“Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”
Whether or not you agree with the statement made by the late Paul “Bear” Bryant, there’s no denying the importance of defense when it comes to winning games. Teams can score as much as they want, but if they can’t get stops on the other end they’ll be in trouble. Ahead of the start of the 2015-16 season, we’ve put together our picks for the best defensive players in the country. Some will be shot blockers and others masters of the steal, and there will be a couple strong positional defenders as well.
Who’d we miss? Who should they replace? Feel free to leave your answers below.
G Kris Dunn, Providence
As a redshirt sophomore the 6-foot-4 Dunn averaged 2.7 steals per game, with his length and athleticism allowing the national Player of the Year candidate to make life difficult for opposing point guards. He can be a bit of a gambler at times, but overall he’s a very difficult matchup at a position where many point guards hover around the 6-foot mark.
G Ron Baker, Wichita State
If you don’t know Baker’s résumé by now, that’s on you. Baker is one of the nation’s top on-ball defenders, keeping his man out of the paint while also challenging scoring opportunities on the perimeter. As a junior Baker led the Shockers in both defensive rebounds (157) and blocked shots (27).
G Gary Payton II, Oregon State
Payton’s selection as Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year was a controversial one, with many believing that Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should have been the choice. But neither that nor the fact that Oregon State relied on a matchup zone to mask its lack of depth should not overshadow the impact “The Mitten” had defensively as he led the Beavers in steals (95) and was second in blocks (39).
F Hassan Martin, Rhode Island
The 6-foot-7 Martin became just the second player in URI history to record 100 blocks or more in a season, tallying 103 (3.1 bpg). The Staten Island native is also a good rebounder (7.7 rpg), and his length and athleticism allow Martin to play “bigger” than his height in the paint.
C Amida Brimah, Connecticut
The 7-footer from Ghana led the nation in blocked shots a season ago, recording 121 which was good for an average of 3.46 rejections per game (second nationally). Having a rim protector the caliber of Brimah helps teams be more active on the perimeter, as they have a big man capable of cleaning up mistakes.
SECOND TEAM ALL-DEFENSE
G Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
The 5-foot-9 Ulis is an absolute pest defensively, thanks to a combination of effort and quickness. Ulis played in a reserve role last season, which somewhat explains the average of just one steal per game. But defending isn’t all about impressive stats, and with Kentucky’s shot blockers Ulis can afford to be aggressive in defending the ball. We’re betting that his reputation grows in this area in 2015-16.
G Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
Virginia’s pack line defense doesn’t lend itself to eye-popping individual stats. But that shouldn’t be used as a reason to overlook what the fifth-year senior does on the defensive end of the floor. One of the top players in the country, the 6-foot-5 Brogdon was also named to the ACC’s All-Defensive Team in 2014-15.
G Rapheal Davis, Purdue
Last season the Boilermakers’ team leader was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, winning the honor despite finishing the year with eight blocks and 28 steals. He isn’t going to dominate those statistical areas, but that doesn’t mask his ability to make life difficult for whoever head coach Matt Painter asks him to guard (usually the opponent’s best perimeter player).
F Skylar Spencer, San Diego State
Spencer is the rim protector on one of the nation’s best defenses, averaging 2.5 blocks per game as a junior. The 6-foot-10 Spencer finished the year with an individual block percentage of 12.7 per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, a figure that ranked seventh nationally. Teams don’t get many chances to penetrate the SDSU defense, and once in the paint Spencer serves as quite the deterrent.
C Vashil Fernandez, Valparaiso
Fernandez receiving his fourth year of eligibility was a big boost to a program expected to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. Last season the 6-foot-10 center earned Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year honors, as he ranked 11th in the country with an average of 2.9 blocks per game and sixth in block percentage (13.0).
Also considered: Anthony Gill (Virginia), A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Brice Johnson (North Carolina), Jameel McKay (Iowa State), A.J. West (Nevada)
Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.
Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.
2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.
3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.
4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.
5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.
6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.
7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.
8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.
9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).
10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.
Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine
The 6-foot-6 small forward does a little bit of everything for the Hawks. His numbers last season: 17.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.6 apg and 1.9 spg. There’s a reason that the junior’s been climbing up NBA Draft boards despite the fact that he plays for a St. Joseph’s team that is fairly far removed from the Atlantic 10 title race. Oh, and he may have the best hair in college hoops.
