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January 12, 2014

Hoosier Breakdown: at Penn State

There's a misconception in coaching that says you can't enjoy a win for very long. I'd argue it's actually the best time to learn. In fact, I can't think of a better time for this team to recognize that a catastrophe was averted on Saturday afternoon in State College, a valuable experience earned, and it didn't cost them a win in doing so.

Yes, it was a good win. A game they should have won, a game they needed to win. But it was a good win, and any Hoosier win in this conference will be celebrated in "The Breakdown". So I hope every member of the team is smiling, somewhere in Bloomington, all day Sunday and Monday, too. I hope they still feel good about it in warm-ups Tuesday evening. It's important to develop the feeling winning brings. The pride, the confidence, and the swagger it's going to require for this young team to take the next step. Soak up that feeling of being a winner, and you'll appreciate the work required to maintain it. Now, about that work...

Ah, yes, there's a lot of work to be done. In the first installment of "Hoosier Breakdown" I look closer at Indiana's 79-76 win on Saturday at Penn State.


IN THE BEGINNING

It started bad on Saturday. Indiana recovered, but not many teams on the conference will be wearing "Penn State" on their jerseys.

So the start of the game must be a focal point moving forward for this team if it wants to compete at the top of the Big Ten, earn an NCAA berth, and make a March run, which the last time I asked around was still the goal in Bloomington. The good news is the biggest problem can be diagnosed. Fixing it, well that's beyond me.

The reason for the slow starts to games, like the one Saturday, is what seems to also be the cause for a lot of what troubles this team - a lack of focus.

Exhibit A: IU wins the tip, and their first possession of the game ends with a Troy Williams three-point attempt. What? Was? That? I love Troy Williams, and I'm glad he's on our team, but Troy has to know by the 16th game of the season that there was a reason he was left alone at 22 feet. That's not how you want to start the game if you're Indiana. Not when you have the best player on the floor inside and no defensive answer for him.

Your second possession ended with one of your best athletes, and a crafty senior, getting stuffed six feet from the rim, when a shot fake in that situation gives your team what it desperately needs to avoid getting run-over. Instead of a trip to the foul line and a quick re-group, IU found itself down 5-0. Things ultimately unraveled for IU before poetic justice stepped in, disguised as Tom Crean calling a timeout with 9:11 left in the first half. After fighting off the initial bad start to cut the lead to 21-16, IU watched Penn State douse the effort by putting 10 straight on the board to increase its lead to a game-high 15. A quarter of the way through, IU was on pace to give up 115 points.

Emergency, help needed. And luckily for Crean and IU, the mayday call was met with a response that should give everyone hope, but understand it can't happen against good or great teams. You're not coming back on Bo. Wouldn't put anything on a similar recovery at the Breslin Center in a couple weeks.

So how can you try and avoid a slow start?

No one really knows, to the best of my knowledge, and it's certainly not me, but one idea I'd try is putting in a tip-play for Noah Vonleh - get him going EARLY. One of my favorites is a 'Jim Jones Special', the legendary Springs Valley and Terre Haute North coach, and it's simple... it isolates NV on the back-guard defending the rim by screening the opponent's player matched-up with NV jumping center; after tipping it back to Yogi, a quick sideline-pass up to the wing, and NV is all alone at the rim - to start the game. And for what it's worth, I looked for it, and it was there on Saturday against Penn State. Rules are another idea. If the team knows that Noah is touching the ball twice before a shot goes up by anyone else, you won't have a temptation for anyone. Rules give a young team direction and a plan. And then again, maybe there's a reason Troy Williams only played 18 minutes tonight. I've been there, too, in coaching, and it's frustrating. Maybe it's the players not executing.

Exhibit B: Yogi Ferrell badly missed two point-blank layups by two feet. Now, I think Yogi would be the first to tell you he should make 98 percent of every lay-up he takes, let alone draw rim. Later in the second half, after making a circus lefty lay-up, he again missed badly on a short lay-up that he's too good not to make.

Concentration. The power of focus.

