In the 2011 NCAA tournament, new Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart led Virginia Commonwealth University on an unlikely Final Four run. Sent to Dayton as an 11 seed, the Rams made their young head coach famous with some timely three point shooting and an aggressive full court press.
Let's talk about that press. Shaka Smart, then the coach of VCU, apparently knew something about branding. He named his mixture of full court presses and his overall style of play "Havoc." That term probably was helpful for selling his coaching DVDs, and it also helped to create a national identity for his up and coming program.
So what is Havoc? It turns out that it isn't anything new -- there are few truly new tactics in the game of basketball. The full court presses that Smart taught to his team at VCU -- and that he will presumably deploy at Texas -- have been with us for decades.
Smart's primary weapon is a man-to-man full court trapping press that was rather popular 20 years ago when Rick Pitino was using it to terrorizing opponents of the Kentucky Wildcats. It is a defense that Pitino and his most successful former assistant Billy Donovan have used to great effect over the years.
Smart blends this press with a more traditional 1-2-1-1 zone trap that you see all across the country.
Double fist man-to-man press
In Shaka Smith's terminology, his trapping full court man-to-man defense is known as "double fist." He signals this to his team by holding two fists up in the air; it is a gesture you will see him frequently make throughout games.
(Note that "single fist" denotes a non-trapping full court man-to-man defense.)
I am going to walk you through this press, and show you how it works. It has long been one of my favorite defenses -- I really like how it balances risk and reward.
But before I walk you through the press, I want to show you how it starts. It can actually start out in a lot of different initial alignments.
In the example below, we see that VCU (in black) is set up in their press, while the opposing team is taking the ball out of bounds after a VCU basket. Note that no one is directly on the inbounder, but rather his defender is helping off and playing as almost a shallow safety.
The defense won't always align this way. Sometimes, as shown in the photo below, a defender will contest the inbounds pass, and try to limit the passer's vision. This can be done for several reasons -- in some cases opponents will use their primary ball handler as the inbounder against pressure, so that player can receive a quick pass back after the ball is inbounded. With this alignment, it is possible to deny this pass back.
A third example starting alignment for this press is shown below. This is taken from VCU's 2013 NCAA tournament contest against Michigan. In this case, the Rams were attempting to prevent Trey Burke, Michigan's star point guard, from handling the ball. To do this, they used the extra defender assigned to guard the inbounder to deny this pass, and force a secondary ball handler to dribble against the VCU pressure. (Michigan's secondary ball handlers were good, and the Wolverines won rather easily.)
However the defense lines up initially, the ball eventually gets in bounds. Let's walk through how the double fist press works once this happens.
When the ball is inbounded, we see what initially looks like a full court man-to-man defense. The image below shows a typical arrangement of players.
Something that is critically important about making this press work is that the on ball defender has to put a lot of pressure on the ball handler. At VCU, Shaka Smart frequently had Briante Weber in this role, one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. If you watch video of VCU's pressure, it often took nothing more than Weber getting after the ball handler to produce a turnover.
It is really important to apply heavy ball pressure, because if you don't this press doesn't amount to much of anything. The goal of the on ball defender is to create stress for the dribbler, and to force the dribbler to go up the sideline with the ball, perhaps just a bit faster than is comfortable. If the ball handler is instead able to calmly dribble up the middle of the court, this press won't work at all.
So that on ball defender really has to put the fear of God into the dribbler. So much fear, in fact, that he will dribble right into the teeth of the defense.
In the photo below, we see that things are starting to take shape. The ball is being forced out of the middle of the floor. As this happens, the backside guard becomes the trapping defender, and will prepare to double team the ball from behind (where the dribbler cannot see the trap coming).
Let's take a moment to reflect on a few things. First of all, if the on ball defender cannot force the dribbler out of the middle, this trap doesn't ever need to come. The defense does not have to commit to trap on every possession, but only will do so when the ball is along the sideline and the defense has an advantage.
This is important, as it allows the defense to avoid exposing itself to unnecessary risk. Double teaming the ball will leave a man open, and the time it takes for the double teaming defender to move to the ball is time when he is guarding no one. So the defense is best off if it only takes this risk when it is likely to be productive and the trapping defender is out of the ball handler's line of sight.
