Night Line: Four Guard Attack is Working Wonders for Missouri

Posted by EJacoby on November 23rd, 2011

Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist. You can find him @evanJacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.

When forward Laurence Bowers suffered a season-ending ACL injury in an early practice this season, the preseason buzz surrounding Missouri was quieted a bit. Anytime a team loses its second-leading scorer, it’s a big blow, but Bowers was especially important because of his role as one of the few inside scoring threats on the team. He was also their leading returning rebounder and shot-blocker. But Frank Haith’s Tigers have adapted well to his injury, deciding to go with a four-guard starting lineup in order to get their most effective players on the court regardless of size. The result? Mizzou, under its new and somewhat embattled head coach, is now 5-0 while thrashing Notre Dame and California at the CBE Classic to the tune of 29- and 39-point wins, respectively.

Kim English

Guard Kim English is Excited About Missouri's Hot Start (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Saying that Missouri has been impressive through five games is a massive understatement. They just stomped on unbeaten No. 18 California, perhaps the best team in the Pac-12, by 39 points. No, that’s not a typo; thirty-nine points. How’d it happen? For this team, when it rains, it pours, and the Tigers have been liquid from the perimeter all year. Coming into tonight’s game, Mizzou had already been one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation, averaging 84 points per game while shooting 50% from the field. Those numbers will improve even more after the 92-53 beatdown they just gave to Cal. During the ESPN2 telecast, Dick Vitale noted that the Tigers truly love sharing the ball. There’s nothing that makes a guard-heavy attack run smoother than such a trait. If selfishness could slow the Missouri offense down, unselfish passing makes it go. And Missouri is in full ‘go’ mode early on this season.

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More on Gladwell’s Full-Court Pressure Argument…

Posted by rtmsf on May 13th, 2009

We think we’ve isolated what Gladwell’s problem derives from on the fallacious full-court press argument he made last week.  Put simply, he’s drinking the Rick Pitino kool-aid.  We don’t blame him, Pitino is an engaging guy who can sell ice cubes to eskimos, and Gladwell wouldn’t be the first to slurp it all up (ask Karen Sypher or any Boston Celtic fan ca. 1997-98).  But it appears that Pitino is his sole source of information when it comes to how underdogs win basketball games, and somehow Coach P has convinced Gladwell that much of his collegiate success is based on undertalented yet hungry players who were able to maniacally pressure Goliaths into turnovers and easy buckets.  It’s almost as if Gladwell doesn’t realize that Pitino has been a Goliath for most of his career, nor does he realize that there are probably better ways of accomplishing a similar result (i.e., slowing games down to a crawl).  In this week’s back-and-forth with Bill Simmons, Gladwell writes:

You’re right. I am a bit obsessed with the full-court press at the moment. I just did a story for The New Yorker about how underdogs beat favorites, which had a lot about basketball in it. For the story, I went down to Louisville and had a long chat with Rick Pitino. He argued that the press is the best chance an underdog has of being competitive with stronger teams, and I think his record proves the case. That Providence team he took to the Final Four in 1984 has to have been just about the least talented team EVER to reach that level.  Then, of course, Pitino takes one of his first Louisville teams to the Final Four in 2006 and this season’s team to the Elite Eight, and no one’s going to argue that either of those teams were filled with future Hall of Famers.


First of all, it was 1987, not 1984, when Pitino’s Providence team went to the F4, and we contend that it was Pitino’s early-adoption of the just-instituted three-point shot that gave his team a competitive advantage that season more than their use of full-court pressure defense.  PC set records that still stand today at the school for taking (665) and making (280) threes (over 8 per game), led by their sharpshooting guards Delray Brooks and of course, Billy Donovan.  Traditional powers from the early to mid-80s such as Georgetown and Louisville were slower to utilize the new shot, and as such, they quickly became less relevant over the next several years until they realized its value.   Providence’s full-court press was important to achieving that success, but the three-point shot was decidedly more important.

Secondly, least talented team EVER to make the F4?  George Mason 2006, Wisconsin 2000, LSU 1986, among others… say hello.

