No. 17 Wisconsin, for perhaps the first time all season, finally looked like the team that was a preseason favorite to win the Big Ten regular season title on Tuesday night.
The Badgers shredded the Orange, winning 77-60, an offensive performance that only gets more impressive when you consider that there were just 64 possessions in the game.
Looking at the box score, the change seems obvious, right? Wisconsin got Ethan Happ, who we have long said is Wisconsin’s best player, more involved – he finished with 24 points and 13 boards and led the team in field goals and free throws attempted – while Bronson Koenig, who entered the game shooting 24.6 percent from three, finally found the range from distance, going 6-for-9 from beyond the arc and scoring a season-high 20 points in what was by far his most efficient game of the season.
What simply looking at the box score won’t tell you, however, is that the real difference in this game, and what could end up being the launching point for a Wisconsin Big Ten title run this season, is the way that Greg Gard used Nigel Hayes.
Or, perhaps more importantly, the way that Hayes decided to play.
For the first six games of the season, Hayes played like he was a floor-spacer.
On Tuesday night, he was the guy that you space the floor around.
Nigel Hayes was entrenched in the high-post against the Syracuse zone, and he put on an absolute clinic is how to breakdown a 2-3 zone.
His high-low passing was incredible. He used his eyes and ball-fakes to move the defense and create open threes for his teammates on the perimeter. He was a puppetmaster, and a young Syracuse team didn’t stand a chance against it.
This is important to note because this is not what Wisconsin’s zone offense has always looked like this season.
Take, for example, this possession against Georgetown from the Maui Invitational. Does this look anything like the zone offense from Tuesday night?:
Wisconsin would go on to win this game, but it wasn’t because the Badgers thoroughly dominated from the tip. Oklahoma State and, arguably, Arkansas State landed more impressive wins over that same Hoya team, and neither of them were expected to do all that much this season.
In fact, it’s been possessions like that that have bogged down the Badgers this year. As talented as Koenig is, he’s a scorer at heart, not a facilitator. Through the first three weeks of the season, he’s been where the Wisconsin offense has gone to die. He entered Tuesday night’s game 14-for-57 from three not because he’s a bad three-point shooter, but because so many of his threes have been contested jumpers off the dribble:
As Koenig proved on Tuesday night, he’s dangerous when he can take catch-and-shoot rhythm threes – all six of the threes he made were no-dribble jumpers – but without another proven playmaker on the floor, he hasn’t gotten all that many opportunities to do so.
Hayes, on the other hand, has not proven to be a good standstill shooter. I went through and watch all of the jumpers that he has taken this season, and he’s had quite a few good, clean, often wide-open looks from three. He just missed them. Maybe he’s not quite as good of a shooter as he thinks he is. Maybe he’s lost his confidence in his jumper. Maybe this is just a fluky thing that happens in a random subset of 31 three-pointers.
But whatever the issue is, it wasn’t getting answered by Hayes plopping himself behind the three-point line and bombing away. The criticism of him heading into the year was that he shot 36 percent from the floor and 29.3 percent from three as a junior, that he needed to settle less for jumpers, which is something that he was still doing early this year; through the first six games of the year, Hayes was shooting 29.0 percent from three while taking 1.5 more threes per game than he did as a junior.
In addition to missing wide-open, catch-and-shoot threes, Hayes was also missing deep, contested jumpers like these:
Here’s the thing: Hayes is probably the best playmaker on Wisconsin when he wants to be. He led the team in assists last season. We all saw how good of a passer he can be last night when he wants to be. He’s also capable of scoring in the post and beating bigger defenders to the rim. He’s the kind of versatile forward that overpowers smaller defenders and beats bigger defenders off the dribble. He was named the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, and when he plays like he has the last two games, he looks the part.
And it’s no coincidence that when Hayes is playing this way, Wisconsin looks like the best team in the Big Ten.
Film Session: Who can actually beat Kentucky and why
Ever since the Wildcats jumped out to a 24-0 lead on UCLA on that December weekend in Chicago, that’s the question that I’ve been asked more than any other. It doesn’t matter if I’m doing a radio show in Omaha, a TV spot for CSN’s Washington affiliate or simply happen to mention what I do for a living to someone at a bar.
