Marquette and the Defensive Perils of Playing SmallPosted by Justin Kundrat on February 10th, 2017
The small ball era has been discussed ad nauseam with case studies such as Golden State in the NBA and Villanova in college acting as manifestations of its success. But for all the talk about how effective shooter-stocked lineups are, the most under-appreciated element of the strategy is player interchangeability on defense. Villanova’s small lineups work because its wing players can effectively guard multiple positions and Jay Wright’s emphasis on help defense shores up any size deficiencies. Marquette‘s small ball approach, on the other hand, has so far come up short. Before diving into the issues surrounding the Golden Eagles’ strategy, though, it’s important to illustrate why Steve Wojciechowski has resorted to it in the first place. On its face, his decision to add undersized shooters to his lineup appears to favor offense over defense.
The maneuver has turned what was a decent offense into the program’s best since Tom Crean and Dwyane Wade were still on campus back in 2003. The ninth-most efficient offense in college basketball features the nation’s best three-point shooting arsenal at 42.4 percent, serving as a primary source of the offense and ostensibly justifying Wojciechowski’s decision to recruit for a motion-heavy, perimeter-based attack. The glaring trade-off on defense, while somewhat apparent at the time, was not expected to be this drastic. While Marquette’s offense has clearly surged, its mid-major defense (165th nationally) represents a problem of positional versatility. Most undersized teams have at least one or two guys who are capable of “sizing up” and defending bigger players on switches. Wings JaJuan Johnson and Haanif Cheatham both possess good athleticism, but neither has shown an ability to effectively front his man on the block and contest shots around the rim. Meanwhile, the pair of stretch fours that Wojciechowski employs, Sam Hauser and Katin Reinhardt, are offensive specialists who are not quick enough to defend the perimeter. Watch Hauser in the clip below as he is caught off balance and never regains his composure.
Having a pair of sub-six foot point guards can generally be overcome with effective defenders on the wings, but the Golden Eagles simply lack the personnel to provide that stopgap measure. What this means is that much of Marquette’s defensive focus and energy is spent trying to cover up its gaping holes with help defense. This poses two problems. First, any good offense can expose a scrambling defense by placing shooters on the perimeter and taking open shots. It should therefore surprise nobody that teams are shooting a whopping 38.1 percent from downtown (42nd nationally) against the Golden Eagles. As the below clip shows, three defenders end up in the paint on this possession, leaving Creighton’s Justin Patton and Davion Mintz open in opposite corners.
Second, with penetration comes greater pressure on a team’s post defenders. Senior center Luke Fischer, for example, is an underrated shot blocker (89th nationally), but he constantly gets into foul trouble from contesting shots around the rim from dribble penetration. In short, Marquette’s defense has become over-reliant on generating stops via steals, which is not a long-term sustainable path for success. There simply aren’t enough skilled individual defenders in the Golden Eagles’ lineup to compensate for their overall lack of size. Marquette has certainly exceeded expectations this season on the offensive end, but hard lessons have been learned on the slippery slope that is small-ball defense.