Friday, February 03, 2006

Pre-UConn season review

As part of my continuing effort to avoid doing real work, I've been thinking about how the team has gotten to where it is. So I decided write up some thoughts - in essence a season review... or mid-season review. Or mid-to-late season review. This is really for my benefit, because writing helps me organize my thoughts. Not sure it'll be interesting for anyone else.

Heading into the season, we didn't really know what to expect. It appeared that the team would be talented, but there were so many new pieces that it was hard to know how things would go. How good was Killingsworth? Would Monroe or Calloway be good enough to man the point guard position? Would moving a historically poor shooter like Strickland to SG really work out? Would Killingsworth and White be able to coexist happily on the court? Would Vaden flourish after finally moving to the 3? Would Dinc lead the team in scoring?

Unfortunately, we lost White and Ratliff to start the season, which made us even harder to predict, since those were two of our known qualities. Of course, this also helped Indiana, because our opponents had no idea what to expect either. About the only thing opponents could count on, given the last five seasons, is that Indiana would play slow and not shoot a high percentage. =)

Given the uncertainty and new parts, it's probably a good thing that we started the season with 3 major cupcake games. Nicholls State (292), Florida A&M (251), and Western Illinois (301) are all among the bottom teams in division I, according to Sagarin (and everyone else, for that matter). To their credit, Indiana pounded all 3. Not only pounded, but scored in bunches (99, 100, and 102 points), shot an incredible percentage, increased our # of possessions dramatically, and we appeared to have both a capable inside threat and a bevy of 3 point shooters -- which is precisely what this offense requires.

Then Duke came to town. Mike Krzyzewski looked at our first three games and decided that our 3 point shooting was scarier than Marco Killingsworth. He knew that our offense is predicated on getting the ball inside, drawing help, then getting open 3 point shots... or not drawing help and having Marco make a move. So he decided to put a ton of perimeter pressure on our guards and let Sheldon Williams guard Marco straight-up. It worked and Duke won. It also established Marco as one of the best players in the country for manhandling defensive whiz Williams. The established wisdom was that Duke made a decision to force Marco to beat them single-handedly - and he almost did it!

I think this was a very pivotal moment in the season, and for odd reasons. First, I'd bet my bottom dollar that if we played Duke now they'd do things completely differently - they'd realize that they could double on Marco AND prevent Indiana from getting open three pointers. Plus, opposing coaches didn't watch the game and think, "Hmm, Duke single-teams Marco and won - I'm gonna do the same thing." They thought, "Damn, no way am I playing Marco straight up." So Duke won the game while showing the nation how NOT to play Indiana.

After a lackluster blowout of Eastern Michigan (#282), another one of the worst teams in the country, Indiana went on the road and were shocked by Indiana State -- a game I wasn't able to watch. What did this game tell us in restrospect? First, that ISU (with Moss) is a lot better than people thought -- and they continued to prove that before Moss's injury. Second, if you put a bunch of pressure on Marco, good things happen (10 pts and 7 turnovers), and Indiana won't necessarily hit all those 3 pointers (8-24). It also suggested that IU's road woes might continue.

Fortunately for the Hoosiers, redemption was only days away, when we blew Kentucky off the floor. Although once again our 3 pointers weren't falling (5-16), Marco looked unstoppable again, we took care of the ball (12 TOs), played good defense, and Kentucky couldn't hit a 3 pointer to save their lives (2-27). And AJ Ratliff came out of his shell and scored 21 points in the second half. AJ's back!

Er, not really. AJ went back to struggling after the game and still isn't back to last season's form.

The other good news is that DJ White was returning from injury for the next game against Charlotte.

Which is a good place to pause.

What had happened in the first 7 pre-DJ games? 4 of the games were against awful teams, and we clobbered them, basically. In the 3 games against not-awful teams, Indiana was 1-2. One was a home loss against #1 Duke and their never-see-it-again junk defense. One was a road loss against a good mid-major team when they were able to stifle Marco. And one was a neutral court blowout against a mediocre Kentucky team - on a night when they shot even worse than usual.