And the answer is yes. Upsets do happen. These are college kids, after all. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern before taking Kentucky to overtime in Rupp. Georgia and LSU, who have lost a combined five games to the dregs of the SEC, both held significant leads on Kentucky late in the second half. Hell, Columbia gave the Wildcats a scare.
But, I’d argue, Kentucky, for whatever reason, either didn’t play well or didn’t show up ready to play in all four of those games.
When Kentucky shows up focused, when they’re playing well under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament with a 40-0 season within their reach, are there any teams that can actually beat the Wildcats?
These six can:
The way I see it, there are three things an opponent has to do to be able to beat the Wildcats:
1. Avoid getting dominated in the paint: The Wildcats can be downright overwhelming on the offensive glass, with their best offense oftentimes being a missed shot. And that’s to say nothing of Karl Towns, who has turned into their go-to guy in crunch time. Over the course of the last month, when they really need a bucket, John Calipari has been force-feeding him the ball on the block.
2. Force them to shoot over the top of the defense: The weakness for this Kentucky team offensively is that they don’t have a myriad of great shooters. You want them settling for jumpers.
3. Score early or late in the shot clock: Kentucky’s half-court defense is tremendous. If you can’t beat them down the floor for quick, easy buckets in transition, you need to have the patience to run your sets until you get an open look.
No team in the country can do all three of these things as effectively as a healthy Virginia team can.
For starters, they are fourth nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, a stat that determines how many of the available offensive rebounds an opponent gets. Virginia gives up offensive boards just 24.0 percent of the time. By comparison, Kentucky grabs 40.4 percent of the available offensive rebounds. The Wildcats have enough size and athleticism that they will get to the offensive glass against anyone, but there isn’t a team in the country that is more disciplined when it comes to boxing out than the Cavaliers, whose front line includes 7-foot Mike Tobey, 6-foot-8 Anthony Gill, 6-foot-8 Darion Atkins and 6-foot-6 Justin Anderson at the three.
The talk earlier this season was that the Wildcats were on pace to finish the season with the best defense in the 13 years that KenPom.com, an advanced analytics website that uses per-possession efficiency to determine just how good a team is, has been in existence. That is no longer the case, as Virginia has actually surpassed Kentucky in defensive efficiency.
Virginia runs the Pack-Line, a man-to-man containment defense that involves tremendous ball-pressure inviting dribble penetration into help defenders. I’ve gone in depth on the Pack-Line before, but essentially, it’s a defense designed to force offenses into contested, drive-and-kick jumpers, which is precisely what any team wants Kentucky to do. Virginia is also notorious for only sending two players to the offensive glass, which will limit the chances Kentucky has for leak-outs and easy buckets in transition.
The other part of the Pack-Line that behooves Virginia’s matchup with Kentucky is that they completely take away any post threat with big-to-big doubles on the catch. Here’s what I mean. Look at where Darion Atkins (red circle), who is guarding Amile Jefferson here, is as Tyus Jones starts to deliver an entry pass:
Then look at where Atkins and Malcolm Brogdon (green circle), who takes away the pass to Jefferson, are when Okafor makes the catch in the post:
Here’s the play at real speed:
Virginia is the best team in the country at moving defensively while the ball is in the air. They can take away Towns’ post-ups.
Offensively, Virginia has had their issues of late, but when Anderson was healthy, they were a top ten team in offensive efficiency. It remains to be seen whether or not he will still be one of the country’s most dangerous spot-up shooters when he returns, which is critical if the Cavs do square-off with the Wildcats. Virginia runs good offense — they can break down Kentucky’s defense with set plays and rarely settle for bad shots early in a possession — but Anderson’s shooting ability will help to spread the floor and open up space in the paint for drivers, cutters and post-ups.
The final score may not even make it into the 50s, but assuming Justin Anderson is healthy, no team in the country is better prepared to knock off the Wildcats than Virginia.
Like Virginia, the Badgers are one of the nation’s best defensive rebounding teams, allowing opponents to grab offensive rebounds just 23.2 percent of the time. They have the size along their front line to matchup with Kentucky — Frank Kaminsky is every bit of seven feet, while fellow starters Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-8, respectively — and while they don’t have the depth that Kentucky has up front, they play at a pace that limits how tired their guys will get and are the nation’s best when it comes to defending without fouling.
