Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Ds

There are as many variations to defense as there are coaches coaching. Everyone has their own spin to zone defense, to man defense, to zone defense with man principles, to man defense with zone principles, switching man to man, run and jump, 2-3 zone, 3-2 zone, 1-2-2 zone, 1-3-1 zone, forever and ever it goes on. They all have the same basic emphasis in the end. Stop the opponent from scoring. But there are two fundamental ways of accomplishing this. The first is to contest their shots. The second is to stop them from ever taking a shot. There the emphasis can differ.

Recently, The Only Colors did a piece on “the most important statistic in basketball.”* The argument is for defensive effective field goal percentage. To illustrate the point, TOC examines Michigan State’s six game stretch that began at Minnesota on January 23, and ended in their third straight loss to Purdue on February 9. During that time, the Spartans allowed five of their opponents to shoot over 50%, where they held their first six Big Ten opponents under this mark. According to TOC, that is why State struggled so much during this period.

There is no denying that the defensive effort was lacking from Izzo’s club, but I do have a fundamental philosophical disagreement with TOC: defensive effective field goal percentage is not the most important statistic in basketball. At least it doesn’t have to be. TOC notes that offensive field goal percentage shows you how good a team is at shooting the ball, when they get to shoot it. The inverse is just as true. Defensive effective field goal percentage shows you how good a team is at shooting the ball against you, when they get to shoot it. It doesn’t show how good you are at keeping them from taking shots.

The article readily admits that contesting shots is of critical importance to the Spartan’s D, because they’re not particularly adept at turning their opponent over. As TOC acknowledges, the Spartans stress contesting shots and getting rebounds to eliminate second chances. They have a “war” drill for rebounding. There’s no “war” drill for forcing turnovers. It just isn’t Tom Izzo’s emphasis. When his defense is run effectively and with hustle, it can be amazing. You don’t need to see a better example of it than last year’s run to the national title game. But, when a team is shooting hot, red hot, NBA Jam on fire style, Tom Izzo’s club can be beat even when his defense is firing on all cylinders.

That may seem like a silly statement. Just about any defense can be beat when an opposing offense is shooting lights out. Michigan State, though, is particularly susceptible to it. Exhibits A and B are the losses last year to Northwestern and Penn State. At home. Kevin Coble shot over 60% from the field for Northwestern, on his way to a 31-point performance. The kick is, MSU contested most of his shots. And a good deal of them came from 18 ft. or farther. Kevin Coble was just on and if you allowed him the opportunity to shoot, contested or not, it was going in. Penn State and Talor Battle did the same thing. The whole team shot over 60% in that one, but Battle was 6 for 12 from beyond the 3-point arc. Most of those were NBA 3s and most of them were contested. Even though Penn State lost the match-up this year at home, Battle still put in the same type of performance.

Teams like Northwestern and Penn State shouldn’t be able to beat a team like last year’s MSU squad at home, but they did. When a team shoots over 60%, even when their shots are being contested, the defense fails. It fails because when opponents aren’t missing, MSU can’t rebound and the lynchpin is pulled. Because, even when you are contesting shots, you’re still allowing the opposing team to run its offense. My firm belief is that this is why Wisconsin gives the Spartans fits. State lets Wisconsin run its offense, and Wisconsin is patient enough to do so for 30 seconds until someone falls asleep. Bo Ryan’s squad is perfect at picking their moments.

I’m not suggesting that Izzo, a highly successful coach with 5 Final Fours to his name, needs to change anything about his defense. But, I am suggesting that there are other ways of getting the job done. And those ways decrease the importance of defensive effective field goal percentage. The key is turning your opponent over, which is what Jim Boeheim emphasizes with his 2-3 zone and the proof is in the results. Syracuse steals the ball on almost 15 percent of their opponents' possessions. That’s 5 % higher than the national average and Sparty. It’s also the highest of anyone in the Top 25. That’s 5% fewer possessions that result in shots against Syracuse, just off of steals.*

In the end, 9 times out of 10, if either one of these defenses are run at the height of their capabilities, they’ll be successful. And then these debates about statistics become meaningless. But on that 10th time, when a team just can’t miss, it helps if you can take away a few more of their opportunities.

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