Devonte Green took a screen from Joey Brunk and as he weaved his way to the top of the free-throw line, he threw an alley-oop over the top of the defense to a rolling Brunk, resulting in an easy layup to extend Indiana’s lead to 19 on Saturday night.
What happened after that basket was something Indiana has let happen far too often this season. A trend that has plagued the Hoosiers time and time again over the last seven games.
The Green to Brunk alley-oop came with 12:52 left in the game. With their largest lead of the night and first road win a dozen minutes away, the Hoosiers didn’t hit another field goal until there was 4:45 left, making only three free throws in that over 8-minute drought as the lead whittled down to eight points.
Indiana held on to win by eight points, 82-74, and it was due in large part to the defense.
The difference between this most recent scoring drought against Nebraska and others that have occurred before is Indiana didn’t totally collapse and the defense kept the Hoosiers well above water.
“We had to lock in defensively,” Brunk said. “I’m happy we were able to get it done.”
One could argue the 19-point lead played a big role in staying in front, and although that’s true, the Crossroads Classic proved that doesn’t matter as the Hoosiers once had a 17-point advantage in that game, only to have Notre Dame take the lead by as much as five before late-game heroics by Armaan Franklin.
Defensively, Indiana has come a long way since the early non-conference games. Archie Miller voiced his concerns with the defense many times in November — they couldn’t defend the 3-point line, the backcourt couldn’t guard the ball, the hedging of ball screens was slow, and the rotations were a step behind.
But now defense is the reason Indiana has been winning, and staying in, games as of late. Against Northwestern, all hope looked lost when IU fell behind by double digits in the second half, but the Hoosiers had a late rally, got stops defensively and pulled out the win.
After a hot start against Ohio State, the Hoosiers could not score at a consistent rate, missing many free throws as well, but remained in the game with tough defense, especially in the post against Kaleb Wesson.
Indiana could literally not hit a shot from beyond the paint against Rutgers, but they had multiple opportunities to climb back in the game thanks to the defense. They held Rutgers to just 59 points, which is the second-lowest outing for the Scarlet Knights this season and lowest point total for them at the RAC.
“We know defense is going to be a key part of our wins or success, so we try to focus on that every game we come into, no matter what’s happening on offense,” Green said on Friday. “Even though we were struggling the last game we just tried to stay with it.”
In a season where it doesn’t look like the long scoring droughts are going away anytime soon, the defense is going to be huge for Indiana, especially in this upcoming home stretch against Michigan State (third in Big Ten defensive efficiency) and Maryland (second in Big Ten defensive efficiency).
Over the last four games, Indiana is allowing .886 points per possession. Overall in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers rank seventh in that category and just tenth in offensive efficiency. Indiana is holding conference opponents to just 32 percent from the 3-point line and are also forcing a turnover percentage of 15.
According to KenPom, Indiana’s adjusted defensive efficiency of 91.8 (or .918 PPP allowed) has the Hoosiers ranked 34th in the nation.
The only concern about the defense lately is the backcourt’s ability to stay in front of the ball. Opposing team’s guards have made a living of having big games against Indiana, and right now all four IU guards are struggling to contain the perimeter.
Nebraska’s Cam Mack just dropped 20 points Saturday night, and with Cassius Winston and Anthony Cowan on the horizon, the Hoosier backcourt will need to tighten things up.
On Saturday night in Lincoln Indiana, showed a glimpse of what this team could look like when the offense can hit some shots and the defense is playing well. Defense has been a calling card for Miller since he arrived at Indiana, and, now more than ever, the Hoosiers are going to need it the rest of the way.