Wisconsin is nowhere near as good defensively as Virginia is, but Kentucky doesn’t have the personnel to exploit their biggest weakness on that end. Where Wisconsin gets into trouble is with athletic wings that can slash to the rim and dynamic, play-making point guards, the latter of which is a bigger issue as long as Trae Jackson is still recovering from his broken foot. Neither Nigel Hayes nor Sam Dekker are particularly quick laterally, and when an opponent has a small forward that can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim — like, for example, Maryland’s Dez Wells — the Badgers are vulnerable.
Kentucky doesn’t have anyone like that. When the Wildcats play Trey Lyles at the three it actually plays into Wisconsin’s hands from a matchup perspective, while Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison are shooters more than they are drivers.
And, like Virginia, Wisconsin often eschews chasing offensive rebounds, preferring to get back on defense, prevent easy transition points and defend in the half court.
All of that helps the Badgers, but the real reason that they are going to be able give Kentucky a fight if they square off is Wisconsin’s ability to invert their offense.
Bo Ryan’s club is the nation’s most efficient offensive team, and up until a few weeks ago, they were actually on pace to set a KenPom-era record in that stat. Everything more or less runs through Kaminsky, who is National Player of the Year and having one of the best statistical seasons in recent memory. He leads the Badgers in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, posting the numbers he does despite playing in an offense that averages the sixth-fewest possessions per game in the country.
Kaminsky does much of his damage in the post, but he’s such a fluid player for his size that he can step out and drill threes or put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, scoring or dishing to an open teammate. He’s not the only Wisconsin big capable of doing this, either. Dekker can as well. Hayes is shooting 37.0 percent from three. Duje Dukan, the first big off the bench, has had a tough year, but he’s a guy that capable of hitting two or three threes in a row if he gets into a rhythm.
And it’s the ability of those big guys to step out on the perimeter that allows Wisconsin to do some different things offensively. I’ve already gone in depth on how they invert their offense, meaning they use their bigs on the perimeter and allow their smaller players to penetrate and post up, isolating mismatches in a way similar to Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State, but it’s that frontline versatility that will allow the Badgers to get good shots.
Even against a defense as stingy as Kentucky’s.
And if there is anything you should know about Wisconsin by now, they have no problem using all 35 seconds of the shot clock to ensure that they get a good look at the rim. Take a look at this possession. Not only does Kaminsky run off of a pair of back-screens, but he passes out of a double team, which leads to a ball-reversal and a post-up for Hayes, who finds Kaminsky wide-open at the top of the key:
That’s tough for anyone to defend.
Despite having some serious defensive issues, the Blue Devils have nonetheless managed to put together a season worthy of a No. 1 seed. They’ve won at Wisconsin, at Virginia and at Louisville, are 27-3 on the season and will be a trendy pick to make a run to the Final Four thanks to the presence of Jahlil Okafor.
Okafor will likely have a difficult time should he be matched up with Kentucky. He’s not in great physical condition at this point in his career, an issue that would likely come to the forefront as the Wildcats rotate through their trio of seven-footers and force Okafor to work his tail off on the defensive end of the floor.
Duke has had two main issues defensively this season. For starters, they struggle defending guards that can create off the dribble, either in isolations or ball-screen situations — something we went over in detail here. Kentucky doesn’t really have that personnel, which is a good thing for Duke. What they do have, however, is a front line that can overpower anyone, let alone a team that has been susceptible on the offensive glass this season.
The good news for Duke? They are the most explosive offensive team in the country. They were completely dominated by Virginia on the road, but found a way to score on 14 of the final 15 possessions, scoring 35 points in less that ten minutes against the nation’s best defense. When you can score in transition and shoot the three the way that Duke can, you’re rarely out of a game.
I don’t love a matchup between with Kentucky for Arizona. Defensively, they should be fine. Sean Miller runs the Pack-Line defense like Tony Bennett at Virginia, and while his guys aren’t quite as good as the Cavs, they are still a top five team on that end of the floor. They’re not going to be physically overwhelmed by Kentucky, not with the amount of size and athleticism they have up and down their roster.
No, my concern with the Wildcats is on the offensive end of the floor. They can go through massive scoring droughts, and while the recent emergence of Kaleb Tarczewski as a real low-post option offensively is a good thing, I’m just not sure Arizona is good enough to consistently break down Kentucky’s defense. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can be defended as a non-shooter. Stanley Johnson has had issues finishing at the rim all season, issues that will be magnified against Kentucky’s massive front line. Gabe York has been dangerous of late, but he is a defensive liability, as is Elliot Pitts.