As a sophomore at Georgia Tech, Carter averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 boards. But that was nearly two years — and 25 pounds — ago, and that was also on a bad Georgia Tech team. Carter is now on a very good Maryland team, and he’s going to play a critical role for a group that has a shot at winning a national title. You wouldn’t know that based on the preseason hype, however. Melo Trimble, Jake Layman and Diamond Stone are the three guys with NBA Draft hype entering the season, and the circumstances surrounding Rasheed Sulaimon’s transfer to the Terps make him the more interesting discussion point. But if you talk to people around the Maryland program, Carter may end up being the Terps’ best player.
Kyle Collinsworth, BYU
Collinsworth set a single-season record and tied the NCAA’s career record for triple-doubles last season for the Cougars, finishing with six. He played 33 games, meaning that once every 5.5 games, Collinsworth posted a triple-double. If Collinsworth suited up, there was an 18.2 percent chance that he’d post a triple-double. Think about that for a second. For comparison’s sake, in Kentucky’s illustrious basketball history, they’ve had one triple-double.
Collinsworth had six last season.
Jack Gibbs, Davidson
Bob McKillop had his best post-Steph team at Davidson this past season, and the engine of that group was the 6-foot Gibbs. Just a sophomore last season, Gibbs averaged 16.2 points, 4.8 assists and 3.7 boards with shooting splits of 47.9/42.5/85.6. He’s not Steph Curry — no one is, or ever will be — but he led the Wildcats from being predicted to finish at the bottom of the league to an A-10 title.
When you think of recent UConn teams, you think of dynamic, personality-laden lead guards. Kemba Walker won a national title and turned the reins over to Shabazz Napier, who, three years later, won a title of his own. Last year, this was Ryan Boatright’s team and this season, Kevin Ollie’s back court includes senior Sterling Gibbs and freshman Jalen Adams. But this season, the best Husky might end up being Hamilton, a 6-foot-7 wins that averaging 10.9 points, 7.6 boards and 3.7 assists as a freshman. Here’s the thing about Hamilton: He entered UConn with the reputation for being a gunner, a player that bordered on selfish who looked for his shot first, second and third. He finished his freshman season leading the team in rebounding — he led the AAC in rebounding during league play, averaging 9.1 boards — and second in assists. He could very well end up being the AAC Player of the Year this season.
Danuel House, Texas A&M
House was one of the biggest surprises in college basketball last season mainly because he was declared immediately eligible for the Aggies three games into the season. Seriously. Billy Kennedy’s club struggled through their first two games at a tournament in Puerto Rico the week before Thanksgiving and won the third game of the event when House played and scored 18 points in 29 minutes. On the season, he averaged 14.8 points, as the former five-star recruit helped lead the Aggies to within a win or two of the NCAA tournament. His return, along with the addition of a talented recruiting class, is a major reason pundits believe A&M can finish second in the SEC.
Hassan Martin, Rhode Island
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better defensive player in college basketball than Martin, a 6-foot-7, 230 pound forward that finished his sophomore season averaging 3.1 blocks. Danny Hurley has stockpiled quite a bit of talent on URI’s roster, with guys like E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell and Kuran Iverson in the fray, but Martin’s ability to anchor the defense is just as important as any of those three players.
Sheldon McClellan, Miami
McClellan’s career has been played in relative anonymity. He played two years at Texas, transferring after the disappointing 2012-13 season in which the Longhorns lost in the first round of the CBI to Houston. He left for Miami with little fanfare, a part of the exodus that most believed to be addition by subtraction. After sitting out a season in Coral Gables, McClellan put together a terrific year that was hardly noticed. Miami won 25 games, but went to the NIT. Their two bigs wins, at Florida and at Duke, came when the maddeningly inconsistent Angel Rodriguez went bananas. Quietly, McClellan averaged 14.5 points with shooting splits of 48.4/35.8/82.4.
