Well, okay, the defense formerly known as “Havoc.”
More than anything else, arguably, it’s what won the Texas job for Shaka Smart over the countless other up and coming coaches (or, even, proven ones) in NCAA basketball. It’s the defense that took the nation by storm in 2011 as Smart’s VCU Rams danced their way to the Final Four and it’s the defense that Longhorn fans everywhere hope can return their team to prominence.
So, what makes it so special?
It’s a Press
Well, okay, it’s more than that (more on that in a bit). But, if you want to get technical, it is, indeed, a press.
And, as is the case with almost every press, it attempts to dictate the game in three distinct ways:
1. Increase the number of possessions in a game: in 2014-15, VCU was 61st in the country in possessions per game, Texas was 252nd; in 2013-14 VCU was 24th and Texas was 74th; in 2012-13 VCU was 58th and Texas was 101st; you get the idea.
2. Create turnovers: VCU’s average turnovers created rank over the last four years…third, nationally; Texas…240th.
3. Wear down opponents who aren’t used to the tempo and pressure because of how little they see it: VCU averaged a top 100 ranking in second half points allowed over the last four years despite playing at one of the quickest paces in college basketball.
These are the essential values of a press defense. They also happen to be in rather stark contrast to the defense Texas ran under Barnes (himself a terrific defensive coach) which favored limiting fast break opportunities, defensive rebounding and spatial integrity in the half court.
To pretend that Barnes was a poor defensive coach is foolish, but it’s key to note the significant differences between the two defensive philosophies.
Smart’s defense is predicated on a press system known as the diamond (1-2-1-1). The diamond generally utilizes defensive assignments via the following:
4: the power forward (or biggest wing in some circumstances) is responsible as the initial, inbounds defender. His job is to take away any inbounds passes into the middle of the court by forcing the pass into the low wing where either the 1 or three can initiate the first trap. The 4 man will continuously look to establish the trap until the opposing teams successfully get the ball into their half court offense. You’ll hear Coach Smart refer to this player as the “mad man.”
2 and 3: these guards/wings function in one of two ways depending on where the ball goes. When this defender is ball side, they (along with the mad man) look to establish the initial trap at the low wing. When this defender is weak side, they are the initial side interceptor (looking to create a turnover by jumping the passing lane from the offensive players out of the trap. These two players are equally as important in their role of limiting transition spots by slowing any ball movement should the offense break the initial trap.
The Initial Trap
1: generally the point guard because the point guard’s lack of length isn’t as detrimental as they aren’t responsible for the trap. The 1 will serve as the high interceptor who covers the high wing and the high weak side players. He has to split his assignment because he’s still needed to be available for a high trap if the ball gets beyond the initial trap, but he’s essentially the first line of defense should the opposing player break the trap with the pass or off the bounce.
5: the sweeper or goalie whose job is to clean up any messes that might happen because of a broken trap or busted assignment that turned into a 3-on-2 or 2-on-1. This player has to be a capable rim protector as well as a plus defensive rebounder because opposing quick shots will put them on an island.
When it gets Into the Half Court
The defense is still very aggressive and continues to look to force pressure by jumping passing lanes and creating trap opportunities, especially when the ball/ball handler get pushed out above 23 feet.
On ball: defenders will play tight and look to force action either to the high sideline or low wing looking for traps or to force longer passes that would open up timing for playing passing lanes.
Off ball: if a trap is engaged, the rest of the defenders generally play a flat zone covering the low wings and the key. If a trap is not engaged, the rest of the defenders maintain close contact to their assignments but stay high and open to the ball while looking for steal opportunities.
Ball screens: if initial defender can hold containment (or if the big can successfully hedge), the screener’s defender will look to initiate trap. If containment is lost, the on ball defender will have played above the screen when possible. If the on ball defender had to play under the screen, the chances of a switch are far more likely.
The main negatives, at this point, center around Texas’ personnel, particularly their frontcourt personnel.
How does this offense work with Ridley and Cleare as help defenders at the back of the diamond? How does Lammert work as a mad man? Does Texas have enough ball handling depth to make good on the higher possession numbers they’ll get because of their trapping?
Other issues include:
• Defensive rebounding: more aggressiveness away from the basket raises your vulnerability on the defensive glass
• Foul trouble: a potential big issue when Texas will rely on a guy like Isaiah Taylor or Connor Lammert at their respective positions
• Susceptibility to quality point guard play: this can especially be a problem in the Big 12 where point guards like Monte Morris (ISU), Frank Mason (KU), Jordan Woodard (OU) and Jevon Carter (WVU).
We know that Smart plans to use his 1-2-1-1 defense at a lesser rate than he had been at VCU (for now, at least). So, it’s clear he’ll play to the strengths of his team.
Still, incorporating a pressure defense could be potentially very empowering for this Texas team who has tremendous athletes in players like Taylor, Holland, Roach, Barnett and Ibeh who all could benefit from the quicker tempo and high quality shots that can come from points off of turnovers.
It’s unlikely we’ll see the kind of full game pressure defense we saw from Smart at VCU, but the future is exciting given the brand of basketball Smart and his staff will bring, especially because of how few teams play anything like it, in conference (WVU is the only team who really comes close).
Thanks for reading, friends.