Finally, his record proves the case?  How?  Pitino is a masterful recruiter, and this is nothing new to anyone who has followed college hoops during the last twenty years.  While it’s true that his BU and Providence teams weren’t particularly talented, his teams dating from 1992-97 at Kentucky and 2002-09 at Louisville were mostly loaded.  We thought the argument Gladwell tried to make here is that the full-court press levels the playing field for the Davids of the world vs. the Goliaths, right?  How is using Rick Pitino’s teams, the majority of which were exceptionally athletic AND talented, as your example of this?  The 2005 Louisville team (Pitino’s fourth season at the school, btw) went 33-5, had an all-american wing playmaker in Francisco Garcia and a very good point guard named Taquan Dean to go along with the standard Pitino cast of numerous replaceable parts – all long, lean and athletic.  That team was a #2 seed (corrected: #4 seed) in a region where the common perception was that the Cards were a better team than the #1 seeded Washington Huskies.  This is supposed to be a scrappy group of underdogs?  And who among our faithful readers is going to swallow the argument that the 2009 Louisville team (a #1 seed and preseason favorite along with UNC and UConn) wouldn’t have been nearly as good without their press, as Gladwell implies.  What about Earl Clark?  Terrence Williams?  Does he not realize that these two were among the best dozen or so players in college basketball this season?

And what about this indefensible jewel regarding Louisville center (and freshman all-american) Samardo Samuels?

When we were talking, Pitino called over Samardo Samuels, who is, of course, Jamaican — his point being that this was his ideal kind of player, someone who substituted for a lack of experience with a lot of hunger. There is something weird, isn’t there — and also strangely beautiful — about a coach who deliberately seeks out players who aren’t the most talented?

Right.  The same player who was the 2008 USA Today POY at the high school level and rated #9 overall in his class by Rivals isn’t the most talented.  Jamal Mashburn, Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, David Padgett, Juan Palacios, Derrick Caracter, Jerry Smith  and many others were also lesser-talented players whom Pitino plucked from the bottom of the barrel because of their innate hunger (not talent).   (Amir Johnson, Sebastian Telfair and most recently Jeremy Tyler are additional lesser-talented players whom Pitino sought for their hunger only to be disappointed when they headed straight to the pros… because they were less talented.)

Yeah, Samuels is Undertalented

Yeah, Samuels is Undertalented

Gladwell has fallen hard for the Pitino pitch.   Here’s more.

There are two other things here that fascinate me. After my piece ran in The New Yorker, one of the most common responses I got was people saying, well, the reason more people don’t use the press is that it can be beaten with a well-coached team and a good point guard. That is (A) absolutely true and (B) beside the point. The press doesn’t guarantee victory. It simply represents the underdog’s best chance of victory. It raises their odds from zero to maybe 50-50. I think, in fact, that you can argue that a pressing team is always going to have real difficulty against a truly elite team. But so what? Everyone, regardless of how they play, is going to have real difficulty against truly elite teams. It’s not a strategy for being the best. It’s a strategy for being better. I never thought Louisville — or, for that matter, Missouri — had a realistic shot at winning it all in the NCAAs this year. But if neither of those teams pressed, they wouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Let’s break this down again, because it’s clear that Gladwell does not understand why he’s wrong about this.  Louisville and Missouri have elite talent and elite athletes at the college level.  Their pressure defense only makes them better because they’re already really good to begin with.  These two teams are not and never were underdogs in the David mold.  They’re excellent college basketball teams and that statement would be true no matter what style of defense they chose to play.  The elite teams that Gladwell mentions a pressing team will always have trouble against – yeah, what he’s failing to recognize is that Louisville and Mizzou are the Goliaths in that scenario.

A true David in the college game is a team that is outclassed from a talent and/or athletic perspective.  Often it’s both.  If a team deficient in one  or both of these areas tries to press a legitimate Goliath such as a UConn, Michigan St. or Oklahoma this year, they’d have gotten crucified.  A pressing team at the collegiate level must, must, must have good athletes (and enough of them) to become successful; otherwise, the elite guards populating rosters on the Goliaths will absolutely destroy it.  There’s a reason that the few pressing teams that pull major upsets in the NCAA Tourney, while somewhat lacking on skill, are always full of guys who can run, jump and terrorize teams with their long arms and defensive activity.  We’re thinking of Bruce Pearl’s teams at UW-Milwaukee and Mike Anderson’s UAB teams as good examples.  Short on individual talent, but long on athleticism.