The son of … well, you know, “The Mitten” is arguably the best perimeter defender in college basketball this season. That shouldn’t be at all surprising. He’s also a 6-foot-3 senior that averaged 13.4 points, 7.5 boards and 3.2 assists to go along with those 3.1 steals. Junior’s jumper left much to be desired a season ago, as he shot at just 29.3 percent clip from beyond the arc, but he’s still the biggest reason why an Oregon State tournament appearance isn’t completely out of the question this year.
Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa
Coming out of high school, Uthoff was a top 150 recruit that eventually wound up at Wisconsin, redshirting his freshman season with the Badgers. He left the program in somewhat controversial fashion, as Bo Ryan restricted him from transferring to more than 25 schools. He’d end up sitting out another season as a result, meaning that when he finally did suit up for the Hawkeyes in 2013-14, it had been more than two years since he played a meaningful game. This past season, Uthoff played well as Iowa’s second option, averaging 12.4 points and 6.4 boards, but with Aaron White gone, he’s going to be asked to carry much more of the load this year. He’s good enough to do that, meaning he’s a sleeper to be a first-team all-Big Ten player this year.
Taurean Waller-Prince, Baylor
Waller-Prince came off the bench for the Bears last season and ended up as the program’s leading scorer, averaging 13.9 points and 5.6 boards in just 26 minutes while shooting 39.5 percent from three. Prince’s versatility is what makes him so valuable. He’s strong to play the four if needed, but he can also defend on the perimeter, giving Baylor one of the nation’s most physically imposing front lines.
James Webb III, Boise State
I’ve written plenty about Webb this preseason, and it’s because I think he’s going to have a terrific season for the Broncos. The 6-foot-8 redshirt junior was very impressive at the Nike Skills Academy this summer. He’s long and athletic with range out to the three-point line — he should 40.9 percent out there last season — and will play a critical role for the Broncos this season as they try to find a way to overcome the graduation of Derrick Marks.
TEN NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Here are the ten best freshmen in the sport.
1. Ben Simmons, LSU: A native of Australia, Simmons has been getting huge national buzz already as a potential Player of the Year candidate this preseason. As one of college basketball’s most versatile players this season, Simmons has a chance to put up regular triple-doubles while leading LSU to a bunch of wins. The 6-foot-10 Simmons can rebound, handle the ball in the open floor and pass with elite vision. If there’s any part of his game that remains a question mark, it’s his perimeter jumper — which has always been workable but inconsistent.
2. Skal Labissiere, Kentucky: Perhaps the most talented freshman of this class, the 6-foot-11 Labissiere has a ton of upside and could dominate stretches on both ends of the floor this season. A native of Haiti, Labissiere can defend the rim and rebound and he’s also a dynamic offensive threat who can score from a number of positions on the floor. When Kentucky’s guards run high ball screens with Labissiere this season, he should have the ability to score rolling to the basket or finding space for his jumper. Handling the strength of older and more experienced opposing big men might be Labissiere’s biggest obstacle this season.
3. Jamal Murray, Kentucky: If Labissiere is Kentucky’s most talented freshman, then Murray could be the most productive this season. The Canadian guard looked like a potential superstar during portions of this summer in the Pan-Am Games, especially when he went for 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime alone against the United States. At 6-foot-5, Murray has great size for a lead guard and his pull-up jumper is deadly. His vision is also solid and he spend the summer playing with and against professionals and top college players in high-stakes international settings. If Murray finds good balance within Kentucky’s deep perimeter attack, he could have a huge year.
4. Brandon Ingram, Duke: Duke was able to keep Ingram from leaving the state of North Carolina and they’re hoping the Kinston native can be their next superstar wing forward. Ingram won’t be nearly as physically developed as players like Jabari Parker and Justise Winslow as freshmen, but he’s got an offensive arsenal that more than makes up for it. At 6-foot-9, Ingram can spray jumpers from nearly anywhere on the floor and he has the mentality of a cold-blooded scorer. With an advanced pull-up game and improving toughness going to the rim, Ingram became a three-level scorer later in his high school career. If his frail body can handle the day-to-day rigors of college basketball, Ingram will have a big year.
5. Jaylen Brown, Cal: It was a surprising commitment when the 6-foot-6 Brown decided to leave Georgia and head out west, but the Golden Bears are happy to put him on the floor immediately. A big and physical wing who can attack the basket or the glass, Brown improved his perimeter jumper and handle as high school went along. A gifted scorer, Brown is a load to handle in the open floor with a full head of steam and he’s the type of player who could have some poster dunks this season thanks to his brute strength at the rim. If the perimeter jumper is consistently going down, Brown is going to be a force.
6. Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Underrated nationally coming into the season after missing the senior all-star games with injury, Ellenson is a new-breed big man who has open-floor skill and an ability to space the floor. The Wisconsin native stayed home to play with his brother Wally at Marquette and now the Golden Eagles have a 6-foot-10 freshman who can handle like a guard and hit 3-pointers to stretch the floor. With Ellenson teaming with junior big man Luke Fischer, Marquette instantly has one of the most intriguing front courts in America entering the season and Ellenson’s skill level makes him a tough cover.
7. Cheick Diallo, Kansas: If the NCAA deems him eligible, Kansas will get a gigantic lift from the high-motor big man. A star during the senior all-star circuit this spring, Diallo rebounds and defends the rim with the best of them and he’s also improving as an offensive player. At his best in transition, the 6-foot-9 Diallo runs the floor like a guard and has the length around the rim to erase shots that many others couldn’t get to. Diallo’s warrior-like mentality should help raise the level of play for the Jayhawks when he’s on the floor. The question is: when will that be?
8. Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Ben Howland is going to put the ball in Newman’s hands right away and the pressure will be on the in-state guard to immediately produce. A natural scorer with deep range on his pull-up jumper, the 6-foot-3 Newman can go on silly scoring runs where he’s pulling up 3-pointers and nailing them in consecutive possessions like Kevin Durant at Rucker Park. Although his efficiency and ability to be a high-level point guard will come into question at times this season, Newman will be one of the best freshman scorers in college basketball.
9. Diamond Stone, Maryland: How happy is Melo Trimble to have a post scorer like Stone entering College Park? The native of Wisconsin is a load to handle on the interior as a post scorer, as he showed moves going over both shoulders in high school. Also a candidate to knock home a 3-pointer when he’s a trailer on a break, Stone can fall in love with his jumper a bit too much, but now he has a ton of talent around him to help him settle into the post. The 6-foot-10 center has good hands, is a productive rebounder and should be a tough cover with Robert Carter also being a post option for the Terps.
10. Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV: Runnin’ Rebels fans are thrilled to keep Zimmerman home and the 6-foot-11 lefty is skilled enough to make an immediate impact. The product of local powerhouse Bishop Gorman is an advanced passer for a big man and he’s also shown an ability to score in a variety of ways. Also a good rebounder and communicator as a back-line defender, Zimmerman’s leadership qualities could be an underrated aspect of him joining the UNLV program. The pressure will be on Zimmerman to help lead UNLV back to the NCAA tournament, but he’s built for the challenge.
FIVE POTENTIAL D’ANGELO RUSSELLS: Here are five guys outside the top ten that could play their way onto an all-american team come the spring
1. Jalen Brunson, Villanova: The son of former NBA veteran Rick Brunson, Jalen was tremendous as the starting point guard of the USA U19 World Championship team and went 40 minutes without a turnover in the gold-medal game to help secure MVP honors. The 6-foot-2 lefty has a tremendous basketball IQ and can hit pull-up jumpers from everywhere.
2. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: An impressive scorer who regularly put up 40-point games in high school, Dorsey will be asked to help replace Joseph Young. The 6-foot-4 Dorsey’s ability to hit jumpers and get to the basket should immediately translate to the college level.
3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Now that he’s been cleared by the NCAA, the 6-foot-9 Swanigan can focus on being a bruising force alongside centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. Swanigan is rugged and physical, but he’s also more skilled than he appears.
4. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State: One of the most physically-ready freshmen entering college basketball, the 6-foot-6 wing had a tremendous senior season and should be able to help the Seminoles in the scoring column. Bacon’s athleticism is top notch and he should have some highlights this season.
5. Allonzo Trier, Arizona: With freshman Ray Smith Jr. going down to injury, the 6-foot-3 Trier could be asked to play more minutes for the Wildcats. The Nike EYBL’s first four-year player, Trier is experienced in big games at the high school level and should be an immediate contributor.
MARCH HEROES?: Here are five freshman that could play a big role come March.
