More and more in college basketball, X's are marking the spots.
On coaches' chalkboards all across the country, the offensive
O's--connected by broken lines and curving arrows to create
layups and three-pointers--are being increasingly X-pressed,
X-tended and X-pounded by intricately choreographed defenses of
ferocious aggression. Matchup and combination zones. Full-court
and half-court presses. Trap-and-retreat schemes. Cobras.
Amoebas. Double-downs. "Forty minutes of hell."
While many of these defenses have existed for decades, recent
rule changes and a new enthusiasm for defense among top recruits
have meant that they're now being played with dizzying
intensity. As Texas coach Tom Penders says of his hell-bent,
end-to-end defensive strategy, "We are out to create havoc."
Just look at recent history. Each of the last 10 national
champions has played some sort of pressure defense. And what
about last season's Final Four entries? Coaches Dean Smith of
North Carolina and Eddie Sutton of Oklahoma State have long
espoused pressure man-to-man defenses that call for both
skintight coverage on the ball and predatory anticipation in the
passing lanes. Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson was warned years
ago by then-UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian that he couldn't win a
national title by playing full-court defense the entire
season--his players would simply wear out. But Richardson
instituted a style that combined game-long terror (his so-called
40 minutes of hell) with mind-numbing confusion (his huevos
revueltos, or scrambled eggs, defense), and the Razorbacks came
up 11 points short last season of claiming back-to-back
After years of trotting out All-Americas who treated defense as
a respite between jump shots (Don MacLean, Tracy Murray, et
al.), UCLA's Jim Harrick, coach of the other Final Four team of
'95, finally had troops who were quick enough to swoop in for
double teams and then rotate back to their assigned men. The
Bruins' double-teaming in the low post so troubled Arkansas
center Corliss Williamson during the title game that he clanged
13 of 16 shots. "They weren't sliding to help, they were
sprinting to help," says San Jose State coach Stan Morrison. "On
a lob to Williamson, I saw three UCLA players fight for the
interception, and they wound up knocking it out-of-bounds. They
were quick enough to get there."
October 23, 1995
The 1-2-1-1 zone press was a staple of UCLA's championship teams
in the 1960s and '70s, but it was about as openly hostile as its
creator, the docile coach John Wooden. These days, presses
press. Similarly, matchup zones, in existence since the 1930s,
have now taken on a thoroughly modern relentlessness--witness
the "amoeba defense" of Cincinnati's Bob Huggins (page 114) and
Temple's John Chaney, the junk defenses of Georgetown's John
Thompson, the full-court trapping zone of Maryland's Gary
Williams and the 1-3-1 of New Mexico State's Neil McCarthy. In
these matchup schemes, players guard specific areas of the
floor, as they do in all zones, but as the ball moves, defenders
who are not guarding the ball handler make a variety of "slides"
to plug up holes.
In describing the new pressure defenses, many coaches compare
them to blitzing in football; putting pressure on the ball
handler is like putting pressure on the quarterback. Says
McCarthy, "We put superpressure on the ball--hands up, chest to
chest--and there's built-in, automatic help in our system. We
can trap out of it, but it's up to our guards when to do that,
so it's hard to scout. It's aggressive, almost like a half-court
press." Using the 1-3-1 matchup 75% of the time, McCarthy's
Aggies have averaged 24.7 wins over the last six seasons.
A well-executed pressure defense may not guarantee victory, but
it does help overmatched teams keep pace with superior teams. In
1994-95, Pitt's roster included seven players who were offensive
liabilities. Unfortunately, those seven also happened to be the
Panthers' only healthy bodies. "We couldn't score if we locked
the gym doors," Pitt coach Ralph Willard says. But his team
applied 2-2-1 and 1-3-1 pressure over 70 feet for 40 minutes and
was able to stay close, losing 10 games by five points or fewer.
"There is no question that pressure defense is the only thing
that kept us in games," Willard says. "Plus we were a pain in
the neck because teams had to prepare specially to play us."
And if intensive defensive pressure makes bad teams better, it
also makes good teams great. Each of SI's preseason Top 10
relies on some form of pressure defense, including No. 1 Kansas
(page 54). Why has pressure D become all the rage in recent
years? Why has everyone gotten so X-cited? Here are a few reasons.