But he's not alone. I hope to have the shot chart up soon, but it's almost hard to believe the misses. Indiana is passing up a lot of points on missed 'bunnies'.

Disclaimer: Yogi must be commended for his seven assist versus one turnover performance. He was awesome. Clutch, confident, and as tough to take the ball away from as anyone in the country, especially inside two minutes. I only call out his bricks, err, lay-up attempts because he's way above ever missing a lay-up unless he's not totally focused.

Exhibit C: The turnovers. And it's not a coincidence that IU kept the turnovers down (13) and won a close game. The most encouraging thing here is that IU makes a large number of unforced or fundamental mistakes that can be corrected.

1) "The Yogi Ferrell Rule" And this goes for everyone on the team but named in honor of the inspiration....you cannot leave your feet to pass the ball.

2) Catch the Ball Too High in Offense - IU routinely catches the ball outside of the range of being a scoring threat; I'd love to have the technology to track the average point of catch for IU all season. My guess is that it's 24 feet or more, and it's often Noah Vonleh or Troy Williams doing the catching. Note: It's not NV's assist to turnover ratio that makes him a beast.

3) Back to Fundamentals - being under control and poised, jump stops and shot fakes. Simple but effective. But it works, people.

And yes, it was better against Penn State, but there were still too many times a ball-handler simply dribbled out of bounds for no apparent reason to think we're out of the proverbial 'woods' yet.


HOW THE GAME WAS WON.

Wow, this was had a lot going on.

The Hoosiers overcame the 15-point 1st half deficit by tightening the defensive pressure, and were also the beneficiary of some wild shot-selection by PSU during the second-half. That allowed IU to outscore the Nittany Lions 63-45 after the "9:11". And they finished the defensive possessions by grabbing most of the rebounds.

IU also once again won the "free throw game", making more than Penn State attempted, doing so at 82.6 percent. Additionally, it snagged 18 offensive rebounds (in addition to outrebounding PSU overall 42-36), thereby winning two key facets that usually signal success. When you can't shoot from the perimeter consistently (but ironically shot a better percentage from 3pt range than 2pt on Saturday) and turn the ball over at a high-rate, you have to be able to create additional possessions by going and getting misses. Lay-ups aside, the Hoosiers have been pretty decent from the free throw line of late.

The Hoosiers also only committed 13 turnovers on Saturday, well below their season average, and gave them just the right margin of error to win the game by three points.

A big factor in the turnaround after the timeout at 9:11 was improved ball movement. At one point in the second half, the movement was such a thing of beauty that even a missed field goal attempt couldn't dampen "The Breakdown's" spirit. And it was the penetration and kicks that brought IU back in the scoring column.

Controlling the paint is the key. Keep the offense out, and get the ball into the paint. Then find shooters. It is all about who controls the ball in the paint.

Austin Etherington and the bench were great. Stan Robinson again provided a spark. If not fearless, what is Stan Robinson, really? At times out of control, he makes things happen. By happen, I mean ulcers and smiles and high fives.

Jeff Howard, you my friend get your own "Breakdown" heading. But you'll have to wait.

Yes, I brought up Austin Etherington because for the first time in an Indiana uniform, I saw the ballplayer I scouted countless times as a high school star at Hamilton Heights High School. I told people, 'just wait', and we waited...and they said I was seeing things and still I wondered... but then tonight happened and I'm happy for the person, a great kid. I hope he breaks out, because the good Lord knows IU could use a perimeter threat not named Yogi Ferrell. Etherington also gave us the "Breakdown Play of the Game", when he buried a difficult corner-three from the left-side. After a shot fake got his defender to fly past him, he planted and pulled his right foot back behind the line, rose up on balance and sank the side-pocket dagger. The teaching point here is that in most cases, instruct a player to take a dribble in that position, off-balance, and defender sells out....but what made Etherington's situation different was that he never took his eyes off the rim. If you look down at the three-point line or where a defender is, you're toast. The percentages go way down, but Etherington never lost sight of the rim. Yahtzee.


