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Mike Woodson is not here for your pack line nonsense

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IU coach says he wants Hoosiers to be a “hard-ass” defensive team

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The question started innocently enough.

During a Wednesday teleconference with first-year Indiana men’s basketball coach Mike Woodson, WDRB Louisville’s Rick Bozich wanted to learn more about Woodson’s defensive philosophy. The IU coach has talked at length about his plans to implement a 4-out offensive system and his desire to improve the shooting skills on Indiana’s roster. He’s also briefly mentioned his hopes for recruiting rangy, athletic players who can guard multiple positions.

But how, exactly, will Indiana — a pack line team under former coach Archie Miller — look on the defensive end when things are clicking? After Bozich asked a version of that question, Woodson responded with a question of his own.

“First of all,” Woodson said, “I’ve seen this pack line. What is that?”

Good question! The flippant, albeit somewhat genuine answer is that no one in Bloomington during the past four years seemed to know because IU’s execution and approach on that side of the court were so uneven under Miller. 3-pointers fell in abundance, the Hoosiers often conceded easy buckets and, all the while, the team lacked any semblance of a defensive identity to cover for the deficiencies on the other end.

The real answer, as Bozich told Woodson, is a system that focuses on stopping driving and penetration.

“OK. Alright,” Woodson said. “Now that I know that...”

Woodson went on to answer Bozich’s original question, offering thoughts on his own preferred style of play. Woodson’s system doesn’t have a name, but you’ll know it when you see it. Simply put?

Woodson wants his players to understand and perfect a few simple ideas.

“We are going to try to be a hard-ass defensive team where we get after people and get stops and then rebound the ball and go try to have fun offensively,” Woodson said. “That’s kind of my mindset going in.”

Two months into the job, Woodson is gradually making his way down his to-do list and working through a reset of a program that went nowhere in four years of boring, predictable, unremarkable basketball under Miller. Defense, an area that was supposed to be a strength under the previous regime, was instead a point of contention as IU’s efficiency rating was mired in the bottom half of the Big Ten over the past three seasons, per BartTorvik.com. That has to change.

For Woodson, that change will start with three easy-to-understand tenets that he believes will help his Hoosiers fill the holes on the defensive end:

  1. Be tough on the ball. “That’s where it starts,” Woodson said.
  2. Understand your role as a helper. “If there is a breakdown, you got to have help there and that helper has to have help and then the next man has to have help, so it becomes a team defense,” Woodson said.
  3. Work together. “Everybody is on a string, and when that damn ball goes up everybody is responsible for rebounding so you can go and do what you do the other way,” Woodson said.

Several weeks of film review leads Woodson to believe he has players capable of adopting his principles in time. All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis was the second-leading rebounder (9.0 per game) in the Big Ten last year. Pitt transfer Xavier Johnson is averaging 1.5 steals per game for his career. Race Thompson has shown he can be a versatile post defender and a tough rebounder. Rob Phinisee has demonstrated in the past that he can be an All-Big Ten-caliber defender in the backcourt. And South Florida transfer Michael Durr comes to IU with a reputation as a defensive-minded low-post presence who averaged a block per game over his three seasons with the Bulls. Others, too, have shown they can help on that side of the floor.

“I’m very picky when it comes to defending, but it all goes hand in hand,” Woodson said. “Great defensive teams learn to protect the paint and they learn to get out to shooters. It’s all about effort and putting forth just the will to defend. It ain’t going to be perfect.”

But it could certainly be better. That, Woodson knows. And in short order, he hopes to have an Indiana team capable of playing to a standard and being hard-as-hell to beat.

“They don’t know me and I don’t know them yet, (except) by watching on film,” Woodson said. “That’s why I’m so excited about getting them together and getting to work.”