The trey. Since 1986, when the three-point shot arrived, the
number of threes hoisted per season has gone up 87.4%. Nowadays,
on each possession several offensive players hover around the
arc, 19'9" from the basket, like paparazzi around O.J.'s
driveway, eagerly waiting to fling one up. To combat this,
pressure defenses harass the mad bombers all game long, making
them so fatigued that they come up short at crunch time. UConn
coach Jim Calhoun insists that a relentless defense can even zap
a marksman's accuracy at the free throw line. "You're running a
100-yard dash and then suddenly having to play six bars on the
piano of some concerto from a great composer," he says. "And
then you have to do the 100-yard dash again. The faster the
100-yard dash, the less chance you are going to have of making
those foul shots."
Coaches are starting to sound like regional sales managers,
exhorting their charges to "close out" the shooter by streaking
out to pester his release. At Kentucky, Rick Pitino's "black and
white" press system is designed to cut off the shooter's passing
lanes, creating turnovers that become instant three-point
opportunities at the other end. "You not only have to defend
against the three," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says, "you
have to somehow use it in your offensive weaponry."
Deadeye shooters such as Dion Cross of Stanford (page 40) and
Chris Kingsbury of Iowa (page 90) have effectively gunned down
that rather passive perennial, the half-court 2-3 zone. The last
team to reach the Final Four while using it extensively was
Syracuse in 1987. Says Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, "The
coat-hanger zone, where guys just stand around with their hands
up, just doesn't work anymore. It hardly ever did, but it's less
effective than ever because of the three-point shot."
Adds Willard, "If you have three guys who can shoot the
basketball, a 2-3 zone is dead. It's not even close."
The 35-second clock. While Calhoun has favored a feeding-frenzy
defense for almost two decades, it wasn't until the advent of
the shot clock in 1986 that he could be sure his team wouldn't
be devoured by its own style. "Before the shot clock I think
everybody who played pressure defense was scared to death of
getting burnt by teams that held the basketball so long you
wouldn't see it again," he says. "If you pressured them and they
got a couple of easy hoops, they put the ball away. Give up a
couple of layups and it becomes even more frustrating. Now, with
the clock, you know the ball will get back in your hands. A
mistake isn't going to kill you."
Indeed, while the three-point shot has made defenses cover more
ground, the shot clock has required that they do it over less
time. Kansas State coach Tom Asbury reckons that no matter what
manner of pressure you apply, you need only do it now in
concentrated bursts to be successful. "The clock improves the
quality of defense because now you have to sustain it for only
20 seconds at a time," Asbury says. "It takes the offense five
seconds to get to midcourt. So if you can sustain your defensive
pressure for 20 seconds, you've got them down to 10 seconds and
they're in a panic mode."
In addition to slowing down O's in the backcourt, coaches have
come up with myriad ways of X-terminating ticks on the clock
with their D's. One method is the double team: When a defense
throws out more doubles than a bartender at happy hour, low-post
players are forced to ponder the defensive realignment; more
often than not, they make extra passes for which there is
precious little time. With schemes calling for defenders to come
from varying spots at varying angles, college defenses are
coming to resemble those in the NBA. "In the pros, you play so
many games and play the same team so many times, you have to
create different ways to stop people," says Long Beach State
coach Seth Greenberg. "The creativity on defense is now in the
NBA, and as a college coach you would be foolish not to use some
Another technique for generating clock-consuming confusion, one
favored by Pitino and Huggins, is to rotate defensive setups
during the 35-second span of a single possession. "You'll see
teams trapping and then rotating out of that into some kind of
man-to-man, then perhaps, as it gets late in the possession,
slipping into some kind of zone," says Bennett.
"There are a lot more gimmick defenses these days--trap the first
pass, run and jump, double up on the ball, et cetera," says
Oklahoma State's Sutton. "Much more than 20 years ago. They
introduce the element of surprise, like a junkball pitcher in
baseball, trying to keep you off-balance. We play pressure 75
percent of the time at least, so we're like a power pitcher who
has a good changeup."
Some of the newer-fangled defenses, like UConn's, are inherently
diverse. Says Calhoun, "We move it up, we play it soft or we
play it hard. We front the ball, we let the ball in. Our 2-2-1
is like five or six defenses. It can be an amoeba or it can be a
cobra, where it attacks you."
No five-second rule. Two years ago, the NCAA abolished the rule
that said the ball handler's failure to advance toward the
basket within five seconds would result in a turnover. (Now a
call is made only if the ball handler holds the ball for five
seconds.) Opinion is divided about whether the absence of that
rule has spawned more attacking defenses. Says Illinois coach
Lou Henson, "The reason people pressure man-to-man is not
because there's no five-second count."