As we went over in the Player of the Year Power Rankings this week, T.J. McConnell has been terrific in the pick-and-roll this season, but the ability of Willie Cauley-Stein — and, to a lesser extent, Karl Towns and Marcus Lee — to defend perimeter players limits the effectiveness of ball-screen actions against Kentucky.
Watch this possession from Tuesday night:
Kentucky switched five ball-screens involving their two worst front line defenders, and Georgia settled for a three from Marcus Thornton, a power forward that has hit nine all season long.
You can’t beat Kentucky with ball-screens.
There are two reasons I don’t like this matchup for the Zags. For starters, like Arizona, so much of their offense comes out of ball-screen actions involving Kevin Pangos, which are no where near as effective against the Wildcats as they are against anyone else.
But the other issue is Kyle Wiltjer. He’s the vital piece to this puzzle, as he’s the kind of stretch-four that will open up the Kentucky defense and give Przemek Karnowski and Domas Sabonis space to play in the paint. But Wiltjer is a liability on the other end of the floor. He’s not a good defender, he’s not a good rebounder and he’s not physical enough to deal with Kentucky’s bigs. Sabonis and Karnowski are, but those two will struggle to play together because neither of them are a threat outside of eight feet.
Wiltjer is capable of going off for 30 points, which is why the Zags made this list despite his defensive issues, but he would need some serious revenge-game mojo if this upset were to happen.
I don’t like this matchup for the Wildcats. I don’t think they have the size inside to deal with Kentucky’s big men, but they don’t really have the front line pieces to be able to spread the floor, either. The key will end up being Kris Jenkins, a 6-foot-6 stretch four that is shooting 40.6 percent from three. He’s not anywhere near the defender of the rebounder that either JayVaughn Pinkston or Daniel Ochefu is, but both of those guys do all of their damage in and around the paint. That will get taken away by Kentucky’s size.
Film Session: How Duke took away Marcus Paige and Jerian Grant
The questions about whether or not Duke is truly a national title contender began to pop up early on in ACC play, when the Blue Devils got smacked around in back-to-back games games N.C. State and Miami, the latter at home.
The perimeter defense of the Blue Devils. Trevor Lacey and Angel Rodriguez torched the Blue Devils so badly that head coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to go zone against Louisville, a move surprising enough that it caught the Cardinals off-guard and allowed the Blue Devils to pick up an impressive road win.
But one game didn’t solve the issue of Duke’s ability to defender talented playmakers and ball-screen actions, and that became far too obvious a couple of weeks later, when Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant played his best game of the season, taking over down the stretch as the Irish erased a 10 point deficit in the final eight minutes of a 77-73 win.
That loss feels like decades ago, as Duke has since reeled off six straight wins, going into Charlottesville and handing Virginia their only loss of the season, beating Syracuse on the road and, on Wednesday night, knocking off North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
What’s perhaps more impressive is that in three of their last four games, Duke has been able to completely take away an opponent’s talented lead guard. In the rematch in Durham, Grant had seven points on 3-for-10 shooting as the Irish lost by 30. In a three-point Duke win at Florida State, Xavier Rathan-Mayes finished with five points and six turnovers on 2-for-7 shooting. And in the win over UNC, Marcus Paige had just five points and shot 2-for-11 from the floor.
How has Duke been able to transform from a team that couldn’t stop any star guard to one that shuts down All-Americans?
The credit belongs to Quinn Cook, who has taken on the role of defensive stopper for the Blue Devils.
In each of those three games, Mike Krzyzewski had Cook face-guard the opponents’ star guard for 40 minutes. If they brought the ball up the floor, Cook was un their jock as soon as they passed the ball and initiated offense. If they played off the ball, he was denying the catch as soon as they crossed half court. Watch him defend Grant on this possession:
It was the same thing for Paige last night.
Here’s an example from the first half, where North Carolina tried to free their star up by running him off of a series of screens along the baseline. Cook got hung up on one of them, but he called for a switch with Matt Jones, who took over denying Paige and preventing from getting a look coming off of that screen:
Now compare that with how easy it was for Jerian Grant to receive the ball here:
That kind of denial defense does have repercussions, however, as it creates quite a bit of space in the middle of the floor. North Carolina was able to capitalize, with Nate Britt, Joel Berry and J.P. Tokoto breaking down the defense off the bounce, creating opportunities for their big men with drop-off passes, one-on-one opportunities in the post and the chance to pound the offensive glass.
