'The Defensive Dilemma' Part 2: To Press or Not To Press

- Matt Cox

Nolan Richardson's '40 Minutes of Hell' ... Kevin Mackey's 'Run and Stun' ... Shaka Smart's 'Havoc'...

College hoop diehards recognize these as some of the renowned full-court press 'brand names' who rose to fame by routinely inflicting terror on opposing ball handlers.  In part 2 of 'The Defensive Dilemma' series (read part 1 here), we take a closer look at two schools whose full-court press defenses have now become THE premier pressing institutions in college basketball - West Virginia and Louisville.  And while these two big dawgs are universally regarded as 'the best of the press', the masses may not be aware of a few other programs who are also developing their own defensive identities as full-court pressing specialists...

Using a 'top-secret' database we here at 3MW are blessed to have access to, I compiled a spreadsheet that tracks the defensive tendencies of all 351 teams over the past four years, which includes the first 11-14 games of this season.  This data 'gold mine' was used to answer two questions that are core to every team's defensive blueprint:

  1. How often do you play man-to-man vs. zone?  [focus of part 1 - read here]
  2. How often do you full-court press vs. pick up behind half-court?  [focus of part 2 - this article]

Before getting too deep into this analysis, let's provide some context for how often the Division 1 landscape chooses to press in general.  I included a distribution of all 351 teams by quartiles, for those of you stat nerds out there that wanted to see how the data skews:

Figure 1

The way to interpret this chart is as follows: out of every single possession that's occurred in every game this year, approximately 8%** of them have featured an offense trying to score against a pressing defense. A more meaningful interpretation may actually come from looking at the quartile figures, which for 2016-17 implies that half the teams in all of Division 1 basketball have full-court pressed 6% of the time or less (2nd quartile - the median) and 75% of all teams have full-court pressed 11% of the time or less (3rd quartile).   The takeaway here is that most teams in college basketball choose to apply full-court pressure sparingly, if at all.  In fact, only 9 out of 351 teams so far this year have pressed on more than 30% of their defensive possessions - and only one team has pressed over 40% of the time (West Virginia).  

** this number is a little skewed because it is not adjusted for tempo by team, but is likely very close to the real figure.

Now let's look at which programs have consistently pressed the most over the past 3 seasons, including this year.  

Figure 2

You'll notice both West Virginia and Louisville consistently press more than almost every other team in the country, particularly the 'Neers, who have pressed on a whopping 46% of their defensive possessions so far this season.  However, as the Citadel has so glaringly shown us, the frequency of pressing doesn't magically translate into an effective defense.  In fact, 'the Military College of South Carolina' is currently rocking the second-worst defense in the entire country on an points per possession basis, per kenpom.com.  This is why it's important to dissect just how efficient both West Virginia and Louisville are when they choose to dial up their full-court pressure. 

Spoiler alert: They're both really, really good...

Louisville vs. West Virginia

It should be no surprise that both Louisville and West Virginia's full-court pressing schemes rank among the nation's best so far this year, in terms of points allowed per possession and turnovers forced per game.  Honing in on all teams that have pressed on at least 15% of all defensive possessions (which is equivalent to ~50 teams), the Mountaineers and the Cardinals rank #1 and #2 respectively in points allowed per possession and both rank in the top-10 in % of possessions that result in a turnover (shown below are the top-25 schools for both categories):

Figure 3

Please take a second to digest just how scary "Press Virginia" has been so far this year.  Essentially, when the Mountaineers decide to ramp up their full-court pressure, they force a turnover 44% of the time - that's almost every other possession!  Currently, West Virginia is forcing a turnover on 35% of all their defensive possessions, including both press and non-press situations, which is head and shoulders above anyone else in the country (Fordham is 2nd at 30%).   In fact, over the past 15 seasons, only one team has posted a defensive turnover rate higher than 30% for the entire year  (Alabama A&M in 2002).  It should be noted that the Mountaineers astronomical 35% defensive turnover rate so far this season has come against one of the worst non-conference schedules in the nation (non-con SOS is ranked 343rd per kenpom.com), so a regression is almost certainly in the cards, especially once Big 12 play rolls around.  However, even in the few instances when they have been tested, West Va proved their press can still rattle the backcourts of upper-tier competition - just ask Virginia and Illinois, who coughed up the ball 14 and 24 times respectively, both of which coming in losing efforts.