1. Jalen Adams, UConn: Kevin Ollie has a ton of perimeter options this season, but the speed of the 6-foot-1 Adams will make him a great change-of-pace guard off the bench in the early season.
2. Aaron Holiday, UCLA: The younger brother of former Bruin Jrue Holiday, Aaron is already starting alongside Bryce Alford this preseason and he’s showed positive signs on the defensive end with his activity.
3. Carlton Bragg, Kansas: The 6-foot-9 Bragg is skilled as a shooter and also physically gifted enough to rebound and score in the post. If Cheick Diallo is not cleared to play, Bragg’s role could expand even further.
4. Ryan Cline, Purdue: In desperate need of perimeter shooting, the Boilers kept this 6-foot-5 sharpshooter in the state of Indiana and he should help the spacing around Purdue’s talented big men.
5. Thomas Bryant, Indiana: Likely to start in the middle for Indiana, the 6-foot-10 Bryant brings a lot of energy and tenacity to the interior. The Hoosiers will count on Bryant to rebound and defend the rim early as his offense continues to grow.
A shift in philosophy led Bob Huggins to build ‘Press Virginia’
Nothing motivates change in sports more than losing.
After struggling in their first two seasons as a member of the Big 12, West Virginia underwent a change that represented quite the departure from their head coach’s usual defensive approach, because that head coach was not accustomed to losing.
In Bob Huggins’ first five seasons at his alma mater, West Virginia won an average of 24 games. The 2010 team won 31, reaching the program’s first Final Four since 1959.
To get an idea of just how long ago that was, Fidel Castro came into power in Cuba in 1959. The Mountaineers went five full decades without seeing a Final Four before the 6-foot-8 West Virginian showed up. Huggins always seems to have a negative connotation thanks to bad boy brand he built around his powerhouse Cincinnati program in the 90’s and early 00’s, but understand this: the man has won 765 games in his career. That didn’t happen by accident. He can coach.
But things changed upon the Mountaineers’ arrival in the Big 12 in 2013. They won just 13 games in their debut season and 17 the following year. While there were some close defeats during those two seasons, the common theme was that the Mountaineers didn’t defend with the aggressiveness many had come to expect from Huggins-coached teams. Part of that was having to adjust their personnel to fit their new conference home.
“(The Big 12) was a different style of play,” Huggins said, “more of a ‘play off the bounce’ kind of league.”
But the main thing was that in those two seasons, the Mountaineers could not get the stops they needed to close out games. And that was a departure from what many are used to seeing from Huggins-coached teams.
“If you know Coach Huggins and his philosophy, he’s always been a ‘defense-first’ coach and prides himself on his teams playing very good team defense,” WVU associate head coach Larry Harrison, who’s been a member of Huggins’ staffs for 17 years at both WVU and Cincinnati, said. “Those two years where we had the losing season and then went to the NIT, it got to a point where when we needed a stop we just didn’t do it as a team and we didn’t have one individual we felt we could depend on defensively to get that stop.”
Last year’s group got back to those defensive principles, only in a slightly different manner: their use of tenacious, full-court pressure that forced turnovers on a nation’s best 28 percent of their opponents’ possessions.
And while the Mountaineers’ effective field goal percentage defense (52.7 percent) was worse than the numbers produced the previous two seasons, that was actually by design. The goal of this new defense, of this press, was to raise hell, take risks and force turnovers that led to layups and open jumpers in transition; easy points that come before defenses get set. When an opposing backcourt was able to beat the press — when West Virginia’s gambling defense didn’t pay off — they got better looks at the rim, only they got less of them.
The end result: 25 wins, a Sweet 16 appearance, and a new identity.
“Press Virginia” was born.
* * *
While attributes such as athleticism, length and quickness get mentioned when discussing pressure defense, the most important key has little to do with physical ability. The key for any successful pressure defense is that the team buy into the concept; that no matter what everyone is on board with the system and won’t abandon ship at the first sign of tumult.
“I thought we needed to change the style that we played,” Huggins said. “I spent time with Kevin Mackey, who I thought did the best job of anybody at the college level with pressure defense. I thought our guys embraced it, and that was probably as key as anything. They really did embrace that style of play.”