So what do you do if you’re a David who is  short on both?  Gladwell suggests that full-court pressure evens things up, and uses his junior high girls basketball example as evidence to that fact.  The problem, which we covered in our previous examination of this topic, is that at the collegiate level, a team that is significantly less skillful and less athletic than its opponent will suffer extreme humiliation by employing this strategy.  The proper way to combat this is to instead slow the game down, limit possessions, run an efficient offense and play hard-nosed halfcourt defense.  Princeton did this to UCLA, Bucknell did this to Kansas, Vermont did this to Syracuse, and there are many, many other successful examples.  Seriously, does anyone in their right minds believe that those three teams could have pulled the upsets by pressing the Goliath?

It’s preposterous, yet that’s what Gladwell would have us believe.

You Need Athletes to Make This Work

You Need Athletes to Make This Work

The bottom line is this.  Successful pressing requires athletes at the elite level of college basketball.  If you do not have athletes (and most Davids don’t), then you will get run ouf of the gym as Goliath scores layup after dunk after layup on your smaller, slower team.  Your best strategy is instead to slow the game down and limit possessions while playing smart basketball on both ends.  We see upsets like this nearly every year in the NCAA Tournament.  The one caveat, however, is if you have players who can match up reasonably well with a Goliath from an athletic standpoint, then you may consider pressing as a viable strategy.  The problem with this, of course, is that it’s fairly rare in the college game that a true David will have that kind of athletic stable at their disposal.  If you’re lucky enough to have both talent and athletes to run a press (as Pitino has had throughout much of his career, along with Nolan Richardson and some others), then such a strategy can devastate opponents – the real question should be why more Goliaths don’t institute the full-court press, rather than Davids.   This is why we continue to argue that full-court pressure defense is a better strategy for an elite team rather than an underdog – those teams already have the proper tools of talent and athleticism to employ it.

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Gladwell’s Theory on Full Court Pressure is the Only Outlier Here

Posted by nvr1983 on May 5th, 2009

Everyone’s favorite contrarian and make-sense-of-the-world guru, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote a provocative piece in this week’s New Yorker that is making the rounds among the hoops blognoscenti today.  Gladwell, the author of such fantastic thinking-man’s books such as The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, is one of our favorite writers, one of the few in the industry for whom we’ll actually make a specific trek to the book store and pay for a hardcover (!) edition shortly after his new material arrives.  So when we say we’re a major fan of his writing, thinking and (ahem) moral clarity, we’re not joking.  In RTC’s view of the world, Gladwell is Blake Griffin and the rest of us are merely the rim (or a hapless Michigan defender, take your pick).

Well, except for today.


Gladwell’s Argument

The article is long, but Gladwell’s thesis focuses on a story about a girls’ junior league basketball team located in Silicon Valley, filled with 12-yr olds who admittedly weren’t very good at the skillful parts of the game, but they could run and hustle and were able to win their local league and make the national tournament based upon their reliance and perfection of a strategy that any team can employ: the use of full-court pressure defense.  In his argument, Gladwell successfully interweaves the biblical story of David vs. Goliath with quantitative analyses of historical military strategy and modern basketball, ultimately concluding that the Davids in every facet of competition have a much better chance of winning by simply changing up how the game is played.

Using his typical mixture of anecdotal and statistical evidence, Gladwell argues that for a David to have a chance at beating Goliath, he must do two things.  The first thing – outwork Goliath – is a simple enough concept; but, more importantly,  the second requirement is that David must also be willing to do something that is “socially horrifying” in order to change the conventions of the battle.  For example, David knew he couldn’t defeat Goliath in a traditional swordfight; so he reconsidered his options and decided instead to pick up and throw the five stones by which his opponent fell.  Gladwell likens this strategy to the one implemented by the girls’ team’s coach, Vivek Ranadive, an Indian-born immigrant who had never before played the game of basketball.   Noting that his team wasn’t skilled enough to compete in the traditional half-court style of basketball played by most teams at that level, he instituted a full court pressure defense that truly confounded their opponents.  Using Gladwell’s model, the press was a socially horrifying construct that allowed Ranadive’s team a chance to compete with their more pysically talented contemporaries.  And compete they did, all the way to the national tournament.

