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Smart Texas Basketball Excerpt: Defense

In which we break down the diamond press

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NCAA Basketball: Texas at Washington Danny La-USA TODAY Sports

When Shaka Smart was announced as the next Texas Longhorns head basketball coach, the fanbase had three questions for him:

1. When do we get HAVOC

2. Can you recruit elite talent

3. When do we get HAVOC

Thanks to a VCU copyright claim, the answer to questions one and three are ‘never’. HAVOC stays in the Eastern time zone, but all is not lost. The brightest minds on the planet currently available to write for this ebook have worked diligently to come up with an alternative brand for Longhorns faithful, and we are ready to unveil our work. We present to you the Shaka Havoc Alternative Resistance Theory, or SHART. It’s not a traditional nickname, but the phrase will sneak up on you and squirt out of your mouth before you know what’s happened. Sure, at first it might embarrass you saying it in front of friends, but we promise they’ve done it too.

SHART, just like HAVOC, isn’t really a specific defense as much as a brand, but most people see the name and think ‘full-court press’. Many Texas fans thought the Longhorns would come out of the gate pressing opponents, but with the roster Shaka inherited it wasn’t in the cards. A proper full-court press -- especially the variety Shaka prefers -- requires a roster with versatility and significant athleticism across the guard and wing positions, ideally with depth across the board so the pressure can be kept up at all times. The roster Shaka had his first season wasn’t built for 40 minutes of hell, it was built to funnel opponents into the paint where a Groot-sized big would swat the ball to Zilker Park. Despite these constraints, you could see Shaka attempting to graft his preferred defensive style onto the program early in the non-conference schedule with mixed results. The various presses he deployed worked against inferior opponents, but against teams with equal or greater talent they failed more often than they succeeded. To Shaka’s credit, he recognized the deficiencies fairly early in the season and adjusted his defensive calls to accentuate the talent at hand, resulting in a series of press tactics that were used more as a surprise and/or change of pace rather than the baseline defense. The failure of the press and resulting defensive change is actually a positive in our eyes; recognizing your preferred style isn’t working and modifying your approach to fit the situation wasn’t always a strength of the previous regime. Shaka Smart and his staff are flexible and ready to adapt based on early returns, which is a rarer skillset in D-1 coaching than you would expect (*cough ScottDrew’s1-3-1zonedefense cough*).

There was one press that Texas continued to deploy throughout the season, a press that played to the strengths of the roster and provided better returns than the others: the diamond press. Let’s delve into the diamond press, or as we like to call it: The Press That Once Was Nothing But Coal. Worth mentioning: we failed Advertising 303.

Diamond Press

The diamond press is a zone press. (You might have heard of it by its other name, the 1-2-1-1 press.) The zone press means instead of defending a man, the defenders are defending and collapsing specific areas of the court to create favorable outcomes.

Figure 7.1. The Diamond Press

Figure 7.1. The Diamond Press

As with any press, the key to getting this press going is to get set before the offense inbounds the ball. A press that starts after the ball is in play is a broken press and a clear path to the basket, which last we checked was a sub-optimal outcome. The most important player in the initial defense is the player defending the inbounds pass. In Shaka’s terms, this is the “madman”, and is generally considered to be one of the best combinations of size and athleticism on the team. More often than not, this ends up being a wing player; in 2015 Connor Lammert usually played the madman position. The goal of the madman is to deny a pass to the middle of the floor, if he allows a pass under the basket then the diamond press is operating at a disadvantage from the start. The two players behind him -- in this figure they’re labeled Red 1 and Red 3, though it can be any reasonably athletic guard -- are sitting near the top of the key, waiting to see where the ball enters the court. These two players are watching to see if the ball is inbounded to their side of the court; if the ball is inbounded to their side of the court, they immediately push up to stop the ball-handler from advancing the ball and (ideally) get the ball-handler to pick up their dribble. At the same time, the madman’s job is to sprint towards the ball-handler and close off the path to the center of the court.

Figure 7.2. The Initial Trap

Figure 7.2. The Initial Trap

What you see in Figure 7.2 is the best-case scenario for the inbounds pass; the guard is trapped in a coffin corner with two active defenders in his face. The defending guard (Red 1 in Figure 7.2) is blocking the ball-handler from advancing down the sideline and the madman (Red 4) is blocking him from reversing course to the center of the court. Both defenders have their hands up, attempting to block any overhead passes out of the trap. Meanwhile, the two second-level defenders (Red 2 and 3) are sprinting into positions that can potentially intercept longer passes out of the trap that a harried, trapped guard might fire off in a moment of distress. The last line of defense (Red 5) is playing deeper than the deepest offensive player, and is the safety net if the press is broken. This is usually a post player; last year Shaq Cleare, Prince Ibeh, and (when healthy) Cameron Ridley played this role.

There are a handful of possible outcomes from this trap. If the ball-handler is able to reverse the ball to either the inbounder (Blue 5) or the other guard (Blue 2), then the defense resets to its initial formation and starts the process of forcing the ball to the outside again. The trap only comes if a player has the ball on either sideline. If the inbounds player has the ball then the madman plays him straight up until he either crosses the half-court line, or until he passes the ball to a guard in which case the madman sprints over to try to trap the ball-handler again. If you hadn’t noticed, in this system the madman burns more calories than the guitarist from ‘Fury Road’.

Figure 7.3. The Sideline Is Your Friend

Figure 7.3. The Sideline Is Your Friend

If the ball-handler manages to get the pass down the sideline to the waiting wing (Blue 4), it’s the job of the closest wing (Red 3) to cut off his path down the court by whatever means necessary. Take a charge, sing him a song, invite him to a dance-off for an Infinity Stone, whatever it takes to slow him down and allow the closest guard (Red 1) to catch up and cut off his access to the center of the court. It’s the same concept as the initial trap, just further down the court. Ideally it happens just over the half-court line, making the backcourt an invisible third defender. It also provides the rest of the defense some invaluable time to recover to their new defensive positions.

The one player the defense must deny the pass to at all costs is the guard/wing on the other sideline (Blue 3). If he has the ball, then the press is broken and all defenders are in what Shaka calls a ‘fix it’ situation. In a ‘fix it’ situation, who the defenders are guarding is less important than that they’re guarding someone. The defenders need to sprint back to their half of the court, pick a man, and guard him. Once they’re set in the halfcourt they can switch to more natural defensive positions as gameplay allows, but until that point the last thing the defense needs is a free man slashing to the basket or leaking out for an open corner three. If you hear Shaka or his players yelling ‘fix it’ as they haul ass down the court, the press is likely broken.

The diamond press played to the strengths of last year’s squad, or rather it downplayed the weaknesses of a team that was bigger than it was fast. With the massive roster turnover from last season to this season, the tactics will change to fit the talent Shaka has assembled. Shaka went from trying to fix a mostly-finished sculpture with a butter knife to getting a fresh block of clay and a gift card to Hobby Lobby. This year, it seems likely Texas fans will see a lot more of the HAV-I mean SHART they were expecting a year prior. Enter, the Double Fist.

Want to read a breakdown of the Double Fist Press and how this squad fits into Shaka’s preferred defense? Smart Texas Basketball 2016 will be released on 10/24 and is available for preorder on iTunes and Amazon today for $4.99. Tell your friends. Or strangers, strangers are just as good.