The start of the basketball season is still several months away. The conclusion to the 2011-12 Season has long since passed. Still, missing the NCAA’s is difficult to let go as not qualifying for the Big Dance is something Arizona fans do not take lightly.
7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski hopes to help Sean Miller return Arizona to his preferred defensive style.
In looking back through the stat sheets and reviewing my game-by-game notes I was reminded of something from Basketball 101, and it’s something that could serve to explain some of Arizona’s struggles last season while lending promise to a more successful season this year.
Whether you know the game of basketball or not, know this: Post play dictates a team’s entire defensive philosophy.
Those who have read my X’s and Dazzo’s articles throughout the basketball season have seen me say that Sean Miller prefers to have his perimeter defenders force the ball to the elbow areas. However, if that’s true, then how was it possible that so many ball handlers were able to beat the Wildcats to the baseline and make plays around the basket?
Was Arizona’s on-ball defense that bad? Were the players confused?
The answer is no and no.
Using the premise of this article – post play dictates a team’s entire defensive philosophy – let’s look at what Arizona faced last season, the type of post defense they played, and how that impacted the team’s defensive philosophy.
Last season Arizona lacked height. As a result, the Wildcats were forced to abandon Miller’s preferred half-front post defense and instead switch back and forth from fronting the post to playing behind the post. In the latter options, perimeter defenders can’t get beat toward the elbow areas (middle of floor) because if the post player needs to step up and over to help, the dump down pass to the offensive player being helped off of is not only easy, but the pass catcher is positioned at a perfect scoring angle to the basket. Instead, by forcing the ball handler to the baseline, the help can easily rotate and deny baseline while also forcing difficult angles for the ball handler to distribute the basketball AND making it a much tougher catch and shoot for the offensive post player.
With Jesse Perry as the team’s starting center, Miller had no option except to try and front the post, force lob passes to the block, push ball handlers toward the baseline and hope for the best. Despite the team’s many losses, Arizona’s defense was hardly to blame. In short, even though Miller was forced to go away from his preferred defensive style, his guys played hard and made the most out of an extremely difficult situation. The real problem, though, is when your defense is forcing opponents to the baseline, it’s more exposed because it’s forced to stretch at greater lengths to offer help, which ultimately places defenders in poor rebounding position.
Life wasn't easy for Jesse Perry and the Wildcats having to defend behind the post player last season on too many occasions.
Looking toward the future, the addition of incoming freshmen Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett, and Brandon Ashley, as well as the emergence of a stronger and more experienced Chol, will mean much more to the Wildcats than just adding size.
The dramatically taller Arizona frontline will see the Wildcats return to a scheme of defending the post with a half front (UA defender straddling the post player from the side and denying the passing lane with his extended arm). As a result, fans can expect to see Arizona’s perimeter defenders return to the concept of pushing ball handlers toward the elbow areas where it’s crowded. The half-front perfectly positions the Arizona big men to become shot blocking and help defense menaces in the painted area without having to rotate as extremely as they would have to playing over the top or fully behind their opponent.
While Arizona will extend its pressure in the half court, the goal of any defense is to not get over extended. With this in mind, picture a wing defender getting beat baseline, which would then force a guy like Tarczewski (who’s half-fronting his man) to entirely move around his opponent to get to the baseline. Whatever you’re picturing make sure you include a layup or at best a foul on Tarczewski. Now, picture that same ball handler getting pushed from the wing toward the elbow area with both Wildcat big men half-fronting their men, and well positioned to easily open up and defend the paint in a single step. That scenario is a mess for the ball handler and is begging for a charge, a turnover, or a hotly-contested shot as they’re being squeezed by a 7-footer in their face and an aggressive wing like Nick Johnson or Kevin Parrom trailing on their hip.
Knowing this, the biggest challenge Miller and his coaching staff face in the coming months is getting their new frontline players college ready. If the young Wildcats can learn to properly defend the post using Miller’s preferred style, then Arizona has the opportunity to make a lot of noise in 2012-13 by becoming a ball-hawking defensive club that forces turnovers and defends at a high percentage. Assuming the added height and improved defensive positioning (i.e balance) translates to better rebounding, Wildcat fans are suddenly looking at a more transition-oriented club that is finally able to push the basketball following steals, turnovers rebounds and blocked shots without being so susceptible to foul trouble because its players are no longer having to rotate at such great distances.
Gary Randazzo is a national basketball analyst and publisher of WildcatSportsReport.com.