Mackey, whose been in basketball for more than four decades, made note of in his conversations with his longtime friend before the start of last season. Now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, Mackey used pressure defense to take 14th-seeded Cleveland State to the Sweet 16 in 1986. And in his view West Virginia’s personnel and the current status of the college game lent itself to the Mountaineers being able to successfully utilize pressure defense. But none of that would have mattered had the head coach not bought into the change himself.
“A number of people told me he won 13 games more than he should have last season,” Mackey noted. “Kids who should have won 13 or 14 games won 25, went to the Sweet 16. In my own opinion Bob’s a hall of fame coach, he’s a great defensive coach. He had the fundamentals down cold 35 years ago, and it was a matter of his adjusting his thinking to go to the full-court (pressure) all the time.”
Just as important as the mindset was the personnel, something West Virginia didn’t have in their first two seasons in the Big 12. Having the pieces needed to be more aggressive defensively allowed the coaching staff to move forward with its plan, with the hope that the defensive intensity would return as a trademark of the program.
“I was with him at Cincinnati in the 90s when we did press quite a bit, more three-quarter court, a lot of 2-1-2 pressure rather than the full-court that we’re doing now,” Harrison said. “Since we’ve been at West Virginia we’ve been trying to get back to that point, we just didn’t feel like we had the personnel to do that.”
“Going into last season with the number of guards we had, we felt we’d be really competitive. And the depth we had, we felt that this was the time because they all wanted to play. That’s the thing that (Huggins) told the guys. ‘If you want to play, then I need all you guys to play as hard as you can for as long as you can and then we can rotate you in and out and then everybody will play.’ But you have to buy in.”
That buy-in is key not only for the beginnings of a new system, but also throughout the course of a season. Turning into a high-level pressure defensive team doesn’t happen overnight.
“The kids can tell if you’re really committed to it,” Mackey continued. “Bobby committed to it. When you first start to teach [a press], it’s a fourth grade press and that’s the best it is. And then after a week it’s a sixth grade press, and after three weeks it’s a high school press.”
“I saw them at the beginning of the season against LSU, which was really gifted physically and had a couple NBA guys, and West Virginia lost by one. I told Bobby it’s a high school press. I then saw him in December at Madison Square Garden against NC State and he had a big-time college press.”
Perhaps most important, however, is actually winning. It’s true with any style, really, but it is particularly important when trying to instill a new style of play into a program. Winning is what the kids and the coaches — hell, everyone that’s involved with or supporting the program — care about. When a team is stacking Ws, the players start to realize: ‘Hey, maybe coach knows what he’s talking about.’
West Virginia won 14 of their first 15 games to start the 2014-15 season, the lone defeat being that one point loss to LSU. It was clear that West Virginia was taking to its new defensive style. One of those watershed moments came in West Virginia’s win over UConn in the title game of the Puerto Rico Tipoff, as they harassed the Huskies into committing 19 turnovers on the night.
And while UConn may not have finished the season as an elite team, that program has an elite name and an elite brand. They were the reigning national champions, after all. Beating them gave the Mountaineers an early indication that this new system could be successful.
“The UConn game gave us some credibility as a team, and also made the players feel much better about what we were doing,” Harrison noted. “You beat the defending national champs, and you do it by playing our style. One of the really big keys is that they would get up, then we would get up, and the players started to see the effect that our style of play was having on our opponents.”
Ten players averaged at least 12.9 minutes per game last season, with guard Juwan Staten (31.2 mpg) leading the way while also pacing the Mountaineers in scoring (14.2 ppg) and assists (4.6 apg). Forwards Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton, with the latter playing at the head of the WVU press, were among the key contributors as well, and the team’s depth and activity helped them mask deficiencies in other areas.
The most notable issue for this group was their lack of quality shooters. They shot 40.8 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from three, finishing the year with an effective field goal percentage of 46.1 percent. Their shooters are more streaky than prolific, and that bore itself out in the percentage numbers West Virginia put up last season. But even with those low percentages West Virginia still managed to finish 45th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
Because they were one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams, grabbing more than 40 percent of their own misses. The Mountaineers attempted 512 more shots from the field than their opponents.
Quantity over quality.
