The N.C. State Wolfpack have defensive problems. That’s no secret. There’s been no shortage of discussion about it among State fans. Often, though, our discussions of defensive problems are abstract and vague, commonly resorting to the old “they just don’t want it enough” line of critique. That’s natural, it’s far easier to see what players are good at and bad at offensively, and we’ve got more numbers to describe what’s happening at that end. Defense is hard, it’s a complex system, and giving up a wide open layup might be the result of a bunch of smaller errors. My intent in this post is to give a little clarity to exactly what our defensive failings are as a basketball team.
First of all, what are we bad at in a big picture sense? In his seminal book “Basketball on Paper”, statistician Dean Oliver describes the “Four Factors” that characterize offense and defense (listed in decreasing order of significance): 1) Shooting percentage (represented by eFG%), 2) Getting offensive rebounds (OReb%), 3) Committing turnovers (TOV%) 4) Getting to the free throw line (FTA/FGA). If you’re good at all those things (high percentage of 1,2,4 and low percentage of 3), you’ll have a really good offense. If you’re good at keeping your opponent from those things, you’ll be good at defense. It’s a really simple high level view of what your team is good at. So, what is NC State good at and bad at on defense? The following graphic shows our overall defensive rating (that’s AdjD), along with the defensive 4 factors, from each year under Mark Gottfried, as well as the numbers for Gottfried’s Alabama teams (via KenPom.com). The colored numbers are the actual percentages, the smaller numbers underneath are national rankings.
There’s some variation there, and you can see how ugly things have been so far this year, but the main causes of concern are those middle two columns. We are bad at protecting the glass on defense, and we are very, very bad at forcing turnovers. What’s more, this is not just an N.C. State thing. It seems to be systemic to Gottfried’s defensive approach, and that’s a problem. It doesn’t matter how good you are at making your opponents miss shots (and we have ranged from good to terrible) if you keep giving them extra possessions.
Well that’s the big picture, but what are the problems on the floor that lead to those bad numbers? That’s what we’re going to take a look at in the rest of this post. I’m going to illustrate these using video examples from the Illinois game. Now, this is one game of tape, so it’s possible that a player will look better or worse than average in these examples, but I’m less interested in individual players than I am in the systematic approach we’re taking at the defensive end. The examples I’m using aren’t just because I found a particular problem in this one game, but because they’re things I’ve taken note of in game after game over the years. So, to the tape!
Quick, when was the last time you saw N.C. State steal an entry pass to a big man? Better yet, when was the last game we consistently sent double teams at opposing big men? One of the things that immediately jumps out from the Illinois game is how easy the post entry passes were, and how little pressure we put on those big men once they got the ball.
Did you see how easy it was for Illinois to get the ball to their bigs in pretty good position every time? Even when they miss the shot, they’re getting quality looks at the rim, and there is very little risk of a turnover. There are no annoying guards pinching down on them to swat at the ball when they dribble. There are no cross-lane doubles to force the big man into a tough pass. There is nothing to throw them out of a rhythm or prevent them from just slowly backing their way to the rim. I purposefully picked plays where the Illinois big men weren’t doing a lot to get open. They weren’t making really hard cuts or running screening actions, they just kind of walked down to the block and turned around. In none of these instances would it have been difficult for our post players to fight them for position and try to deny the entry pass. Heck, a few of these passes are vertical passes from the elbow, rather than diagonal passes from the wings. You’re taught not to throw those straight-line passes because they’re too easy to intercept (much like cross-court passes), only we seem to have no interest in intercepting them. Now, I understand that Beejay Anya is a good post defender. Maybe the plan is to let them make that pass and try to score on him. If so, it’s a bad plan. First, making him defend on an island exposes him to fouls far more than if he were trying to deny the initial pass (as seen in how he gets caught reaching multiple times). Second, even if that’s the case with Anya, it sure isn’t the case with Abu, who is not a good post defender. Third, it provides easy escape valves for the offense, who can always make an easy pass to the post instead of a difficult pass somewhere else (more on this in a second). In this game, all of this resulted in Illinois going 6 for 8 on these easy post ups, with 2 fouls on Beejay to boot. That’s a really bad result.
