Mike Woodson has always prided himself on defense.
He’s an old-style coach, using terms like ballclub and such. Coming from an era where defense was the name of the game, it’s not surprising that he’s tried to turn it into his Indiana program’s identity.
But it’s hit a major snag this year. The Hoosiers are rising ever so slightly in the KenPom defensive metrics, up to 75th, but that’s still significantly lower than either of the previous two years.
That’s honestly explainable. Of Indiana’s starting lineup, two are brand new to the team with the other being a sophomore. Johnson and Galloway have potential as a defensive backcourt, but even one breakdown from anyone else means their effort becomes moot.
They were always going to learn with time and that’s happened.
But something new happened against Illinois: Indiana went small. At times REALLY small, surrounding Malik Reneau with as many as four(!!!) guards.
Indiana has been given an opportunity to experiment with lineups out of necessity twice to to absences from Kel’el Ware. On the first two occasions, against Kennesaw State and Wisconsin, Woodson kept the two-big approach by playing Payton Sparks in Ware’s place.
There was something to be said about leveraging Indiana’s size against the smaller Owls and Sparks played well and with great energy that day, but the Wisconsin game was a defensive disaster.
Against an Illinois team built for small ball, Woodson inserted Walker into the starting lineup. Then he went further, with three and four guards at times with Mackenzie Mgbako at the four.
Switching 1-5 instead of the usual nail-slot-rim philosophy clearly threw off the Illini and would’ve resulted in a win if Indiana makes even some of the 3s they take throughout the game.
The risk you run with a lineup like that is Indiana probably doesn’t have the backcourt depth to do it for too long. When four guards were on the floor the only healthy one on the roster who wasn’t was C.J. Gunn. They’re one listed as “out” away from probably not being able to roll with three guards, let alone four.
To Woodson’s credit, he used three guard lineups a good amount during his first season (when the Hoosiers finished with the 24th most efficient defense nationally) when the depth was there. He would’ve liked to have done so last year were it not for Xavier Johnson’s injury.
Lineups with Jalen Hood-Schifino, Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway all on the floor would’ve worked wonders but were not possible after December.
Then there’s the possibilities the small lineups open up on the offensive end.
The two-big lineups limit what Indiana’s guards, especially Xavier Johnson, can do off the dribble. It was easy for Johnson to attack the rim to dish the ball out off the drive down the stretch in 2021-22 with Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson/Jordan Geronimo hanging around the perimeter.
One of the biggest issues this year is that one of Ware, Reneau or Mgbako has been parked on the interior when Johnson has the ball, limiting what he can do once he gets downhill.
The small lineups against Illinois resulted in one of Johnson’s better outings of the season, 14 points in 34 minutes. He had more room to work with the ball in his hands and rewarded everyone around him for it.
The worry: were these lineups legitimate steps forward or just an answer for the Illini’s style of play?
Indiana should not make these kinds of decisions and combinations a one-off occurrence, even once Ware returns. Going small clearly provided some juice on the offensive and defensive ends. The only issue was shots from deep not falling, which happens anyway, two bigs or not.
Again, just look at how well improved spacing has worked out for squads like Kentucky. It’s the modern game and Indiana needs to adjust.
Run these lineups more and get tape. When the offseason rolls around, the staff will be grateful they have it on hand when they’re sitting down with portal guards or