Clearly, IU's offense had improved a great deal from the previous season(s), and our defense wasn't awful either. But if you look only at the three games that you'd expect to be competitive, I can't help but conclude that if Indiana had played a tougher schedule over this stretch, things would have gone differently. Our ranking was basically due to the cupcake games, and the understandable goodwill generated from playing Duke tough and blowing out Kentucky (which is nice, no matter how good they are). But if you compare how we're playing right now to the Duke, ISU, and Kentucky games, is there a big difference? I think we were playing better then than now, but honestly I think the difference might be almost completely attributable to our opponent's ever-increasing ability to prepare for Killingsworth. If Duke, ISU, and Kentucky had as many game tapes to review as Minnesota and NW had, I bet those games would have been played very differently.

But hey, all you can do is play the games that are scheduled, right? So with DJ back, Indiana played, IMO, easily their best stretch of basketball of the season. We beat Charlotte (#105) easily on the road. We beat a good Butler team (#79) in Indy by a comfortable margin. We destroyed an average Ball State team (#165) on the road. We beat a very good Michigan team (#16) at home with balanced scoring (Strick, Vaden, Marco, DJ, and Wilmont all in double figures), in spite of major concerns with defensive rebounding. Then we beat an excellent Ohio State team (#10) at home in a hard-fought game behind 26 points on 9-14 shooting from Marco, great outside shooting (10-21 3 pters) and clutch plays at the end from Strickland - and once again we had 5 guys in double figures, and one of them wasn't DJ White, who only played 17 minutes, scored 6 points, and was limping noticeably after the game.


At the time, I was a little bit disappointed that those games were so close, but in retrospect OSU and Michigan appear to be the real deal, and beating them in any form is a nice accomplishment.

And, obviously, it's time for the next pause.

With DJ in the lineup Indiana was 5-0, including 3-0 away from Assembly Hall, all five of those games were against non-cupcakes, and two of them were against top 16 teams in the country. IMO, Indiana was playing very well during this stretch, and DJ was clearly not at top strength yet.

Where would Indiana be right now with DJ White? Well, winning at MSU is unlikely for anyone. Our other losses were at Iowa (where no one has won this season) and at Minnesota (a game I'm trying to block from memory). Would our record be different? I think it would be, because we wouldn't have lost to Minnesota - because the team wouldn't be in the process of imploding right now, IMO. We probably would have lost to MSU and Iowa anyway, but we wouldn't have played as poorly doing it (and I'm not sure about the Iowa loss, frankly). I think things would be very, very different right now.

Standard caveat: Noting that things would be different with DJ is not an excuse for Mike Davis. There's no reason that that the level of play for a still-talented Indiana team should decline to dramatically without DJ.

So, DJ is out again, and Indiana goes on the road against Michigan State, and then we find out that Lewis Monroe is out as well. Michigan State scores on every possession and Indiana stays in the game until about mid-way through the second half before being put away. IMO, there is nothing to be learned from this game. We lost two starters right before the game, MSU is very good and they were pumped, we still managed to keep with them for most of the game... but in the end we weren't in a position to win in the final minutes.

Then came Illinois (#6). A game in which Indiana played really, really bad... then really, really good... then really, really bad... and came out with a quality win. Some were wondering whether Illinois was overranked at the time -- again, this appears to not be the case. That Indiana sans DJ could beat such a good team while playing so poorly for long stretches is arguably a good sign... except that the long stretches of bad play were a concern. Wilmont also had a really good game against Illinois... which turned out to be a sign of things to come. However, Wilmont and Marco were the only double-figure scorers this time, and Vaden went 0-5 from 3 point range, part of a mini-slump. Shawn Pruitt scored a career high as well - which to me was really the start of some visible issues between Marco and the coaches regarding his defense.