So, what should our post defense look like? Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Ted Kapita, who gets a gold star for this game:
Now, look particularly at this first play. It ends with Markell Johnson getting a steal, but he gets that steal because Kapita fronting the post takes away the first option on the play. With that pass shut down #1 on Illinois is forced to pass back out to the top, where Johnson is waiting to pounce. This is what I was referring to above. It’s really hard to pressure opponents when you always give them an easy safety valve. Here, with the post closed down, Illinois had to make a riskier pass, resulting in a turnover. We see that two other times in the video, this nearly leads to a steal. Now, the wings miss the steal in both those cases, but what it does is makes the offense scramble. We’ve taken them out of their comfort zone and they have to make several correct decisions to take advantage of it. It puts pressure on them, which is something we rarely do on defense.
So, what improvements can we make here? The simplest thing we can say is that we should be contesting entry passes. This doesn’t mean fully fronting opposing bigs every time, but it does mean fighting for position, playing on the high side of them, and getting a hand in the way to keep those passes from being easy. Make the opposing team work if they want to enter the ball in the post. All of our big men are capable of doing this, they have the length and athleticism to contest those passes. Moreover, an added benefit of this is that you’re encouraging active defense rather than passive defense. When you play this kind of defense, it keeps you mentally sharp. You have to fight your man for position, you have to know where the ball is. It makes you less likely to make the brain fart breakdowns that yield wide-open shots. Secondly, our guards and wings should be more active once the ball goes into the post. There are two reasons why you send help at post players. The first reason is because they’re a really good scorer and you have to double them or they’ll eat you alive. This is what most people think of when they think of doubling the post. The other reason you do so, though, is because most big men aren’t good passers. College big men in particular are usually pretty bad at reading those double teams and making the right plays. So you might send help at a guy who isn’t really a threat to score because you’re trying to create a turnover. Right now, big men are too comfortable against us. Watch that first video again and make note of how many times they get to dribble 2 or 3 times with no one even remotely close to them. If a wing even takes a hard step towards them, you probably get them to pick up that dribble. We have to be more creative in our post defense schemes.
Baseline Out of Bounds
Honestly, I don’t have much to say here. The tape pretty much speaks for itself.
Why? Why is this our scheme? It’s so utterly inexplicable. So, what we have here appears to be something halfway between a man defense and a 2-3 zone. A lot of teams will go 2-3 on baseline OOB because it gives you good rim protection and is less vulnerable to screening action. We have a big man (Abu/Kapita) guarding the inbounds pass and a guard/wing (Dorn/Johnson) sitting in the lane to block off any easy passes for layups. Everyone else is playing man…kind of. It’s genuinely difficult to figure out what everyone is doing. The big problem is this though: we’re not in a pure zone, and there’s a big man guarding the inbounds pass regardless of if it’s his man inbounding the ball (most of the time it won’t be). So here’s what that leads to. In the first play, Abu is guarding the pass, but #43 is the man Abu will be guarding once the ball is inbounded. #43 cuts to the corner and he’s wide open. We’re not in a zone, so there’s no one dedicated to watching that corner, and Abu is on the pass, so he’s not covering it. Even though it’s a relatively short distance to cover, there’s no way Abu is going to get a good contest on that shot, and he shouldn’t have to. It’s a schematic breakdown, and it didn’t require anything more complicated than having one guy run to the corner. On the second play, the pass comes in and Kapita immediately turns to find his man. This is exactly what he should do. Now Smith, Johnson or Henderson should be running over to guard the passer as he steps inbounds. Neither of them do so, but it also doesn’t really matter, it happens too quickly. All he has to do is step inbounds and receive the pass and he’s wide open. That’s going to happen every time. I just can’t explain why this is the game plan. There are two things you cannot concede on a baseline OOB play, layups and corner threes. We played these two plays in a way designed to give up corner threes. It is mind-boggling.
Now, maybe this is supposed to be a zone and the players executed poorly. Maybe it’s a fault of execution and not strategy (I’m skeptical of that, but it’s possible). It doesn’t really matter. This was the 7th game of the season, you should have your baseline out of bounds defense set in stone by game 1. Two massive mistakes like these are errors of preparation, pure and simple.
That’s all for now, I’m still working on typing out the rest of it. There’ll be 3-4 more sections over the next day or two on off-ball complacency, awareness, boxing out, and pick&roll defense. So, to be continued…