9:52

That's when Jeff Howard checked into the game. And roughly the same time my Twitter blew-up. I don't know what you want me to say, I like the kid. No, I love the kid. The shining example for most kids who love to play the game of basketball, especially in small towns across Indiana. Limited skills, limited athleticism, good height, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. The ball finds his hands around the basket. Finishing is a work-in-progress, but he's been decent from the line, too, for a reserve post-player. Having said all that....

I'm from the school of thought that during crunch-time, you ride your horses, and for Indiana I can't think of a bigger horse in your stable than Noah Vonleh. He sat too much down the stretch, for my liking. I get an offense-for-defense situation but like my best players being on the floor when it's being decided. Maybe the question is, why not Jeff Howard with 9:52 left in the first half?

THE TRUTH.

IU defenders allowed too much middle penetration and showed poor on-the-ball defense, which resulted in D.J. Newbill going for a big night from the floor on drive after drive into the paint. The matador-defense IU showed too often also provided us with the Breakdown's "Did That Just Happen?! Play of the Day", when seldom-used PSU reserve guard, 5'10 (maybe) Graham Woodard checked into the game, and within two seconds had caught the ball and began left on the drive; by four seconds of action he had put an "and-1" on four IU defenders that are now-centerpieces of the kid's highlight reel.

Like every team that is brought together to play basketball, Indiana still has players who don't fully understand team help defensive principles. Should often be that way this late in the season. The ball scores, worry about the ball. Think, 'move to the middle of the floor, one foot in the paint', and you'll never get caught like Noah Vonleh got caught watching the paint dry on Thorpe's back-cut two-handed dunk amidst the surge Penn State had at the start. IU especially struggles with an off-the-ball cutter slashing into the paint from the perimeter.

Poor closeouts on shooters allowed penetration, too. You have to attack with energy, but you have to do it with balance.


QUALITY OF POSSESSIONS

This is something I'm working on developing, and as the season goes on, I'll try and talk to some people and find/create an accurate statistical formula to measure the quality of Indiana offensive possessions. If you're a math nerd and it interests you, please contact me and we can talk. Don't be offended, nerds rule the world.

Now back to the action. We are coming down the home-stretch of the "Breakdown" and we'll close with what must improve in the half-court offense - the quality of the offensive possession EVERY TIME.

The point of offense is to create an opportunity whereby it becomes easier to score; technically, a player could dribble up the court and heave the first shot he thinks is within range of hitting the backboard, right? Offense seeks to make it a higher chance of success in scoring, by using either ball movement, screening, penetration, and/or ball fakes; the player then gets open for a higher percentage shot than could be conceived without the use of offense and its actions.

Simple concept, yet too many instances still where in a critical situation that calls for patience and a special urgency, Will Sheehey takes shots that a high-basketball IQ player shouldn't take. Unless you've proven that shooting with a defender draped on you doesn't affect your shot (as evidenced by the shooting percentage), shooting a contested three-point attempt is a questionable move in terms of your chances of having a high percentage of quality possessions.

As someone who before last season hyped Sheehey's NBA potential, I still see the talent. But I also see a player who seems to be pressing. Someone who feels like the whole team rides on his shoulders, and that he has to take the "hero-shot" when his team needs a score. My approach with Will would be to say, 'just dunk everything.' Forget the 3's, forget everything, just defend and dunk the ball. Maybe it's just me, but I sense the energy Will Sheehey has made a name for bringing to the game has dissipated somewhat this season. A focused Will Sheehey that values possessions and demands quality possessions will make this team a lot better overnight. It also seems like almost everyone could benefit from relaxing a little, not trying so hard.



Wisconsin on Tuesday from Bloomington, and I predict the best IU performance yet. Maybe I need to put down my Ecto-Cooler, but I'm standing behind that.

Enjoy your Sunday and have a great week. See you again Wednesday for "The Breakdown" of Tuesday's Wisconsin game from Assembly Hall.
-----

Questions, comments, suggestions--all welcome. Contact Nick.



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