While Louisville's 27% defensive turnover rate on pressing possessions feels light years away from West Virginia's current clip of 44%, you could actually argue the Cardinals' pressure has been just as effective so far this year.  They are currently limiting opponents to ridiculous .474 points per possession on all full-court pressing situations this year, a major reason the 'Ville currently holds claim to the most efficient overall defense in the country, per kenpom.com.  What makes Pitino's press so effective is how disciplined they are at limiting easy transition opportunities via long passes over the top of the press, which has been one minor deficiency of West Virginia's pressure over the past few seasons.  Louisville is currently allowing transition FG attempts on 22% of all their defensive possessions so far this year, which ranks inside the nation's top-100 (per hoopmath.com) - an impressive stat for a team that extends pressure so frequently.  For context, the Mountaineers are surrendering transition FGs on 28% of their pressing possessions and have ranked in the bottom-100 nationally in each of the past three seasons.  

The bottom-line is that while each scheme emphasizes slightly different principles, both are undeniably elite by almost every statistical measure.  Both Huggins and Pitino do an excellent job of adjusting their full-court defensive designs so opposing ball handlers can't get comfortable breaking the same type of pressure.  Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports recently wrote at length about the genesis of 'Press Virginia' and how detail-oriented Huggins and his coaching staff are in tracking how and where each turnover occurred.  This allows them to make in-game adjustments to their overall pressing structure, specifically where to set their primary trapping locations.  For example, sometimes Huggins will put Nathan Adrian on the inbounder and have him immediately double the initial inbound pass.  Other times, Huggins may leave the inbounder unguarded and have Adrien double a specific guard to force the initial pass to go to an inferior ball handler.  Huggins will even mix in some straight man-to-man pressure as a changeup to their typical 1-2-1-1 zone pressure.

While Huggins is actually somewhat new to the pressing lifestyle, Pitino has lived and breathed the fundamentals of full-court pressing for decades now and continues to evolve his defensive schemes to match the strengths of his personnel. Pitino will also show a similar straight-up, full-court man-to-man look, which allows his uber-athletic guards to pick up inferior ball handlers 94 feet away from the basket and disrupt the flow of initiating the offense.  From this base full-court man structure, he'll add in some sporadic traps, which usually brings a 2nd defender off his man to double the dribbler when he picks up a full head of steam close to mid-court.  And even though the Cardinals' pressure isn't considered to be as "balls-to-the-wall" as 'Press Virginia', Pitino is fully comfortable mixing in a more intense 2-2-1 or  1-2-1-1 full-court zone press to try and force some quick turnovers. 

Now let's take a gander at some other lesser known squads who have had some early success this season with some full-court pressure of their own...

The Best [Presses] of the Rest...

Massachusetts - Take another look at Figure 3 above - you'll notice the Minutemen are one of four teams that rank in the top-10 in both their pressing defensive efficiency (6th) and defensive turnover rate (3rd).  Since taking over for Travis Ford back in 2009, head coach Derek Kellogg has tried to establish a pressing identity of his own in Amherst, but has been somewhat ineffective over the years at generating turnovers at a consistently high rate.  However, thanks to an influx of new faces, UMass currently holds claim to the country's 12th best steal rate, much of which is due to his new freshman thief, Luwane Pipkins, whose 6% individual steal rate ranks 5th in the entire nation.  Pipkins, along with sophomore Rashaan Holloway and freshman Dejon Jarreau, have helped launch the Minutemen into a top-60 defensive unit en route to a solid 9-3 start to the season.  

UNC Greensboro - If you look closely at the bottom of Figure 1 above, you'll see a big red block that jumps out at your face in far left column for 2016-17.  That's because until this year, Wes Miller and the Spartans rarely, if ever, showed extended full-court pressure.  Now 13 games in to Wes Miller's 5th season at the helm, only West Virginia's full-court pressure has forced more turnovers on a per possession basis.  In fact, the Spartans 22nd nationally ranked defensive TO rate is far and away the best Miller has posted since arriving in Greensboro.  The Spartans' effective full-court disruption has translated into a dramatic improvement in their overall defensive efficiency, a figure that ranked in the nation's bottom-100 in 5 of the past 6 seasons.

Arkansas - Unlike the aforementioned UMass and UNCG, Arkansas' full-court press is a more prominent staple of the Razorback's basketball tradition.  While a lot of this perception hails from the early 90s with the '40 Minutes of Hell' under Nolan Richardson, his assistant and now current head coach Mike Anderson, has continued to embed this frantic style of ball into the culture of Arkansas hoops.   Since Anderson arrived in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks have consistently generated steals at an exceptionally high clip, much of which are induced from their full-court pressure. In fact, Andersons' teams have failed to crack the top-50 in steal rate only one time in the past 6 years (see below):

So far this season, the Razorbacks top-25 nationally ranked steal rate is in large part because of two incoming JUCO standouts - Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford.  Both newcomers, along with senior Manuale Watkins, are each posting steal rates above 3% in 20+ minutes a game.