North Carolina didn’t get a single offensive rebound in the first 11:37 of the game. Over the course of the next 33 minutes, they grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and scored 21 second-chance points. Their big men — Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James — combined for 54 points and 27 boards on 23-for-33 shooting.
To be fair, part of that was the result of Okafor, who is a below-average defender when he is healthy, being slowed by an ankle injury that he suffered in the first half.
But not all of it.
Here’s my favorite example of what I mean. In the first clip, you’ll see Paige setting a back-screen for Hicks. Cook is hugging Paige, leaving Hicks wide-open to catch a lob for a dunk. In the second, you’ll see Tokoto set a back-screen. Matt Jones is guarding him and is able sink towards the rim and takeaway the pass:
The Blue Devils still have their issues defensively. They’re not great defending ball-screens, their perimeter defenders are, individually, mediocre on-the-ball. Okafor is a long way away from being Anthony Davis or Tyson Chandler.
But Krzyzewski has proven why he’s one of the greatest to ever grace the sideline this season, as he’s been able to put together a defensive schemes that have put his guys in a position to win.
He did it at Louisville. He did in against Notre Dame. And last night, he did it again against North Carolina.
Film Session: Breaking down what Virginia is missing without Justin Anderson
Virginia has played three games — and a half against Louisville — since Justin Anderson went down with a broken bone on his left hand, and if anything has become clear over the course of those 140 minutes, it’s that the Cavaliers are not the same team without their All-American.
The biggest impact comes on the offensive end of the floor, where Anderson’s absence is truly felt.
In wins over N.C. State, Wake Forest and Pitt — none of whom rank higher than 110th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom — Virginia has scored 173 points in 174 possessions, a far cry from the offense that had spent the majority of the season ranked in the top ten in offensive efficiency.
The change isn’t simply a result of Anderson’s 48.4 percent three-point shooting — by far the best on Virginia’s roster — not being on the floor, although that plays a major role. Defenses had to be aware of where Anderson was on the offensive end of the floor at all times. Anderson’s presence kept teams honest when Virginia threw the ball into the post and helped them create space for drivers and cutters.
The guy that has taken over Anderson’s minutes has been junior wing Evan Nolte. In the last four games, Nolte has averaged 26.5 minutes. In the four games prior to Anderson’s injury, Nolte played a total of 16 minutes. He’s shooting 22.9 percent from three on the season, and while he’s 4-for-13 from three since Anderson went down, those 13 threes were all really good looks:
As you can see, Virginia’s opponents were not exactly scared of leaving Nolte all alone on the perimeter. That’s a problem, because offensively, Nolte isn’t much more than a spot-up shooter. In 2015, Nolte has taken all of three shots from inside the arc and gotten to the line just twice, missing both. Anderson did much of his damage as a spot-up shooter, but he’s more well-rounded. He could come off of a screen and hit a jumper or curl to the rim. He could beat a close-out with a pump-fake and a straight-line drive. He could finish above the rim in transition or in traffic in half court sets. Virginia generally drops their three perimeter players back to prevent against fast breaks, but Anderson was still able to pick up some second chance points from time to time.
Anderson was an ideal fit in the role that Tony Bennett needed him to play, and Nolte is just not ready to fill that void.
But offense is not the only area where Virginia took a hit with Anderson out.
Nolte is nowhere near the defender that Anderson is either. The good news for Virginia is that the Pack-Line defense they play is designed to over-help on the defensive end, covering up some of Nolte’s defensive issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that Virginia’s best perimeter defender is no longer in the lineup, and that chink in the armor is a weak spot opponents can attack.
For example, Nolte not only gets beaten on a cut to the middle of the lane by Sheldon Jeter here, Jeter is able to elevate over him in the paint:
But here’s the most important part of this: none of it actually matters, as long as Anderson is healthy and back in the lineup come NCAA tournament time.
Virginia has done enough this season that they should be able to survive two more losses, whether they come during the regular season or in the ACC tournament, and still wind up with a No. 1 seed. Even if they lose more than two games — say, at Syracuse, at Louisville and in the ACC semifinals — they’re still looking at a situation where they are, at worst, ACC regular season co-champions with road wins at VCU, Maryland, Notre Dame and North Carolina.
