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Indiana men’s basketball: To Live and Die in the Big Ten

Is it really that bad?

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Jovanny Hernandez / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Indiana fans are not happy right now. With a 4-4 record in Big Ten play and 12-7 record overall on the season, it’s safe to say that a lot of the anger has to do with style of play and projected results rather than the .500 play in the first portion of conference play.

In particular, there’s been a lot of anxiety surrounding whether Mike Woodson’s system, once touted as a 4-in-1-out NBA style, will get the program to where it needs to be. At the very least, the way Indiana has been playing this season is very ugly, straight up.

While I too would tweak some things about the roster and playing style, I’m probably more of a Woodson apologist than most. I like how he’s elevated Indiana’s recruiting and snapped just about every meaningful losing streak and tournament drought that he inherited.

To better understand how responsible Woodson is for the way this team has played, I wanted to look at overall trends in the Big Ten to determine what’s unique to Woodson compared to his peers.

After all, the 20-game conference schedule means that most teams will have to cut their teeth in the Big Ten, regardless of the resume wins they assemble early in the season. We saw Tom Crean go from no. 3 in the polls with wins over UNC and Kansas, only to have a bad Big Ten season keep Indiana out of the tournament.

Here’s what I found:

3-Point Volume

Since the 2021-22 season, the Big Ten has not finished above 22nd of the 32 conferences that compete at the Division I level in percentage of FGs from 3-point range.

In 2022, when Woodson took over, the Big Ten was still ahead of the Pac 12 (RIP), Big 12, and Big East in this category. Now, the Big Ten is last out of the Power Five conferences in this stat.

Not only has the conference been steadfast in its refusal to take 3-pointers, it’s actively punished the teams that do. Over the last three years, only the 2022-23 Penn State team finished within the top 50 nationally in this stat.

They finished the year 10-10 with Micah Shrewsberry seeing the writing on the wall and bailing for greener pastures (the ACC). The year before, when Penn State was 58thth in 3PA/FGA, but they went 7-13 in the conference, showing how hard it is to live and die by the three in the Big Ten

2021-22 Illinois was close to breaking this mold, finishing 15-5 in Big Ten play at 65th nationally in 3PA/FGA, but they also had Kofi Cockburn inside as the focal point of their offense. Not exactly a perimeter-oriented attack.

What makes this more confusing is that, percentage wise, the Big Ten shoots it well. Over this span, during which the conference has never been better than 22nd in 3-point volume, it’s never been worse than 16th in 3-point percentage.

Home Court

Indiana fans, for better and worse, are familiar with how important home court can be over the course of the season. Assembly Hall is still a gauntlet, while the Hoosiers continue to struggle away from Bloomington.

What may come as a surprise is that every Big Ten team has struggled on the road over the last three years, even more so than other major conferences.

So far this year, home teams in the Big Ten are 33-12 (73.3%) in conference play, putting it fourth nationally. Last year, home teams won over 65% of the time in the Big Ten, second among all conferences.

Practically speaking, this means the conference beats itself up. Badly. Over the last decade (yes I am breaking the original scope), only 11 teams have finished conference play with fewer than five losses.

There are obviously years where you can lose five games in the conference without suffering a bad loss, but the reality has been that even the elite teams in the Big Ten are likely to lose two or three road games in a season.

The Wing (3) Spot

One of the biggest criticisms levied against Woodson’s system is the lack of scoring, particularly from the perimeter and his reliance on forwards in his offense. Alongside calls to play Mackenzie Mgbako at the four have been calls to play three guards, in hopes of changing the offense via personnel rather than scheme.

Having forwards at the three spot, to me, seemed like a distinctly Big Ten strategy, so I wanted to look at all of the rosters Woodson has competed against to see what kind of lineups he’s been exposed to.

I used KenPom data to find out the top two players at the 3 for each team, along with each player’s listed position from their 247 recruiting profile to see how many three guard lineups Woodson has coached against.

It’s an imperfect science given the emphasis on “position-less” basketball sweeping the nation, but it at least gives some insight as to their perceived skillsets when they were coming into college.

Green = made the NCAA tournament, Red = missed

A few things jump out immediately:

  • Of the 42 rosters in the Big Ten since Woodson took over, only 17 have played three guard lineups with any consistency. Six of those are still playing this year.
  • Of the 11 teams that used three guard lineups before this year, eight (61.5%) missed the NCAA tournament.
  • Indiana is comfortably above the average in 3-pointers taken and 3-point % from the wing spot, but lags way far behind in total points scored by its wings.
  • Only one team (2021-22 Illinois) played two guys under 6’5” at the three spot.

Again, this was an imperfect science, but the last point was what really surprised me. Indiana isn’t struggling because it plays bigger, worse shooters on the wing than its opponents. The wings just aren’t involved enough in the offense in general.

However badly I wanted to pull my hair out last year whenever Miller Kopp passed up an open three to drive, the data suggests that most other teams in the Big Ten count on more 2-pointers from the 3 spot to keep the offensive spacing and balanced scoring.

So What

Whether its desirable to play more like a Big Ten team or not is debatable, but the fact remains that Woodson’s college coaching philosophies have been shaped by what he’s seen at Indiana. It’s not exactly the futuristic style some fans are hoping for.

Bigs up and down the lineup, low 3-point volume, and losing on the road have simply become the norm in the Big Ten, with outliers like Shrewsberry’s Penn State teams seeing limited success.

If you hate this style as much as I do, then the hope is that injecting four Pac-12 teams to the mix could usher the conference into the 21st century. But it’s still good to know exactly what “Big Ten Hoops” is and why it hasn’t won a title in over two decades.