BLOOMINGTON – Tom Crean doesn't think defense like you might expect.
Take, for instance, the emphasis on better defense, which will continue with Saturday night's game against Coppin State. Top-ranked Indiana's national title hopes likely depend on it.
You might think better defense means good foot work, denying the entry pass, staying in front of your man, challenging shots without fouling. That sort of thing.
For Crean, it means something else –- shoot more.
“We're trying to be better defensively all the time,” he says. “The way we try to establish that is not just, 'OK, let's play great defense,' It's, 'Let's go get more shots.'”
Has Crean suddenly bought into the Paul Westhead-Loyal Marymount run-and-gun philosophy of the 1990s, which basically was let the other team score as fast as possible so you could score even faster?
IU took 74 shots in its 89-53 Tuesday night win over North Carolina. That's well above its season average of 57.1 shots, and reflects the blazing pace of both teams. It also reflects an attacking defense that forces 15.7 turnovers a game.
“Last year we averaged 53.5 shots,” Crean says. “You're not going to win like you need to win on 53 shots per game. Look back at Carolina's numbers, Duke's numbers, Kentucky's numbers. Those guys get a lot of shots. They get them because they defend well.
“We want to get easy baskets. The better we defend, get stops and get up the court and run, the better for us.”
Last year IU had the Big Ten's most potent offense and a nationally mediocre defense.
This year, while mixing in a 2-3 zone to neutralize inside size disadvantages caused by the NCAA-mandated suspensions of freshman forwards Hanner Perea and Peter Jurkin, plus senior forward Derek Elston's knee injury, the Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (56.7 points) and field goal percentage defense (35.9).
Those numbers also are boosted by a soft home schedule, North Carolina being the exception. Still, Crean has made improved defense a huge priority and the players are delivering.
“Our guys buy into that,” he says.
Do they ever. North Carolina arrived at Assembly Hall with one of the nation's most explosive offenses. It was held 30 points below its season average while shooting just 37.7 percent from the field.
“It's team defense,” guard Victor Oladipo says. “We've been working on it all year. We're going to keep getting better at it.
“Defense wins games. I know people criticize us for our defense -– 'If Indiana doesn't play good defense, how good can they be?'
“We're just going to keep going to the lab (the basketball court), practice and keep working on defense.”
That defensive emphasis was a big reason why Will Sheehey started the second half of the North Carolina game over Christian Watford.
It wasn't the first time Sheehey had sent Watford to the bench. Sheehey started over Watford against Sam Houston State, partly as a message to Watford to pick it up, partly as a reward for Sheehey's strong play. The same thing happened against North Carolina. Sheehey took over for Watford, who was on his way to a two-point (1-for-9 shooting), five-rebound game.
“It was just his energy defensively,” Crean says of Sheehey. “I like how he finished the first half. It wasn't a negative toward Christian at all. It's a positive for Will.
“I've said all along I have no trouble with this. I think we have seven starters. I think Hanner Perea gets some time. Certainly that's a drawback now because he hasn't had the chance, but we projected he would probably be one of those guys you could look at that way, too.
“We'll see what happens down the road. I look at Will as a starter. I don't look at those guys as bench guys.”
Coppin State is one of five lower division teams (can you say patsies?) set to visit Assembly Hall in the next month. The Eagles are 1-5, including losses to Texas (69-46) and Southern California (87-73). Their lone victory came against Cheney, 98-78.
Defense is a problem. Opponents average 45.2 percent from the field, 38.3 percent from three-point range.
Coppin State, which is picked to finish near the bottom of the Mideastern Athletic Conference, is led by guards Patrick Cole (15.3 points) and Troy Franklin (12.8 points), and forward Michael Murray (10.5 points, 10.5 rebounds).