[Postgame 3-2-1] What We Learned From Indiana's Win Against Louisville
Emma breaks down three key stats, two observations, and one lingering question from Indiana's Empire Classic finale against Louisville.
We all deserve to take a big sigh of relief after that one.
While it was not pretty — though, to be fair, did anyone expect it to be? — Indiana will leave New York City with a favorable result in a game it badly needed to win against the struggling Louisville Cardinals.
And you know what?
This was genuinely the first game all season after which I’ve walked out feeling encouraged about some aspect of Indiana’s schematic approach. I never expected it to be this … but Mike Woodson’s zone defense proved to be a major weapon yesterday.
Other positives include a few breakout performers from the bench, Malik Reneau (who made the Empire Classic All-Tournament Team) continuing to be a steady force despite foul trouble, and increased intensity from Mackenzie Mgbako.
Immediately following the conclusion of this game, I wondered if it was actually worth celebrating. Was there legitimate reason to be happy about this win? Louisville is, well, Louisville, at least for the time being, and Indiana let the Cardinals hang around for a good while. The three-point line also continued to be the Hoosiers’ greatest enemy on both sides of the floor.
After letting it marinate for a few hours, I’ve decided to be optimistic — partly because IU avoided as disastrous loss, partly because I’m encouraged by Mgbako, and partly because of the supernatural phenomena that is a zone defense from a branch of the Bob Knight coaching tree.
There’s some good, some bad, and definitely some ugly to unpack here, so let’s get to it. Here are three key stats, two observations, and one lingering question coming out of yesterday’s game against Louisville.
Did you miss yesterday's edition of the postgame show?
3 Meaningful Stats
1. Indiana closed the game on a 13-2 run thanks to its zone defense.
Zone? On a Mike Woodson-coached team?
Turns out, the one thing that Indiana has infamously renounced throughout its history was its saving grace last night. When Woodson made the switch from man-to-man defense to zone, the Hoosiers completely disrupted the flow of Louisville’s offense, primarily cutting off driving lanes and pushing guards farther out on the perimeter.
What had been an aggressive Cardinal attack turned into much of what Indiana had seen from itself recently: standing and watching. Louisville guard Skyy Clark used the word “tentative,” explaining that his team had much lower confidence and availability to get to open spots.
The zone was a completely unprecedented move. Xavier Johnson said the team never really practices it, but Woodson was confident his players would be ready to go.
“I knew Woody wouldn’t play zone,” Louisville head coach Kenny Payne said. “He tricked me.”
Despite the surprise, it worked like a charm. Heck, I’d even argue that this is the best adjustment we’ve seen Woodson make all year, and the Hoosiers executed it very well regardless of what little experience they had prior to the second half of last night’s game. The zone helped keep Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware from fouling out of the game, and it led to easier runouts and better transition opportunities spearheaded by X.
If Woodson is willing to throw it back in every now and then, this zone defense could really have an impact on close games moving forward.
2. Louisville’s backcourt outscored Indiana’s 29-16.
This was rough.
Louisville’s Clark and Tre White are two of the standard crafty, athletic, ultra-confident ACC guards that are hard to stop once they get going. Just ask anyone who had to guard Nijel Pack and Isaiah Wong in last season’s NCAA Tournament loss to Miami. The Cardinals’ backcourt is of that same breed.
Still, they didn’t have a fantastic night. Clark and White combined to shoot 33% from the field, and only sank 66% of their free throw attempts. They were aggressive but not as dominant as they were in Louisville’s one-point loss against Texas on Sunday night in which the duo combined for 40.
The main issue came at the hands of X and Trey Galloway. Two senior captains — one in his 6th year — acting as non-factors at times on the biggest stage of early-season college basketball.
X did finish with 14 points, but five of those were free throws after the game had been decided. He did play much more assertively as the head of the snake in the Hoosiers’ zone, but his lackluster performance in the first half begs the question: would Indiana have even needed to make such drastic adjustments had he stepped up earlier?
Galloway’s presence has been mild this season, despite stepping into a much larger role. He’s seemed to do a good job with his general leadership responsibilities, but I couldn’t help observing that he isn’t practicing what he preaches.
After Sunday’s loss to UConn, Galloway was insistent that he and his teammates needed to do a better job of moving without the ball, as well as reversing it to find open shooters. So, the fact that I saw him camped out in the corner or not making the quick reversal pass for nearly the entire game against Louisville was pretty discouraging.
They won’t have to do everything this year, but it’s pretty apparent that X and Galloway must step up if Indiana expects to compete in big games.
3. Reneau and Ware combined for 8 fouls.
I touched on this earlier, but I think the most important part of this stat is that neither of them ended up fouling out.
It would be easy to focus on the negatives and say that they need to gain more body control and make smarter decisions, especially after Reneau ended a career night on the bench with 5 fouls against UConn, but that’s not necessarily fair to the Hoosier frontcourt.
As I mentioned with the zone, the main issue that caused the change was Louisville’s guards finding easy driving lanes and players 1-5 crashing in for putbacks. Indiana’s two big men were not solely at fault for this, and it once again boils down to an issue of perimeter defense.
But for once, that’s not what this is about.
Sure, within those eight total fouls there were some silly calls and silly decisions. But Woodson’s decision to go zone made Reneau’s and Ware’s jobs so, so much easier. Instead of worrying about contesting a slasher for whom they weren’t initially responsible, the bigs could focus on the basics: boxing out and rebounding.
Hopefully Reneau and Ware do not find themselves in serious foul trouble often moving forward. But, if they do, I think we got some much-needed reassurance on their backups in yesterday’s game that will pay off in the future.