“They have guys like Jevon Carter, (Jaysean) Paige, among others, who can certainly heat up and make shots. But the end result of this style is they create more turnovers and more offensive rebounds,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “The fact that they get way more field goal attempts than their opponents, it makes up for the very streaky shooting. I always say, ‘you have to create an offense with a missed shot in mind,’ because even if you shoot 45 percent from the field 55 percent of the shots are coming off as misses.”
“Their offense is designed with the missed shot in mind. In other words, they’re not worried about making or missing jump shots,” Fraschilla continued. “If they go in, great; if guys heat up, great. But they’re also very cognizant of the fact that a missed shot [can be] a pass to Jonathan Holton or Devin Williams or Elijah Macon. That’s how they look at it. You can analyze [the shooting] until the cows come home, but the fact is they get way more field goal attempts than their opponents.”
“They make up for their lack of shooting with their effort both offensively and defensively.”
This season, eight of West Virginia’s top ten players in minutes return; Staten and fellow guard Gary Browne being the departures. Add in a four-member recruiting class that includes four-star forward Esa Ahmad, and the Mountaineers have the experience, depth and talent needed to pick up where they left off a season ago.
“This year that mindset is already there, whereas last year we had to develop it. We had to convince the guys that this was the way we were going to play,” Harrison said. “Now, when our guys are in individual workouts or even in open gym, they’re trapping and picking up full court. It’s kind of like, ‘this is the way it is, you’re at West Virginia, you’re playing for Bob Huggins and this is the way we play.’ It’s caught on, and the new guys are getting used to it as well.”
There are adjustments to be made, however, especially with the renewed emphasis on physical play in college basketball. West Virginia committed more fouls than any team in the country a season ago — 821 to be exact, or 23.5 fouls per game. While there are risks to be taken in the type of defensive system West Virginia employs, they can’t afford to send opponents to the line at a similar clip even with the depth that they enjoy.
And then there’s the need to account for the loss of Staten. While he was the team leader in points and assists, Staten also provided the Mountaineers with a security blanket of sorts down the stretch. With the game in the balance they had a finisher, someone who more times than not made the play that needed to be made. And after going through two seasons in which they struggled to close out games on both ends of the floor, that’s a big deal.
“I think the biggest challenge is going to be finishing games,” Huggins said when asked about how they’d account for the loss of Staten. “He was virtually impossible to trap, he didn’t turn the ball over, and for the most part he made free throws. So there was a guy who you could always put the ball in his hands and trust him with the ball.”
But thanks to their experience, West Virginia does have options capable of assuming that role, namely Jevon Carter.
“He has really embraced that position,” Huggins said. “I think he wants the ball.”
For all of the different areas from which coaches look to extract some kind of motivation, there’s no greater catalyst for change than losing. After two seasons of struggling in the Big 12 West Virginia was faced with a choice: either adapt or continue to languish on the periphery of their new conference. Huggins and his staff adapted, embracing an approach that was a departure from what he’s done in the past.
The move paid off.
“Press Virginia” is here to stay.
NBC Sports Preseason All-Americans: Kris Dunn Player of the Year
PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kris Dunn, Providence
Kris Dunn was criminally-underrated last season, and despite the fact that he’s being projected as a top ten pick, it seems that the media at large is intent on doing the same thing once again this season. Here’s the deal: Dunn is a big, athletic point guard in the mold of John Wall, only, as one NBA scout put it to NBC Sports, a B-plus athlete instead of an A-plus athlete. He’s as good in transition and in ball-screen actions as any guard in the country, which is important because Providence head coach Ed Cooley is going to be putting Dunn in those situations quite a bit this season.
Cooley always asks his point guards to carry the water for his team’s. That’s why guys like Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton and, at Fairfield, Derek Needham put up such big numbers. Last season, Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 assists and 5.5 boards despite struggling with his efficiency; that’s what happens when you average 4.2 turnovers. Providence hemorrhaged big bodies this offseason and lost leading scorer LaDontae Henton to graduation.
Providence is likely going to be one of those teams that doesn’t lock up an NCAA tournament berth until late-February. This is a group that’s probably looking at getting seeded somewhere in that No. 7-No. 10 range.
Assuming the Preseason Player of the Year Award is a prediction of who we think wins it at the end of the year, is it possible to give that honor to a player that isn’t supposed to advance out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament?