The Purdue game was ugly. Another career night for an opposing interior player. Indiana only shot 39.1% (a season low at the time). Vaden continued to struggle with his shot. Allen started but his defense put him right back on the bench. It might've just been a standard letdown in between two huge games, but unfortunately the chinks in the armor against Illinois seemed to continue. After beating Illinois, it seemed almost strange that the team didn't seem to be playing with confidence.

Still, we were 4-1 in the conference with two big road games coming up.

Iowa is a good team (#19) and undefeated at home, and to make matters worse Strickland was unable to play (which in restrospect was an even worse situation because Davis could not move Strick to point when Iowa switched Brunner onto Monroe. With Ratliff struggling, Indiana was force to play long stretches with two of Monroe, Calloway, ad Suhr at the same time. Marco had possibly his worst game (to that point) with 5-14 shooting, 4 turnovers, and 2 defensive rebounds. Indiana stayed in the game for most of it thanks to the heroics of Robert Vaden (26 points on 8-12 shooting from the 3 point line), but overall Indiana seemed to be fighting just to keep things competitive. Marco's attitude seemed to get worse with every B10 game, and Ratliff fouled out in 9 minutes. Ugh.

Ratliff said after the game that some of his teammates weren't giving it their all.

I think this was the turning point of the season. After beating Illinois a week earlier, the team seemed to have completely lost it's swagger, Marco was being taken mentally out of the games, players were questioning their teammates, etc. As fans, we overreact to losses on principle, and certainly the last few seasons have taken this to a new level -- for example we had fans writing the season off because we lost at Michigan State... immediately after losing two starters. Because, you know, MSU was 0-2 and not that good.

But if we ignore our own strangeness for a second, it seems like the mental collapse of the team was bizarre and unfounded. We just beat Illinois. We just beat Purdue. And we lost to a good Iowa team without Strickland. Yet the team seemed to be in crisis mode. Why? Sure, they weren't playing as well as they were capable of playing, but the mood of the team seemed out of whack with how bad the situation really was. The more I think about it, the more I think that the mental impact of losing DJ again was more devastating than we realized -- and larger than it should have been. The loss at Iowa seemed to severely shake the team up, resulting directly in the disaster at Minnesota. Suddenly the team was not executing, not playing with passion, not shooting well... the shift was fast and unwarranted, IMO.

Northwestern is not a game to get one's mojo back. Their offensive and defensive schemes are so irregular that Indiana had to just kinda plow through the game, which they did. Marco showed no signs of recovering his earlier season form, but I thought the rest of the team made a little progress - or at least stopped the bleeding. UConn is arguably not a great chance to get back on track either - it's an opportunity to get back emotionally with a win, but trying to beat the #1 team in the country in order to get your team's head back in the game is a tough situation (particularly because I think we match up horribly with UConn).

In the end, I'm not sure what to make of things. On the one hand, I think there's no reason to believe that the team can't play MUCH better than they're playing right now, based on the evidence at hand, but at the same time the fact that they've fallen apart so dramatically makes me worry about their ability to pull back together. On the one hand the team has played well in some games without DJ against some good teams, on the other hand our road record without DJ is astonishly bad (Western Illinois, Indiana State, Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota -- 4 losses and 1 win against a team that is significantly worse than the worst B10 team). There's clearly a ton of variability still left in how this season might play out. But I think if you look at the season without the DJ games and without the 4 mega-cupcake games, the clear implication is that the best this team can hope to accomplish is significantly less than winning the B10 and making a long run in the NCAA tournament.

Duke 75, Indiana 67
Indiana State 72, Indiana 67
Indiana 79, Kentucky 53
Michigan St. 87, Indiana 73
Indiana 62, Illinois 60
Indiana 62, Purdue 49
Iowa 73, Indiana 60
Minnesota 61, Indiana 42
Indiana 72, Northwestern 63

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