And if it’s clear that Anderson is coming back, the selection committee will have to keep in mind that the Cavs were without their best player during the worst stretch of their season.
Virginia doesn’t need Justin Anderson to win the ACC or to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But they are not the same team without him, and if the Cavs are going to make a run in March, they need him healthy by the time the NCAA tournament starts.
Film Session: The case for Jerian Grant as National Player of the Year
That’s not a humblebrag. It’s a not-at-all-humble I Told You So.
I’m going to contradict myself.
Yesterday, when I posted the latest installment of those power rankings, I said that the race for the Wooden Award was down to just two players: Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky.
Jerian Grant is the most valuable player in college basketball. And if he’s not the National Player of the Year right now, he’s every bit as deserving as Okafor and Kaminsky. I’m not only saying that because he went for 23 points, 12 assists and six boards — including the go-ahead jumper and an assist on the game-clinching three — as the No. 8 Irish knocked off No. 4 Duke last night.
This is a season-long travesty that needs to be corrected.
WHAT NOTRE DAME DOES
It’s called ‘Five-Out Cutters’, and it’s the crux of the Notre Dame offense this season, an offense so simple that it’s hard to believe it’s so effective.
Notre Dame spreads the floor with five guys and sends cutters through the lane, looking to get to get some movement before their big man, be it Zach Auguste or Bonzie Colson, sets a ball-screen for Grant.
And that’s it.
“It’s a simple formula,” head coach Mike Brey told NBCSports.com. “We want some initial movement and eventually a ball-screen for Jerian.”
“Then we just play play basketball.”
There’s more that goes into it than what Brey alludes to, as the offense is based on all five players on the floor being able to read each other. The key is “spacing away”, as Brey calls it, and that hinges on Notre Dame’s three wings being able to get to the opposite side of the floor at the same time as the ball-screen is being set. Notre Dame works on that every day; their warmup for practice is to run 5-on-0 offense, practicing the timing of their ‘Five-Out Cutters’ offense.
To get an idea of what makes this attack so effective, take a look at this screen-grab from last night’s game. Bonzie Colson is setting a pick for Grant (in the red box) while Demetrius Jackson, V.J. Beachem and Patrick Connaughton — all three of whom shoot better than 44.0 percent from distance — are on the opposite side of the floor:
It splits the floor in half, meaning that Grant and his big man will essentially have a chance to play 2-on-2. Three things that can happen here:
1) Grant can look to attack and score himself, either by turning the corner using the screen or by trying to beat Okafor by turning down the screen.
2) Grant can hit Colson — or Auguste, depending on who is on the floor — for a dunk if he rolls hard or an open-jumper if he pops:
3) One of the help-side defenders will leave the guy he is guarding, giving a lethal jump-shooter a wide-open rhythm three:
Good luck trying to stop that.
Let’s start with the obvious: Notre Dame is one of the best offensive teams in the country. They are currently second in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Kenpom, just 0.1 PPP behind Wisconsin. They’re currently on pace to be the sixth-most efficient offense in Kenpom’s database, which dates back to the 2001-2002 season. Prior to their win over Duke on Wednesday night, the Irish were actually No. 1 on that list, meaning that the 77 points they scored on 68 possessions against the No. 4 team in the country actually hurt their rating.
That should give you an idea of just how good Mike Brey’s club has been on that end of the floor this season.
And they’ve needed everyone one of those points. The Irish are 20-2 on the season and 8-1 in the ACC, but they’re also 143rd in adjusted defensive efficiency and have won six of those eight ACC games by single-digits. They trailed by double-figures in four of their last five games.
In simpler terms, it’s that powerhouse offense that has been keeping Notre Dame afloat this season, launching them into the top ten and keeping the dream of bringing an ACC regular season title to South Bend alive.
It’s easy to look at the numbers and say that the Irish are built around their ability to shoot the three, and you technically wouldn’t be incorrect. Nearly 40 percent of their field goal attempts are three-pointers — 58th nationally — and they’re making 40.2 percent of those threes — 15th nationally. Nearly a third of the points they score come via the three-ball, and of the five players that see minutes in their perimeter rotation, three are shooting better than 44.0 percent from beyond the arc and only Grant, believe it or not, is below 37.2 percent.
