January 29, 2022 

How Nicole Cardaño-Hillary’s defense breathes life into Indiana basketball

'I love a good challenge,' says the George Mason transfer

When Nicole Cardaño-Hillary transferred to Indiana from George Mason and showed up at the Hoosiers’ first practice last season, she made her presence known. Those familiar with her game knew she was a potent offensive weapon, but the kind of defense she displayed was eye-opening in the gym that day. 

“I think all of us knew immediately we were getting someone in our program that was going to really help push us every day in practice and take that next step as a program,” said Indiana guard Grace Berger.

Since being inserted into Indiana’s starting lineup last January, Cardaño-Hillary has been the heart and soul of the Hoosiers’ defense. She fights over screens with verve, dives for every 50/50 ball and leaves opposing backcourts looking at the refs for borderline reach-in fouls.  

“I’ve been in different positions throughout my basketball career, but when the coaches here asked me to kind of take that role, I just tried to fill it in the best [way] I could,” said Cardaño-Hillary. “[My defensive intensity] has always been there, but I think everyone has it in them.” 

Maybe Cardaño-Hillary is right when she says everyone can make an impact on the defensive end. However, there are very few players in college basketball who show up every night and turn that potential into actuality like her. That drive is one of the reasons why Indiana has the best defensive rating in a loaded Big Ten conference.

The box score doesn’t show the full picture of Cardaño-Hillary’s contributions on the court. On a team that has five players (including her) averaging over 10 points per game, she doesn’t have to lead Indiana in scoring to have her fingerprints all over the outcome. According to Synergy Sports, Cardaño-Hillary ranks in the 92nd percentile at defending opponents’ isolation plays this season while limiting them to 30% shooting on spot-up opportunities. 

There are plays like this where she will rip the ball and your heart out on the same play:

Most players wouldn’t sacrifice what Cardaño-Hillary gave up to land with the Hoosiers. At George Mason, she was the Atlantic-10 Player of the Year in 2018-19 and averaged 18.8 points per game in her three seasons. She held the reins of the program but felt there was more to achieve beyond the personal accolades she could continue to rack up. 

“I love a good challenge,” said Cardaño-Hillary. “I had a chance to play at a different level and I knew that there’s different roles that I might have to adapt to, but, at the end of the day, I thought it could make me a better all-around player.” 

Hoosiers head coach Teri Moren knew what Cardaño-Hillary could bring to the table, but even she was pleasantly surprised by how much the former Patriot was able to deliver on the defensive end.

“Our pitch to her was she could come in, start and play big minutes for us,” said Moren. “She should have been sitting out, but then everything changed with COVID and the transfer rule, so it happened a year earlier than we expected. 

“When we put her into the lineup, she became something we didn’t expect, honestly. There’s one thing to be sound and solid defensively. There’s another thing to be able to be disruptive. She’s disruptive. And she’s a problem.”

The difference is vast between the defensive menace Hoosier fans see at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall and the easy-going version of Cardaño-Hillary her team sees on a daily basis. According to Berger, Cardaño-Hillary will Nae Nae going back on defense after making shots in practice. This is a stark contrast from the player who has drawn ire from other Big Ten backcourts. 

“She is a completely different person when she is off the court,” said Berger. “She’s a complete goofball. She’s always cracking jokes, making fun of the situation and always making everyone on the team laugh. She’s the person always cracking jokes in the locker room, which might get on Coach’s nerves sometimes, but she’s always lightening the mood and having a good time.” 

Both sides of Cardaño-Hillary have been vital for Indiana this season. The team’s leading scorer, Mackenzie Holmes, is going to be out for an extended period of time after she had surgery on her left knee on Jan. 20. As Indiana experiments with more guard-heavy lineups, it at least has one constant: Cardaño-Hillary’s stifling defense. 

“I definitely take pride in [setting the tone on defense],” said Cardaño-Hillary. “I just want to create energy for us by not just playing good defense but turning it into offense. That is what I try to do, and it is a good challenge.” 

Written by James Kay

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