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<p>HN photo/Cam Schultz</p>
HN photo/Cam Schultz

What's wrong with Indiana's defense?

The lack of defensive production has been the largest shock of IU's season.

“Defense is what won us a lot of games last season, and I'll never get away from that.”

Those were the words of Mike Woodson last May when giving an early preview of the IU men’s basketball 2022-23 season. The Hoosiers were projected to be atop the Big Ten this season because of their freshman talent and defensive infrastructure.

Fast forward to today. Indiana is unranked, 1-4 in the Big Ten and has one of the worst defenses in the conference. IU has given up 1.098 points per possession and 77.6 points per game in Big Ten play. Both of those marks are the second-worst in the conference.

Indiana has given up 80 or more points in its past five Power 6 games, all of which were losses. The Hoosiers are clearly lost defensively, and the blunders go beyond the injuries to Xavier Johnson and Race Thompson (although that’s part of it).

So let’s look into the issues that have caused IU’s defense to fall off a cliff.

A quick look at the stats shows that the most notable difference in Indiana’s defensive performance has been 3-point defense. Indiana’s opponents shot a mediocre 33% from downtown last year, but they’re making 35.2% of their 3s this season. 

Teams have scorched IU from beyond the arc lately because the Hoosiers are too aggressive defensively. The Hoosiers constantly send overambitious help around the foul line and allow opponents to shoot open jumpers. Overhelping has been a theme throughout the Woodson era thus far, and offenses are exposing it this season.

Indiana overhelped last season, but there was at least more attention to detail as to who was being helped off of. In those clips, you can see the Hoosiers helping off the likes of Gradey Dick (47.2% shooter), Kris Murray (37.5%), Andrew Funk (42.1%) and Seth Lundy (42.6%). These are dangerous outside players that need to be accounted for, but Indiana allowed them open looks.

Since Dec. 10, Indiana’s opponents are 69-for-159 (43.4%) from 3-point range. IU’s faced skilled offenses in this span that took advantage of the Hoosiers’ hyper-aggressive defensive approach.

“Maybe they think that’s being aggressive, and I get it when you’re trying to dig out of a hole,” Woodson said after Indiana’s loss to Penn State on Wednesday, a game in which the Nittany Lions made 18 3s.

Not only did the Hoosiers overhelp against Penn State, but they were all over the place in their rotations. Penn State had Indiana running wild around the court and eventually found the open man.

“If there was one rotation, we didn’t make the next rotation,” Woodson said. “We looked lost, and again that’s on me.”

The Hoosiers fail to follow simple defensive principles, and it burns them on the perimeter. Indiana needs to play a more sound style of help defense to slow down capable 3-point shooting teams.

Indiana’s wretched point-of-attack defense has contributed to the team’s jumbled rotations. IU’s perimeter defenders have struggled to contain drives throughout the poor seven-game stretch the Hoosiers are enduring. Teams are driving straight to the hoop against Indiana.

“We're getting straight-line drived a lot, and it's requiring guys to get out of position and help, and it gives up open 3s, and they're getting wide-open looks and they're knocking them down,” Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said following the team’s 84-83 loss against Northwestern on Sunday.

Jackson-Davis realizes Indiana isn’t playing with nearly enough intensity when defending the ball. IU’s guards aren’t guarding at a Big Ten level and the Hoosiers are suffering the consequences.

This is where the injury to Johnson comes into play. He was easily Indiana’s best perimeter defender, and the team has severely felt his loss.

Xavier Johnson On-Off Graphic.png

The graph above shows the impact of Johnson being away from the team. When he’s on the court, opponents don’t get to the rim nearly as much and are forced into more mid-range shot attempts (per Indiana also forces more turnovers when its fifth-year point guard is on the floor. 

The Hoosiers allow 0.91 points per possession when Johnson’s on the floor. They allow 1.034 points per possession when he’s off the floor ( That’s the difference between a top-20 defense and an average Division I team.

It’s no coincidence that IU’s on-ball defense has plummeted in Johnson’s absence. He pressures the ball heavily while also having the agility and athleticism needed to keep up with other guards. 

“[Johnson] has been out a while now, who anchors in guarding the ball coming up the floor and does a lot of pretty good things defensively for us,” Woodson said after the Northwestern game. “That's why we're struggling a little bit defensively.”

Johnson sets the tone for Indiana defensively, and the team hasn’t been able to replace his defensive production. 

Just watch the fierceness that Johnson and others guarded with against North Carolina on Nov. 30, and compare that to the earlier clip of Indiana’s players being blown by.

The Hoosiers held a threatening UNC offense to 65 points in the game because of the stifling perimeter defense they played. IU limited the Tar Heels to a bevy of contested jump shots and didn't let them drive all the way to the rim. Indiana needs to return to forcefully guarding the perimeter, with or without Johnson in the lineup.

Another simple change could help IU’s defense: Stop turning the ball over. Indiana averages 12.7 turnovers per game. Through five Big Ten games, Indiana’s 19.8% turnover rate is the second-worst in the league. 

While IU’s offense hasn’t been terrible, large turnover numbers have affected the defense. The Hoosiers make careless passes that quickly turn into points on the other end. The fix isn’t all that complicated. Indiana just needs to take care of the ball so that its turnovers don’t become effortless scores for the other team.

What’s the fix?

When it comes to 3-point defense, IU has to be wiser about its help defense. Players must know their matchup’s tendencies and percentages. This isn’t middle school basketball. Film and stats are readily available. When you’re matched up with a 40% 3-point shooter, guard them correctly. It’s not as difficult as the Hoosiers make it look.

Containing drives may be the biggest challenge for Indiana defensively. Johnson had surgery on his right foot on Dec. 21 and is out indefinitely. IU’s press release after Johnson’s surgery stated that the team is “hopeful he will return before the end of the season.”

The Hoosiers have to learn to guard the ball well before Johnson potentially returns. They can start by defending with more energy, but even that can only help you so much. 

One thing Indiana hasn’t consistently tried is a fullcourt press. Pressing wouldn’t fix everything, but it could force more turnovers, which Indiana seldom does. The Hoosiers need to find some answer to pressure guards more than they do. Experimenting with something other than a halfcourt man-to-man defense might take offenses out of their comfort zone.

And of course, Indiana should value the basketball more on offense so it can set up its defense. The Hoosiers lost the turnover battle in every game during the current three-game losing streak. Taking care of the ball is vital for this depleted roster going forward.

IU has to step up its defense (and overall play) before it’s too late. This team is missing two starters, but that can’t be the excuse forever. Indiana needs to hold its ground to position itself to go on a run if Johnson and Thompson both return.

“I think it all starts with our defense,” Indiana guard Trey Galloway said after the Penn State loss. “We gotta get better and we know we gotta get better. If we want to win games in the Big Ten we can’t keep giving up 80 points because we’re not going to win games.”

Indiana’s next test is No. 18 Wisconsin. Although the Badgers are on a two-game losing streak, they’re another quality shooting team with a 37.4% 3-point average. Both teams will head into Saturday’s matchup in desperation mode, and the Hoosiers must hone in defensively to return to the win column.

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