Texas coach Penders disagrees. His Longhorns rely on forcing
turnovers to create scoring opportunities; over the last seven
seasons they have coerced an average of 165 more cough-ups than
they have made. That sort of bedlam can't happen if the opposing
playmaker can dribble indefinitely at the top of the circle
while his team gets set. So Texas is now trap-happy. "Getting
rid of the five-second rule has influenced a lot of teams to
trap the ball to keep it out of the hands of the dominant
players," Penders says.
The Longhorns' trap proved effective in a 90-73 victory over
Oregon in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament.
Texas forced Kenya Williams, the Ducks' best ball handler, to
dish off time and again. Indeed, next to a shooter who can
destroy a defense from the outside, the premium these days is on
a guard who can break down a defense from the inside. "If a kid
can dribble-penetrate," Richardson says, "he's worth his weight
in gold." Richardson should know: Last April, UCLA point guard
Cameron Dollar made a late-night snack of his huevos D in the
NCAA title game.
Recruiting. In most cases an attacking defense speeds up the
pace of a game, which makes for an attractive pitch to
blue-chippers who fancy the open court. "Kids want to play an
up-tempo style," says Willard. "If the perception is you're out
there pressuring people and getting into transition, the really
good kids want to play that way." Adds Morrison, "It's not as
difficult to sell as it used to be. You have good defenses in
the NBA, so a kid will buy in sooner. Michael Jordan has helped;
so has Scottie Pippen."
Some often-overlooked players are also attracted to the pressure
style. Since it depends on quick players who can get to the
ball, pressure defense provides a role for the 6'5" "tweeners,"
who can cause matchup problems at both ends of the floor. "Good
pressure defenses have good athletes who are very
interchangeable," UCLA assistant coach Lorenzo Romar says. "The
game is going to a lot more double-teaming, and when you have
athletes who can cover a lot of ground, you can get away with
Pressure defense also allows a team that can't land a big man--or
whose big man opts to go pro early--to fill the void. "Pressure
defense creates cheap baskets," Richardson says. "The more you
get, the more you can afford not to be a good rebounding team."
And it requires using more substitutes, which means younger
players gain experience more quickly. "A lot of teams do it
nowadays because if kids aren't playing, they're not happy,"
Still, for all the virtues of pressure defense, many teams
choose a more conservative version of it--some because they
don't have the horses to run the high-octane model. "We're of
the old-fashioned mode, I guess, in that we play position
defense," Utah coach Rick Majerus says. "If we had better
athletes, I would extend it; to pressure, you have to be able to
go out in the passing lanes and recover quickly."
Other coaches choose a more conventional defense because they
have the sense not to try to run the pressure version. Says Iowa
coach Tom Davis, an advocate of full-court pressure for most of
his career, "It just doesn't fit every personality. Not every
coach can coach it because it is really an extreme form of
aggression." For the control freak, extreme aggression means
extreme risk, and extreme risk means extreme indigestion. For
that coach, it's too much to bear to require his shooting guard
to suddenly front the opposing power forward because of a
rotation out of the trap or to watch a couple of outlet passes
turn into dunks because of breakdowns in the press.
"We've had coaches come in and say, 'Can I sit down with you?
What's your philosophy?'" Willard says. "And they go back to
their teams and put it in, and the first game they give up four
dunks in the first five minutes, and they never play it again.
I'm serious. College coaches."
But it's safe to say that more and more of those conservative
coaches are going to have to adopt some form of discombobulating
D if they're going to survive. Willard is among the swelling
ranks of pressure proponents, including fellow ex-Pitino
assistants Tubby Smith at Georgia and Billy Donovan at Marshall.
As teams get more practice preparing to face pressure defense,
they become better equipped to install it themselves.
"All we're trying to do is make the [opposing] players make the
decisions," says Richardson. "If they make good decisions, they
can beat you. If they make bad decisions, you're in control. And
a lot of the time they'll make bad decisions because they're
coached to let the coaches make the decisions for them."
So expect more of those coat hangers to stay in the closet, and
look for more of those X's to swarm those O's in bunches and
stick like Velcro. "I like to think the game is a game of ballet
in many ways," Calhoun says. "And since I see it that way, the
best way to play it is fast, and with pressure." And these days,
playing with pressure is the best way to win it all.