Rebounding, defense key in trip to Minnesota

  • 01/03/2011 3:35 pm in

Minnesota and Indiana enter Tuesday night’s affair kindred spirits in an unwanted way, each holding a share of last place in the Big Ten standings after a pair of conference games. Whichever team pulls itself up off the mat and out of the conference cellar in The Barn will almost surely do it in part through a strong defensive performance and good work on the boards.

Defensively, Indiana has struggled mightily over its recent four-game losing streak, allowing opponents to shoot, on average, 52.9 percent from the field. In Big Ten play, that number stands at 57.2 percent, and Penn State and Ohio State combined to shoot 57.8 percent from behind the arc as well.

The Hoosiers themselves created well on offense, particularly in shooting an even 50 percent against Ohio State, but Tom Crean acknowledged that his team’s defense was still lacking “effort.”

“I didn’t like how smart we played, and I didn’t like how we played when the ball was being reversed,” Crean said Monday, referring to the Hoosiers’ performance against Ohio State. “These guys are developing a better mindset all the time. We can see it, we just don’t have – we haven’t hit that last 10, 20 percent we’ve gotta have.”

In Minnesota, the Hoosiers will be facing a team that has been held to just 60 and 62 points in Big Ten play by Wisconsin and Michigan State, respectively. But the Gophers bring depth and experience in the frontcourt, with a number of talented post players at coach Tubby Smith’s disposal, including Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson and Marquette transfer Trevor Mbakwe.

That trio together averages 22.7 rebounds per game, and Crean singled out Mbakwe (9.9 per game, best on the team) in particular. The 6-foot-8 junior was a player Crean recruited for three years.

“Minnesota brings three very experienced front line guys to the table that really work the lanes well,” he said, adding of Mbakwe specifically: “He’s one of the best rebounders in the nation statistically, and he’s certainly one of the more relentless rebounders in the nation.”

Post defense was as significant an issue for the Hoosiers as any last Friday night, when attempts to defend Ohio State’s standout freshman forward Jared Sullinger forced Tom Pritchard and Derek Elston out on fouls by the midpoint of the second half. Christian Watford finished with four as well, and Victor Oladipo, who spent time guarding the post in the absence of Pritchard and Elston, also fouled out.

Crean said Monday he felt his team’s great weakness in its post defense wasn’t solely in defending Sullinger once he had the ball, but in failing to keep the ball out of his hands. It ought be noted that Mbakwe and Sampson are Minnesota’s second- and third-leading scorers, respectively.

Many of Indiana’s own defensive problems, Crean said, are ones born of poor technique, or a lack of communication.

“It’s trust and communication. It’s trusting that the guy behind you,” he said. “We’re not calling soon enough, and then we put our guards in a tough situation by running into a screen.”

Perhaps it should be some comfort, however, that the Gophers themselves rank statistically worst in the Big Ten in defense, allowing the greatest points per game average (68.4) and possessing the conference’s 10th-best scoring margin (+6.4). Their adjusted defensive efficiency (94.4) — measured through the whole season thus far — only ranks them eighth in the Big Ten ahead of Penn State (99.0), Northwestern (97.9) and Indiana (95.9).

Smith’s squad will also be without Devoe Joseph, the talented but troubled guard whose absence, it seems, might last awhile.

Battle for the glass

The Hoosiers have yet to outrebound an opponent in Big Ten play, and were outdone in that department 30-20 against Ohio State on New Year’s Eve.

By contrast, Minnesota boasts the Big Ten’s highest rebounding average (40.6 per game) and second-best rebounding margin (+6.4), thanks in large part to its talented frontcourt, led by Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III.

Equally impressive is Minnesota’s work on the offensive boards, where the Gophers pull in 14.36 rebounds per game (best in the Big Ten) and currently boast an offensive rebounding percentage of 39.7, 13th best in the country. (In other words, Minnesota collects nearly 40 percent of all available offensive rebounds, a number bested by only 12 teams nationwide.)

“There’s no question we’re going to see that size, that experience and that explosiveness,” Crean said.

All that said, the Hoosiers still aren’t all that poor a rebounding team. Indiana is 56th in the country and second in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing just 29.2 percent of potential offensive rebounds to fall into the hands of opponents.

And while Indiana is eighth in the conference in rebounding offense, it is third in rebounding defense, allowing just 30.5 boards per game. More of that, as well as an emphasis on blocking out, will be key to IU’s plans in Minneapolis.

“We know they’re a tough team, they’ve got a great inside presence,” Watford said, referring specifically to blocking out. “They’re gonna be tough, but we’ve just got to keep them off the glass and go play hard.”

Video of Crean’s press conference, courtesy of IU Athletics:

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