engagement last season for an overall record of 2 - 6.

So when I say the Hoosiers can play their way out of Dayton with a couple wins in this tournament, know that I'm well aware that doing just that would be a grand departure from the Hoosiers' historical performance in this event. But if there were ever a year to break through at this thing, it was 2013 would be this year. Despite the debacle in Evanston, you have to feel kind of good, in theory, about an opening game against the 111th ranked team on KenPom, followed by a Maryland squad that Indiana seems to match up very well against, so the roadmap to the elusive two-win appearance is easier than it has been in some time. Arch-nemesis Wisconsin remains as far away as possible, along with matchup nightmares in Purdue and Iowa.

One Game at a Time

Of course, to achieve all I have noted above, Indiana must get past Northwestern, a team they were utterly incapable of defending a few weeks ago up in Evanston. Despite going into halftime tied at 40, Indiana struggled mightily to make shots in the second half, and had only 48 total points with a little over three minutes to go in the game. A quick burst towards the end made it respectable but Indiana never truly threatened to tie the game.

I think, however, much can be drawn from the last few minutes of the game as Tom Crean called for an aggressive fullcourt press that rattled the Wildcats into a few turnovers and exposed a weakness that Indiana should certainly try to exploit. Northwestern doesn't have a stable of reliable ball handlers and struggled to move the ball across the timeline when Indiana finally began to press them. Fortunately for Northwestern, they had a double digit lead to insulate themselves and were able to escape with the victory regardless.

Tom Crean has been asked multiple times since about that press, especially once it proved effective against Michigan State as Indiana whittled away a 14 point deficit in less than four minutes and came within a free throw of overtime. Naturally, people are curious if the coach has given any thought to pressing earlier in the game to help solve some of Indiana's abhorrent defensive issues. Tom's counterpoints are sensible enough: he's afraid of giving up easy baskets once the press is broken due to the lack of a consistent rim protector and also worries about tired legs, given how important the three point shot is to his roster.

So I'm gonna counter those counterpoints but with the caveat that I have 310 less Division I basketball victories on my résumé than Tom, however I am an unpaid blogger and I think that says quite a bit about my basketball knowledge.

To the first point: I think "not wanting to give up easy baskets" would be a reasonable answer if the defense wasn't ranked 226th in defensive efficiency. I don't think one can dismiss a defensive concept because you're risking easy buckets when your roster has been surrendering easy buckets all season. Indiana's defensive struggles are well cataloged and the numbers don't like: by virtue of putting this team on the court you are probably going to give up easy baskets. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a decent phrase that leaves out an obvious follow-up: when something is obviously broken, fix it. Fixing defensive issues is not easy nor quick, but I think we're at the point where Tom Crean should strongly consider doing something differently if for no other reason than the current model is so hilariously inoperable that continuing to do what the Hoosiers are doing on defense is closer to insanity than confidence.

His second point is tough to counter. Tired legs are certainly something that every coach must be mindful of, particularly when they have rosters predicated on making long distance shots. Anyone who has ever properly shot a three pointer knows how important your legs are, and a season's long-grind is tough enough to deal with and throwing an aggressive press on top of that makes it even more difficult, particularly for freshman like James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson.

But I do think I have an answer to both Indiana's defensive issues and their obviously low fuel tanks.

GO GRINNELL

Y'all may or may not be familiar with this trendy bastardization of basketball that appears from time to time, most notably it produced a 138-point performance by a kid named Jack Taylor, which was as impressive on its surface as it was fraudulent upon closer inspection. Fashioned by Dave Arseneault at Grinnell College, the system is predicated on six tenents:

  1. The first possible shot is best possible shot, where three-point field goal attempts are preferred over shorter shots.
  2. Shoot as many three pointers as possible.
  3. In terms of defense, giving up an uncontested layup is better than a shot clock violation.
  4. Always double team the person with the ball.
  5. Every player but the shooter goes for the offensive rebound.
  6. Offensive rebounds should be sent back for another three-point attempt, not a shorter putback for two points.

By design, this system wears players out and wears them out quickly. Running up and down the floor trapping on defense and launching threes will tire people quickly. Coach Arseneault would divide his roster into three shifts of five players (YOU HEARIN' THIS COACH CAL?) and rotate them in like hockey lines as opposed to basketball subs. Each shift has a designated shooter who, at times, won't even run back on defense and instead be ready for an outlet pass to fire up an uncontested three pointer.

And because I'm a nice guy, I've figured the shifts out for Tom Crean already (designated shooter in bold):

FIRST SHIFT SECOND SHIFT THIRD SHIFT
Yogi Ferrell James Blackmon Jr. Nick Zeisloft
Collin Hartman Stan Robinson Robert Johnson
Troy Williams
Max Hoetzel Nate Ritchie
Ryan Burton Tim Priller Jordan Fuchs
Hanner Mosquera-Perea Emmitt Holt Jeremiah April

It was harder than I originally thought to parse out the shooting over three shifts, but every shift has two guys that have hit their three point shots at a decent percentage along with enough accompanying length to get rebounds and make life difficult to pass out of double teams. We need not worry about defensive ability, because as soon as the trap is broken you're just looking to get the ball back to the offense. Because of the lack of passers, someone was going to be stuck in a shift in without a great passer so I elected Yogi for that role given his acumen when it comes to creating his own shot. JBJ and Nick Zeisloft are just as good when it comes to shooting, but will probably need to have the ball passed to them first.

Over the course of writing this I have gone from "wouldn't this be hilarious to try" to "there is literally zero reason not to do this." Watching this game would be like snorting meth through a chocolate pirouette while bungee jumping into a volcano and that is far preferable to giving up 40 points in a half to Northwestern the normal way.