Tom Crean believes a defensive revival can reset Indiana’s Big Ten hopes
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — On occasion each season, Tom Crean will show his team a “turnover tape”: Staff members splice together clips of an opposing offense, and Crean explains to his players how they can put themselves in position to get steals. He only shows the tape once he can trust that the team won’t use it as permission to take excessive risks. This year’s Hoosiers weren’t privy to a turnover tape until the night of Jan. 14, 2017, on the eve of a home game against Rutgers, when their coach felt he had to take a gamble of his own.
“I’ve been leery of that, because we can’t go take chances,” Crean said sitting in an Assembly Hall coaches’ lounge not long after a 76–57 Sunday matinee victory over the Scarlet Knights that validated the wager for a day, anyway. “I said, you know what, we gotta do it.”
It’s dangerous to draw conclusions from one game in mid-January, but Indiana’s hopes for a revival after a 1–3 start to Big Ten play will likely rely on its much-criticized defense coming together. Mere hours after seeing that montage of vulnerable Rutgers sets, the Hoosiers tallied 63 defensive deflections (by their own internal count) and 14 steals among 21 turnovers forced. The team that entered the day ranked 103rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, allowed just .760 points per possession while converting those Scarlet Knights errors into 33 points on the other end. Most importantly, Indiana improved to 12–6 on the season and 2–3 in the Big Ten.
Crean believes that last year’s Hoosiers, who won the Big Ten regular season title and then reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, hit stride once they recognized how turnovers translated into a more up-tempo game. He believes this team would benefit from the same dynamic, so he tells them: Stop, then go. “That’s what we focus on, that’s when we’re at our best—when we get stops and we’re able to run out, because we have so many athletes on our team,” junior guard James Blackmon said after the Rutgers win.
The challenge has been honing the focus to get the stops. Crean says he has a “young group mentally,” who have required focus on fundamental concepts in practice. Indiana has allotted five to eight minutes of practice time to something as simple as grabbing a two-handed rebound in traffic. (On Sunday against Rutgers, Indiana lost a couple of boards, and Crean paced the sideline offering instructions after each.) There’s a similar search for consistency on defense. It’s evident that the Hoosiers have the athleticism and length to perform well on that end, but Crean has seen the same occasional lulls in communication and organization that everyone else has seen.
Coaches routinely beg their teams to talk more on defense. If Indiana can grasp that concept, Crean thinks his players can attack more than they react. “We went through a period in the Wisconsin and Louisville [losses] where we had 38 deflections in each,” Crean said. “We were averaging 53 going in. We gotta be really, really active with our hands. It’s being more proactive. Reading it on the weak side, getting up into the ball better and the ball screen, communicating the screen. We have a unique team because we can put all five in there to switch at certain periods of time. We have some really good parts to that defense. But having all five guys connected is where it has to get better. It’s never going to be connected every possession. But it has to be connected more often.”
Awareness seemed to peak Sunday. Of the Hoosiers’ 14 steals, OG Anunoby—Crean says the sophomore forward is his team’s best anticipator—had a career-best seven. “We all tried to jump the gaps and be aggressive with our hands,” Anunoby said. That focus could end up being the difference between the Hoosiers closing out close games, or continuing to struggle in them.
Late Friday night, Crean watched the last five minutes of all his teams’ losses (excluding the Nov. 22 Fort Wayne defeat) and determined that mental consistency might have reversed the outcome of each. He traces the Jan. 10 loss to Maryland, for example, to one tiny misstep: On a go-ahead three-pointer from the Terrapins’ Kevin Huerter with 1:50 left, the Hoosiers defender went under the screen instead of over it. Indiana ultimately lost 75–72. “If we keep getting better with our first step consistently, we’re going to be even better with our second step,” Crean said. “And so much of bad defense is because of being one step bad on the ball, one step late on the ball screen, one step late on the recovery, one step late rotating up in the help. One step. When we were going through this little slide, I was saying, this is coming down to inches. I mean, it is inches that we’re off. And if we just go there a little quicker, we cut that off. And you try to show them that on the film and you try to work on it in practice. If we keep doing that, we’re going to get better.”
The upcoming stretch demands it. Indiana plays three of its next four on the road, with a visit from Michigan State on Saturday the lone home date. The Hoosiers would have to sweep their remaining games at Assembly Hall and take three road games to reach 20 regular season wins. None of that is achievable without continuing the defensive trajectory established Sunday. Yes, it was Rutgers, which lugged the nation’s 224th most efficient offense into that meeting. But better habits have to start somewhere. “This team wants to be a good defensive team,” Crean said, as he picked at a fruit and cheese plate on the coffee table before him. “That’s, like, for sure.”
Any potential revival counts on it.