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THE CASE FOR THE DEFENSE
LUKE WINN (with additional research by David Hess)
November 14, 2011
For a sport awash in stats, accurate measurements of defensive prowess are hard to come by. So SI did its own possession-by-possession study of five title contenders, graded every player and every play—and came to some surprising conclusions
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November 14, 2011

The Case For The Defense

For a sport awash in stats, accurate measurements of defensive prowess are hard to come by. So SI did its own possession-by-possession study of five title contenders, graded every player and every play—and came to some surprising conclusions

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[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

*Departed player

Minimum: 10 minutes per game

UCONN

Among the congratulatory items Huskies coach Jim Calhoun received this off-season was a framed print of the Mona Lisa from a friend in the Boston media. Underneath Leonardo Da Vinci's painting was a plaque that said, connecticut, 2011 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. Calhoun is fond of the gift because after Connecticut beat Butler 53--41, he heard time and again that his team had won ugly. "In our minds," he says, "it was a defensive masterpiece."

Those who spent that night wincing didn't see the Huskies contesting, altering or blocking 39 of Butler's 64 shots. Sophomore Alex Oriakhi, a 6'9" forward who had nine defensive rebounds, nine forced misses and half of a basket allowed, was the Huskies' best defender (56.5 DRating) against the Bulldogs. But this exercise produced a surprising name for UConn's top defender over the 20-game sample: Kemba Walker (86.8). The Final Four's Most Outstanding Player and one of the nation's elite scorers may have been underrated because the focus on his offensive heroics obscured his full contribution. Walker was particularly adept at creating turnovers, rebounding and avoiding fouls. Says Calhoun, "Kemba did not get enough credit for how disruptive he was on defense." Which means that in leaving for the NBA after his junior season, Walker created leadership voids on both ends of the floor.

UConn does retain three excellent defenders in Oriakhi, sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb and sophomore forward Roscoe Smith, all of whom did their finest work in the NCAA tournament. Oriakhi went into Hulk mode after Selection Sunday: In the 14 games before March Madness he was involved in 16.0% of defensive possessions; during the tournament that number jumped to 24.4%, the highest of any UConn player. Not only that, but he had the team's best defensive rating (73.5) over that six-game stretch. "I just knew that if we took the opposing big men out of the game—guys like [Arizona's] Derrick Williams or [Butler's] Matt Howard—we'd have a chance to win," says Oriakhi.

Calhoun's man-to-man defense is fixated on protecting the lane—allowing dribble penetration to the "nail" on the free throw line is a cardinal sin—at the expense of leaving shooters open. UConn's perimeter players must be able to help (or "stunt") to the middle, then recover to challenge gunners on the wing. Calhoun's real weapons were Lamb (6'5" with 7'3" wingspan) and Smith (6'8" with 7'2" wingspan), who tied for the team's second-best NCAA tournament DRating (73.9). After allowing opponents to shoot 40.4% in the study's 14 pre-NCAA tournament games, Smith held opponents to 28.6% in the tourney. Conclusion: Length kills.

UConn's top priority on every possession is to pressure the point guard near half-court. (Shabazz Napier excelled in this role, although his DRating was deflated due to tough assignments and a high foul rate.) The Huskies' next aim is to force action toward the sideline, then to the baseline, where one of their big men can rotate over for a block. This tried-and-true strategy of "funneling," combined with the presence of imposing post players, has made them a constant presence near the top of block-percentage leaderboards. The addition of 6'11" Andre Drummond, the No. 1--rated center in the class of 2011, should prolong the block party.

The holiest statistic among Connecticut coaches, however, is not blocked shots. It's consecutive stops. They believe in the power of defensive momentum, and according to Calhoun's charting, the Huskies were 21--2 last season in games in which they had four sequences of three stops in a row. They were 18--0 when they had five sequences. In the title game, UConn demoralized Butler with seven three-stop runs.

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