Indiana has been known for its defense all season long. It’s floated around the top 25 in the country all year in terms of efficiency and IU even has an All-Big Ten Defensive Team player to show for it in Trayce Jackson-Davis. But what really got the ball rolling and allowed Indiana to clinch its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016 was its recent offensive improvements.
Since his one-game suspension on Feb. 8, Xavier Johnson has become a focal point for IU’s offense. It’s worked.
Earlier in the season Indiana forced itself into running offense through Jackson-Davis and set pieces to get shooters open. Now, Mike Woodson seems to have given Johnson the reins and has lengthened his leash with his point guard.
This development and comfortability of Xavier Johnson has been a breath of fresh air for this Indiana offense.
Firstly, this play looks like two guys who both know each other. Over the season we've really seen a development between Jackson-Davis and Johnson's two-man game. This is worked to perfection as 'X' works himself into the paint and waits just the right amount of time to get the ball over Zach Edey.
Secondly, watch how Parker Stewart, Miller Kopp and Jordan Geronimo immediately clear out and unclog the lane when Johnson calls for the pick and roll. This gives Johnson and TJD half of the court to themselves and plenty of room to work with.
Pick and rolls are going to be emphasized heavily in this article, Woodson and Indiana have run it continuously in the past several games.
Same thing here with the high ball screen, but Purdue's Eric Hunter Jr. (No. 2) ices it well by staying in front of Johnson.
However, this is just a great read by Johnson as he stops on the left elbow and waits for TJD to get position on Trevion Williams, who gets caught swiping at the ball.
This play is made by Johnson getting into the lane and being under control with the ball. Many players would panic once they pick up their dribble in that spot but Johnson surveys the perimeter for shooters.
Kopp does a great job here understanding the passer's vision and flares to the corner. Because Michigan over-helped because of the threat of Johnson inside, it's a wide open 3-pointer.
Now, these are the shots Indiana is going to have to hit if the Hoosiers want to get past Wyoming and make a run in March.
Let's examine three plays against Michigan.
Play 1: The roll isn't there for TJD as Moussa Diabaté (No. 14) comes over to help, but look at the rest of Indiana's players immediately flare out to the 3-point line and allow for the two-man game and isolation with Jackson-Davis against Hunter Dickinson.
This gives TJD and Johnson so many options.
Play 2: This play starts with a ball reversal to get the defenders moving and then Johnson uses his speed to blow by and get a high-percentage shot. It helps that 'X' is shooting 48 percent on twos since late February.
Play 3: Another clear-out high ball screen with TJD here. This time Johnson is so patient with the ball and guards the ball from the defender using his backside and waits for Jackson-Davis to get underneath the basket.
During IU's loss to Iowa, IU again used screens effectively.
Play 1: Lovely give-and-go slip screen here. The pass makes it even better as Johnson works it between two defenders.
Play 2: This is the only set play that's not a pick and roll on this list. The double ball screen attracts so much attention it leaves a wide open Jackson-Davis. And again, look where the rest of the Hoosiers are, on the perimeter. This spacing makes all the difference.
This next play is by far my favorite on this list.
Johnson knows exactly what to do and he directs Race Thompson to spin around and front the smaller defender. It's an easy layup.
This play really shows Johnson's growth. In November, he wouldn't make that play and would force a pass.
The pick and roll usage has revolutionized Indiana's offense but without Johnson's patience and confidence, it would be nothing.
What makes things even crazier is that Johnson is shooting 50 percent on 28 attempts from 3 since Feb. 24. Where has this been all season?
Well the answer to that is that Woodson is letting 'X' be 'X' and it has unleashed a completely different side of his potential.
Johnson is posting his highest 3-point percentage of his career at 38 percent and is turning the ball over at the lowest rate of his career, averaging 2.6 a game.
As a team, Indiana hasn't shot below 41 percent since Feb. 21 at Ohio State. The four games before then? Indiana shot below 41 percent three times.
As seen at the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana has an amazing chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, but they've got to start in Dayton against Wyoming.