So yes, Notre Dame can shoot, but that’s more of a by-product of what they run than the way their offense is structured.
As we showed you earlier, the Irish run an offensive built around Grant’s ability to break down defenses, either in isolation situations or ball-screens actions. Nearly a quarter of their total offensive possessions — and almost a third of their possessions in the half court — involve pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy. Only 11 high-major programs use ball-screens more often, and none of them are close to as efficient as Notre Dame is doing so; the Irish score 1.075 points-per-possession (PPP) when using ball-screens, which is good for fifth nationally.
No one on the Irish runs more pick-and-rolls that Grant. More than half of his total possessions come via ball-screen action, and in the half court, 68.6 percent of the time that Grant shoots or creates a shot for a teammate it comes after a ball-screen, according to Synergy. That accounts for nearly 20 percent of all of Notre Dame’s half court possessions on the season. According to Synergy, the only player in the country that has been involved in more ball-screens as the ball-handlers is Terran Petteway of Nebraska, and only Arizona’s T.J. McConnell and DePaul’s Billy Garrett have been as efficient and used in ball-screens in such a high-volume.
“Jerian is just so involved with everything on the offensive end, it’s amazing how much is on him,” Brey said. “When you look at his assist-to-turnover ratio (3.40:1) and all the decisions he has to make, it’s really remarkable. He’s a computer.”
“He conducts the whole thing.”
And Brey isn’t just talking about the offense.
“We’re down, we’re getting our [butts] kicked and Connaughton has two fouls,” Brey said of Sunday night’s overtime win at N.C. State where Grant had 23 points as the Irish erased a 14-point deficit. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna hold him out, we’re starting to cut [the lead] a little bit.”
“Jerian turns to me and points at Pat and says, ‘We need him.’ I immediately turn to Pat and go, ‘Get on in there, buddy. The man needs you.'”
He’s got his fingerprints everywhere on this team.
Brey added, with a laugh, “He’s running the [Joyce Center] too.”
Tony Bennett’s reputation as one of the best coaches in college basketball is well-deserved.
Taking over for his father, Dick, at Washington State, Bennett led the Cougars to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances — and their only trip to the Sweet 16 since World War II — in his first two years in Pullman. Including Bennett’s time at the helm of the program, Wazzu has been to a total of six NCAA tournaments, with Bennett’s being the only two tickets they’ve punched in the last 20 seasons.
In 2009, Bennett left Washington State to take over the Virginia program. The Cavaliers have a much more storied tradition than their Cougar counterparts — Remember the Ralph Sampson years? — but Virginia had won just a single NCAA tournament game in their three appearances in the 15 seasons prior to his arrival.
The ‘Hoos weren’t competing with Duke and North Carolina for ACC titles, and that was before the league added the likes of Louisville and Syracuse to the mix.
And yet, here we are in 2015, and Virginia is 13-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country, the reigning ACC regular season and tournament champion and coming off a season where they were the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Region. It’s only his sixth season in Charlottesville, and Bennett has turned Virginia into a bonafide ACC power in a league with more traditional powerhouses than any other conference in the country.
Making that all-the-more impressive is the fact that Bennett hasn’t relied simply on amassing gobs of extreme talent to win. For comparison’s sake, Duke and Kentucky, the other two teams currently without a loss this season, have a combined 18 McDonald’s all-americans and eight players projected as potential first round picks in this year’s NBA Draft. Virginia doesn’t even have a former consensus top 50 recruit, and unless an NBA team is willing to use a first round pick on Justin Anderson — a future Bruce Bowen-esque, three-and-D wing — they may not even have a future NBA player on their roster.
So how’s he done it?
With a man-to-man, containment defense made famous by his father, simply called the ‘Pack-Line’.
WHAT IS THE PACK-LINE?
Conceptually, it’s pretty simple. Encourage dribble penetration into help, takeaway post touches, force contested jumpers over the top of the defense and clean up the defensive glass.
There are two core principles to the Pack-Line: The player guarding the man with the ball is to provide intense ball-pressure well beyond the three-point line while the other four help defenders are to all be within an imaginary, 16-foot arc. What this does is encourage penetration into those help-defenders, known as ‘The Pack’, forcing kick-outs to spot-up shooters who will have to take a jumper with a defender running at them. Specifics on things like defending pick-and-rolls, doubling the post and giving up baseline penetration will differ from coach to coach and often depends on an opponent’s personnel — Virginia isn’t going to defend Jahlil Okafor’s post touches the same way they will Miami’s bigs — but the philosophy will remain the same.