When they’re as good as Kris Dunn is, I say yes.
(And as an addendum, I understand why someone would vote ‘no’ there. I get that argument. But leaving him off of first-team all-america entirely? That’s just plain wrong.)
Last season, we had Marcus Paige pegged as the Preseason National Player of the Year. That … did not turn out well, but it wasn’t because Paige suddenly became a bad basketball player. It’s because he was injured. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his ankle. He was able to rest the plantar fasciitis that bothered him last season. He’s back to 100 percent, which means, theoretically, he’s back to being the player that was predicted to be the National Player of the Year at this time last year.
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
As a freshman, Hield was considered to be mostly a defensive stopper. Over the course of the last two seasons, however, he developed into one of the nation’s best scorers as well, averaging 17.4 points and 5.4 boards as a junior. He deserves his spot on this list, even if he plays for a team off of basketball’s beaten bath. The next step for Hield will be to solidify his jumper. At the tail end of his junior year, the 6-foot-4 Bahamian shot just 9-for-40 from beyond the arc.
Ben Simmons, LSU
Basketball fans are going to fall in love with Simmons’ game rather quickly. In the pantheon of new-age big men, Simmons, a 6-foot-9 Australian, falls somewhere between point forward and small-ball four. He’s a deft passer and a slick ball-handler, smooth in spite of his size with a flair for making dazzling plays in the open floor. He’s has a bad habit of trying to make the fancy pass instead of the easy pass, and his jumper needs work, but given his size and skill-set, Simmons will likely make a run at Kyle Collinsworth’s record of six triple-doubles in one season.
Skal Labissiere, Kentucky
Labissiere has everything that NBA teams look for in a big man these days. He’s a face-up post scorer with range, for now, out to the college three-point line. He’s functional with his back-to-the-basket. He has the size (7-feet) and the athleticism to catch lobs and finish above the rim. He can protect the rim defensively. He works hard. He wants to be good. He has a tremendous backstory. These are the kind of kids that John Calipari always has success with, and while Labissiere isn’t the defender that Anthony Davis is or the low-post scoring threat that Karl Towns is, but he should be just as good in Kentucky blue.
Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble is the star point guard on a Maryland team that is the favorite to win the Big Ten title and has the horses to reach the Final Four. I expect Trimble’s scoring (16.0 ppg last year) to drop this year, but he’ll be this team’s engine and the guy with the ball in his hands down the stretch.
Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: Brogdon is one of those guys that doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He can shoot, he can pass, he can score in the post, he can rebound the ball, he can defend. Tony Bennett loves guys like that, which is why Brogdon is such a perfect fit in Charlottesville.
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine is going to go from being a good player teams in the Big Ten know about to a star in the college ranks this year. As a junior, he averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 boards, 4.3 assists and shot 41.6 percent from three.
Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang may be the toughest cover in the sport. The biggest question that he faces this season: How much of his success the past two seasons was due to his ability, and how much was a result of just how good Fred Hoiberg was at taking advantage of his skill-set?
Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga: Wiltjer’s shooting splits as a junior (54.0/46.6/78.9) strongly resembled those of Doug McDermott. I get why people will make that comparison: high-scoring, sharp-shooting, defensively-lacking fours playing for programs outside the Power 5 Conferences.
Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame: Jackson will be taking over the Jerian Grant role this season. Another super-talented point guard, Jackson will be put into plenty of ball-screen actions by head coach Mike Brey, something he thrives on.
Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: We went with Van Vleet over Baker here. Baker may have the better pro prospects, but Van Vleet is the guy with the ball in his hands in the big moments.
Jamal Murray, Kentucky: I’m still not quite sure what to expect from Jamal Murray. He’s a big-time shooter that can get hot in a hurry, but is he truly a lead guard? He’s the odds-on favorite to lead Kentucky in scoring.
Perry Ellis, Kansas: Mr. Consistency. For some reason, Ellis always seems to be overlooked when we talk about the best players in college basketball.
Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: Jones is going to sneak up on some people this season. A junior, he was one of the best big men in the SEC last season. He’ll be surrounded by shooters this year, meaning he’s going to have a ton of room to operate.