- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Indiana fans haven't had a lot to complain about this season. Their team is 19-2, 7-1 in the Big Ten, playing some of the best basketball in the country, and coming off a 37-point demolition of hated rival Purdue in Mackey Arena. Life in the land of candy stripes is, as they say, good.
But in the rare moments when IU fans have gotten grumpy this season -- after the Butler loss in Indianapolis, or during Sunday's harrowing home win over Michigan State, or (especially) after the home loss to Wisconsin -- the root of the concern has been Indiana's defense.
If you take the long view, this concern is somewhat silly. In less than a year, after all, Indiana has morphed from a so-so defensive team into one of the 15 stingiest efficiency defenses in the country, all without sacrificing the top-five offensive brilliance that led them back to prominence in 2011-12. Coach Tom Crean has accomplished too much to enumerate in a breathtakingly short time at IU, but that might be his greatest accomplishment -- turning an average defense into one capable of anchoring a national title in the matter of one offseason.
Still, with a national title as the established expectation, there are bound to be minor freakouts from time to time, and I never hear from IU fans more than when the Hoosiers line up in a zone and that zone doesn't work or doesn't seem to work.
That's a crucial distinction, because the fact of the matter -- one contrary to my own assumptions -- is that Indiana's zone does work.
According to Synergy scouting data, the Hoosiers have played zone on 274 of their 1,576 defensive possessions this season, or 19.6 percent of the time. (Note: These numbers don't include Wednesday night's win over Purdue, which wasn't yet updated as of this writing.) The Hoosiers have held opponents to even fewer points per trip in those zone possessions than they have in standard man-to-man defense. Even if you account for some wonky data here and there -- IU sometimes switches from man to zone within possessions, which must be a charting nightmare for the Synergy yeomen -- the general gist is still there. Indiana has been very good playing man-to-man defense, and Indiana has been just as good, if not better, playing zone.
Which brings us, of course, to Michigan.
On Saturday, in the biggest regular-season game to date, the two best teams in the best conference in the country will square off in Bloomington, Ind. We can go ahead and assume the Hoosiers will be just fine on the offensive end. Other than turnovers (which the Wolverines rarely force anyway), Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell (as well as key reserves Will Sheehey and Remy Abell) form a group that does just about everything that matters on the offensive end well. Besides, the Wolverines are merely decent, but not elite, on the defensive end.
No, where the Wolverines get you is their offense. And boy, do they ever.
No team in the country has scored more efficiently this season than Michigan -- their 1.25 points per trip is No. 1 in the country, per KenPom.com -- and only Florida and Creighton, who play in conferences much less demanding than the Big Ten, have matched the Wolverines' offensive efficiency (1.22 points per possession) in conference play.
Anyone who has seen Michigan play this season knows this in less mathematical terms already: National POY candidate Trey Burke is not only a great scorer himself, but he wields at his command a shooting guard who can get buckets from just about anywhere (Tim Hardaway Jr.), one of the best shooters in the country (Nik Stauskas), a lob-hungry athletic wing who absolutely flies on the break (Glenn Robinson III) and bigs (Jordan Morgan, who may miss the Indiana game with an ankle injury, as well as Mitch McGary and Jon Horford) who set brutal screens, rim-run and clean the glass. With Burke at the helm, and John Beilein conducting from the sideline, the combined effect is devastating. I don't know how you stop it, at least not with any consistency. I'm not sure anyone does.
Matching up with that attack is Indiana's great challenge Saturday. But seriously: how?
Straight man-to-man seems the obvious choice until you actually consider the matchups. Oladipo is one of the nation's best defensive players, and ideally you'd tell him to do his best Avery Bradley impression on Burke for 40 minutes. But that would often leave Ferrell and Hulls to guard Hardaway and Stauskas, both of whom are comfortable shooting over anyone -- let alone 5-foot-10 point guards. So, zone then, right? Well, sure, provided you're comfortable zoning the nation's best offense, which shoots the nation's 10th-best 3-point field goal percentage this season.
Another more specific concern is ball screens. Burke thrives on ball screens, and the Wolverines utilize ball screens on 15.1 percent of their possessions, according to Synergy. Ball screens happen to be Indiana's biggest point of defensive weakness. If you zone, you take the conventional ball screen away. But is Burke really any less effective when he's able to penetrate a zone?
As IU cruised to a win at the end of Wednesday's game, Crean kept several of his starters in and kept pressing the Boilermakers. Maybe he was just running up the score, as some pundits accused. But maybe Crean was tuning up a press he plans to unveil against Michigan -- a way to, at the very least, make Burke work as hard as possible in Assembly Hall Saturday night.
In the end, more than man or zone, that has been the catalyst for any real grumbles Hoosiers fans have had this season: That Indiana, even when it's obviously the better team, has allowed opponents to dictate the game to them. The Hoosiers didn't hassle Wisconsin out to half court, and thus allowed the Badgers to avoid turnovers, run the shot clock down and easily control the pace of play. Indiana didn't press Butler until it was necessary, at which point it was immediately effective, but too late.
On Saturday, that's the dynamic to watch. Is Indiana, regardless of style or strategy, making Michigan's offense uncomfortable? Or are the Hoosiers on their heels, stuck trying to counter Burke & Co.'s staggeringly efficient combos?
If it's the former, IU shouldn't have much problem in Assembly Hall. If it's the latter, then it's time for Plan B: Outscore Michigan.
In the immortal words of Lucius Fox: Good luck.
Indiana fans haven't had a lot to complain about this season. Their team is 19-2, 7-1 in the Big Ten, playing some of the best basketball in the country, and coming off a 37-point demolition of hated rival Purdue in Mackey Arena.