One of those philosophies is that every ball-handler sees three jerseys in front of him: the man guarding him and the help defender if he drives left or right. It’s a concept known as ‘elbows’, as in a ball-handler at the top of the key should be able to see the help at both of the elbows. The same goes for a player on either wing, although the goal here is to avoid giving up baseline penetration — As one coach that runs the Pack-Line put it, “We do not get beat to the outside.” — as the help is in the middle of the lane.
This causes two problems for the offense. For starters, any player that is going to get all the way to the rim is going to have to beat his man and a help defender before finishing over a shot-blocker around the basket. That’s not easy to do. But since the help defender is already in help position, he has one less move to make to challenge a jump-shooter. Instead of hedging and recovering, the help defender simply has to stop the penetration and close out long at the shooter. It sounds subtle, but not having to change direction makes the likelihood of the player that’s spotting up getting a clean look at the rim that much smaller.
Here’s a perfect example. Sheldon McClellan uses a nifty behind-the-back dribble to get passed two defenders. Devon Hall (in the red box) is already in a position to cut off McClellan’s penetration, forcing him to kick the ball out to Angel Rodriguez (in the bluebox):
Hall is able to run out at Rodriguez, getting there in time to challenge the jumper and helping to force a miss:
Here’s full video of the play:
Virginia’s method of defending ball-screens is to hedge hard, to have the man guarding the screener step out of prevent the ball-handler from turning the corner. They’ll also prevent passes into the paint — no cutters, no post touches, no drivers dropping off passes to big men; if an opponent catches a pass, it’s outside the pack. If there happens to be a post touch, however, Virginia will typically use a big-to-big double on the catch.
Here’s an example of a perfect defensive possession for Virginia. No dribbler gets any kind of an angle coming off of a ball-screen, no passes are caught within 23 feet of the rim and the possession ends with Davon Reed, being guarded by Malcom Brogdon, dribbling straight into Justin Anderson’s help. He kicks it out to McClellan, who has to force a 22-foot three with Anderson’s hand in his face:
HOW DO YOU BEAT IT?
The biggest key to breaking down Virginia’s defense is to have ball-handlers that can create off the dribble and shooters that can knock down contested threes. When push comes to shove, the Pack-Line defense is structured around the idea an opponent isn’t going to be able to hit enough threes to beat them. They want you to drive into defense, kick the ball out and shoot jumpers with a hand in your face. Teams that can do that are going to give them trouble.
It’s part of the reason that I think No. 13 Notre Dame is going to be the first team to knock off the Cavaliers when Virginia heads to South Bend on Saturday. As I wrote yesterday, Notre Dame’s offense is built around Jerian Grant — and, to a lesser extent, Demetrius Jackson — getting put in ball-screen actions while surrounded by shooters. Their offense, quite literally, is built around drive-and-kick threes.
If you aren’t blessed enough to have a first-team all-american playmaker on the same team as three shooters knocking down at least 40 percent of their threes, there’s still an answer: Movement. Not just ball movement, player movement.
Creating offensive actions on both sides of the floor is key to breaking down the Pack-Line. One of the standards of the defense is for defenders to trail all screens off-the-ball, with the man guarding the screener hedging up to protect against the curl. By running shooters off of screening actions on the weak-side of the floor, it limits the ability of the help defenders to create that Pack-Line.
Davidson did this beautifully in the first half of their loss at Virginia, and this may be the best example I can give you. Watch how much movement there is on this possession:
But the key comes at the very end of the possession. Payton Aldridge (in the red box) gets an iso against Evan Nolte on the wing. Nathan Ekwu is on the block on the same side while Brian Sullivan and Tyler Kalinoski (red arrows) are both setting up their defenders as if they are going to run off of a weak-side down-screen:
As Aldridge makes his move to the baseline, look at where the three Virginia help defenders (green boxes) are looking. Hint: It’s not at the ball:
Kalinoski draws the help from Darion Atkins, but by the time that Virginia’s three other defenders realize what is happening, Ekwu has an open dunk.
That weak-side downscreen action took Virginia out of their Pack-Line.
And if you’re going to beat the Cavs this season, that’s how you have to do it.