Another thing to notice in these photos are the positions of the other defenders. There is a defender that is standing near mid-court, on the near side of the floor. Note that he is positioned between his man and the ball, but is in a position where he can see both his man and the ball without having to turn his head very much. (Contrast this with the way that West Virginia played this season, with defenders on a straight line between their man and the ball.) This defender will not trap, but will perhaps make jabbing motions towards an opposing dribbler to create the impression of a potential trap. This serves to help contain this dribbler, and should hopefully slow him down if needed.
In the image below, we have advanced a few frames, and now the defense is starting to move. The trapping defender has committed, and has left his man. But the advancing ball handler has other problems, with an aggressive defender pushing him out of his comfort zone. He doesn't see the double team coming, and is headed for the worst spot on the floor.
Advancing a few more frames, and we really see the trouble materializing. Note where the trapping defender is now. He is completely behind the ball handler, who cannot see him.
To set the trap, the defender guarding the ball now needs to turn the ball handler back into the trap somewhere around midcourt. He needs to quickly jump in front of the ball, and turn it back into the coming double team.
The image below shows what things look like right as this happens. The ball handler is now in hot water, pinned between two defenders, the midcourt line, and the sideline. This is the worst spot on the floor for him, and he knows it, but the unreasonable ball pressure put on him forced him to go there.
Meanwhile, other defenders are preparing to jump into passing lanes. At least one defender needs to cover two players. If he anticipates the pass correctly, or simply guesses right, he will come away with a steal for an easy layup. If he is wrong, the rim is still well protected, and the team will need to scramble and recover defensively.
Diamond zone trap
Shaka Smart does not rely solely on his man-to-man press. He also uses a more traditional 1-2-1-1 zone press to give opponents a second thing to worry about, and create traps in different spots on the floor. In Smart's terminology, this is the diamond press, which he signals by making a diamond shape with his index fingers and thumbs.
In this defense, the action typically starts with one player up front contesting the inbounds pass, while two second level defenders prepare to trap. A third level defender starts between 30-50 feet from the baseline, and the final defender guards the basket. After the ball is passed in, the front defender and one of the second level defenders quickly trap the ball.
One of the most obvious differences with this defense to fans watching the game, when compared with double fist, is that the first trap comes immediately after the ball is entered into play. Frequently, that ball gets quickly passed back out of the trap (as shown in the image below), and the diamond resets.
After this reset, there is no quick trap, but the defense will instead look to trap a dribbler who is attempting to penetrate the defense. The defensive alignment is shown in the image below. Also note that the fourth defender is keeping the ball out of the middle, which is frequently the spot that the offense wants to get the ball to when attacking a zone press.
In the sequence I am following here, the ball is again reversed back to the near side of the floor, and this time the dribbler will challenge the defense.
Finally, in the image below, we get to the point where the trap is set. Note that the other two players now become interceptors, and will look to steal the pass.
Here is the final shot of the sequence, where the two interceptors are defending three offensive players.
In the coming weeks, we will look more at how Texas' current personnel will fit into this defense. (My quick take -- it m be may be an odd fit for a season or two.) We can also dive into Smart's half court defense and offense -- with a new coach there is a lot of new stuff to learn.
But before we do that, I think it is important to reflect on why you play defense like this. In recent seasons, Rick Barnes has run a very conservative defense that focuses on limiting opponents to one (and only one) low value shot on each possession. The result was few good shots for opponents, and few turnovers.
It is a fundamentally different approach to defense from the one taken by Smart, who looks to force the action with full court pressure. Neither approach is right or wrong -- at least for the purposes of D-I basketball both can work well or work poorly. But they work rather differently.
Pressing teams press all the time, and practice the press every day. Non pressing teams only practice against the press when they play a team that presses. So simply by pressing, you force the game to proceed in a manner that is comfortable for you, and uncomfortable for your opponent.
By pressing the entire game, you force the game to be played in your style. Consider games this season involving West Virginia, a team that played an aggressive full court man-to-man defense. All games with West Virginia basically boiled down to a single question -- can you beat the pressure?
As Texas implements a pressing defense, opponents will be asked this same question. Can you beat the pressure?