Given the purported equalizing effect of the press, Gladwell asked why isn’t the use of full-court pressure defense more commonly used in organized basketball?  He cites Rick Pitino as one of the most successful adopters of the strategy, particularly with his 80s Providence and 90s Kentucky teams, but other than a few coaches here and there over the years, in his estimation the strategy remains largely underutilized (Mizzou’s Mike Anderson and Oklahoma St.’s Travis Ford, a Pitino protege, say “hi”).


Why It’s Wrong

We’re somewhat concerned about a lightning bolt striking us when we say this, but Gladwell completely misses the mark on this one – the full court press as a strategy works great when you’re dealing with 12-yr old girls whose teams are generally all at roughly the same skill and confidence levels (i.e., not very good), but as you climb the ladder and start to see the filtration of elite talent develop in the high schools, it actually becomes a weapon that favors the really good teams, the Goliaths, more than that of the underdogs.  The reason for this disparity is simple – successful pressure defense is a function of phenomenal athleticism (quickness, activity and agility) more than any other single factor, and the best teams tend to have the best athletes (not always, but often).  That’s why the early 90s leviathans of UNLV, Arkansas and Kentucky were so unbelievably devastating – they each could send wave after wave of long, athletic players at their opponents, which were usually slower, less athletic and shallower teams.

Gladwell confirms this when he talks with Pitino at length about the 1996 Kentucky dismantling of LSU, when the Wildcats went into the locker room with an 86-42 lead as an example of the devastating consequences of a great full-court press.  No argument there, but where it breaks down is when he fails to recognize that 1996 UK team was one of the best and deepest teams in the last quarter century of college basketball.  Nine players saw time in the NBA from a team who steamrolled most everyone they came into contact with that season.  The LSU first half was Exhibit A of the destruction, but they were far from the only one, and for Gladwell to use this example to somehow make a case for full-court pressure defense assisting the Davids pull off an upset is borderline absurd!

The other factor that Gladwell doesn’t discuss in his piece is that teams at the highest levels of basketball usually have guards who can beat pressure by themselves (not typically found at the 12-yr old level).  There’s a very good reason that you almost never see a full-court press in the NBA, and it’s because point guards like Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo are nearly impossible to trap in the full-court.  Every NBA team has at least one player who can easily negotiate any backcourt trap, which will lead to an automatic fast break advantage and two points at the other end – a coach of an underdog employing this strategy on a consistent basis will soon be in the unemployment line if he tries this too often.  This is obviously less true at the collegiate level, but there are enough good guards at the top programs that similarly make full-court pressure a relatively futile effort.  Are you seriously going to trap Ty Lawson or Sherron Collins for an entire game?  Good luck with that strategy.

Not Even Matt Doherty Would Press Full Court as an Underdog

Not Even Matt Doherty Would Press Full Court as an Underdog


What’s particularly ironic about Gladwell’s conclusion that full-court pressure defense could act as the great equalizer in basketball is that a byproduct of this strategy is that it speeds up the game.  Yet, the tried-and-true method for less talented teams to have a shot to beat their more talented counterparts is to slow the game down.   Taking the air out of the ball became such a problem in the late 70s and early 80s that the NCAA instituted the shot clock to eliminate 24-11 abominations like this one.  Even former UNC coach Matt Doherty employed a modern shot-clock version of the strategy in a 60-48 loss against #1 Duke in the 2002 ACC Tournament.  We’d never say never about Doherty’s coaching acumen, but we would be seriously shocked if he had considered pressing Duke (and Jason Williams) as a viable strategy to pull off the major upset.  It is Doherty, though, so you never know.

Gladwell, as always, wrote a thought-provoking article that told a fascinating story about Vivek Ranadive’s team of twelve-year old “blonde girls.”  He failed, however, when he made a logical leap from youth league girls’ basketball to the elite levels on the assumption that such a strategy would work similarly for lesser talented teams.  It’s a fair assumption that was likely made by someone not as familiar with the intricacies of high-level basketball, but our job here of course is to set the record straight.  If we ever end up coaching youth league basketball, though, it’s now clear what our first practice will focus on.

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