Indiana men's basketball made a big leap defensively last year and it helped earn the program a Big Ten title. In KenPom.com's measure of defensive efficiency, the Hoosiers went from No. 201 nationally in 2014-15, to No. 59 in 2015-16.
Can the improvement continue into 2016-17?
In one word, yes. Here are a few reasons to believe that prediction holds water:
- Last year as freshman, forwards OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan made a significant impact on the Hoosier defense and both should take on much bigger roles this season. Anunoby averaged 13.7 minutes a game last year, Morgan just 9.1 minutes. If both stay healthy, the combined minutes of the Missouri duo should more than double.
- Thomas Bryant improved as the year went along and keeping him on that track has been a big offseason priority (more on that below).
- Graduation losses are manageable. Yogi Ferrell was an underrated defender and the staff creatively used him often against bigger players. But he was generously listed at 6-foot-0 and didn't possess the kind of wingspan you see from most top defenders. Troy Williams could bother smaller players with his athleticism and length but was never known as a good defender. Max Bielfeldt and Nick Zeisloft were known more for their offense although Zeisloft deserves quite a bit of credit for improving here the latter part of season.
- Indiana now has a real shotblocker in 6-foot-10 newcomer De'Ron Davis. He uses his left hand well against right hand shooters and broke the all-time Colorado high school record for career shot blocks.
- Robert Johnson is back with a repaired ankle, an injury that bothered him much of last season. Johnson should be Indiana's best defender from the guard position.
- Juco newcomer Freddie McSwain has already been singled out for his defensive potential (see below)
- Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk continues to draw praise for his quickness and should be able to replicate some of what Ferrell brought at point on the defensive end.
A devil's advocate position might argue that the Hoosiers could be losing a crafty defender in Collin Hartman following the news of his recent knee surgery. He may not be a great athlete, but Hartman has length, awareness and was quite effective at times on that end, especially against bigger players. He has also been singled out by the staff as one of the best communicators on defense.
Another concern is whether James Blackmon Jr. returns as the same defensive player he has been early in his career or is much improved in that department. Indiana is going to need his offense but his offseason has been spent rehabbing from his knee injury he struggled defensively early last season before showing some promise at times just before his end of December injury.
If the Hoosiers can stay fairly healthy, there's a lot this team can do with its personnel as Tom Crean spoke to last Friday.
"I think when we looked at this season, going into the season, we looked at a team that can pressure more," Crean said. "We can get three-quarters type of pressure, some full-court pressure. I think we're going to have the ability to do a lot more switching with this team.
"We have athleticism, we have strength, we have the length, we've got to make sure we have the awareness. We've got to make sure we have the communication, and we've got to make sure that we -- and it's going to come into our ball screens, our post defense. I mentioned the full-court pressure, the three-quarter pressure, about how we keep the ball on the side. We've really got to learn how to use our length, and we had guys last year like OG who when they really learned how to use their length, they became tremendous mainstays for our team. But we've got to have other guys do the same thing, and those guys take it even another notch."
Thomas Bryant is one guy that will have to take it up a notch. He's been terrific offensively but his lateral movement and decision making on defense, while improved as the season went along, still have a long way to go. If he steps up in that regard, Indiana's potential and his NBA stock should skyrocket.
Crean spoke at length on what the program has done with Bryant this offseason to help make that happen.
"What we would do is we would tailor-make half the week to Thomas just having to deal with just hitting him with pads, the managers and graduate managers swiping at the ball, short-burst workouts that would be really focused on his inside play, on his ability to run out and set ball screens. And then the other times he was kind of like everybody else, working on the shooting, working on the ball handling, working on the pick-and-roll, working on -- just completely training him like a guard, like we did with Cody (Zeller), like we did with Noah (Vonleh), and like we want to do with him.
"And then the next step would be him guarding those people in the summer, which has improved, but again, it's improved in a half-court one-on-one, two-on-two to three-on-three situation. We have no idea how it's going to transfer to the court yet in five-on-five. He got better with his -- he's really gotten better athletically, and in 14 months, 14 and a half months, his vertical has gone up 14 inches, and I've never been around anybody that's done that, and squat has gone up to -- it's almost jumped 200 pounds since he got here last June.
"Again, one of the biggest need areas for him were feet and lower body, right, quicker feet, lift his feet, lower body being stronger, and he's well on the way to doing that. Well, now we've got to apply it to the court where it actually has to go against other people like his size, and certainly no sooner than when we get to Hawai'i, he'll be dealing with that."
If you're concerned that Bryant hasn't had anyone of his size to play against since De'Ron Davis's arrival to Bloomington was delayed, don't fret about that according to what associate head coach Tim Buckley said about the matter last month.
"Almost the opposite, in that I thought it was better for Thomas to play against the smaller quicker guys, because that's where he needs to continue to get better and be more athletic," Buckley said. "So I don't think that was as much of a hindrance. But obviously those two guys are going to make each other better by battling in practice and they're also going to be able to battle together too, which i think will make them very good players."
If the starters or returnees aren't doing the job defensively, Indiana may have a guy to turn to now in junior college transfer Freddie McSwain, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound forward.
"He comes in and he makes our defense better," Crean said.. "He looks like an NFL tight end, came in here and set the squat record. Freddie is really strong. He's active and athletic, like he's going to make our defense better."
So can defense become the identity and game changer for Indiana in 2016-17?
"We're only going to go as far as our ability to really have really good team defense," Crean said.