Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tournament Time and the Press

Instead of the three or four upsets we’ve come to expect, in an odd twist the NCAA tournament’s opening day only saw one lower seed win. VCU (11 seed) beat Duke (6 seed) on an Eric Maynor last-second pull-up jumper. While those were the winning points, the reason why VCU was even in a position to win was the full-court press, a familiar weapon of the March Cinderella. When Maynor got the ball, the game was still close because VCU had forced 17 turnovers, including a game-high 6 by Duke’s PG Greg Paulus.

The press as a means to a round one upset is a March staple. Remember the LSU-UAB game from a few years ago (‘05) that featured the entire UAB squad preying on the hopelessly ill-prepared and ill-equipped LSU frosh PG Tack Minor? UAB rode the press and the charisma of their twin brother leaders to the sweet sixteen. Whether it’s Tulsa (’03) or Coppin State (’97) the full court press (usually accompanied by its sidekick, the three-pointer) is regularly the cause for a round one upset. Which begs the question why isn’t it used more often? Why was VCU the only team to use it on Thursday?

Think of Jim Boeheims’s Syracuse teams with their 2-1-2 or Pitino’s mid-‘90s Kentucky teams (who made 3 straight championship games) endlessly harassing the opponents on the opposite end of the floor. Pitino in fact still uses the press with UL but usually only for spurts in the opening five minutes as they did against A&M before eventually stopping and subsequently, if not consequently, losing the game (the A&M game that is). Before Pitino’s run of three straight with UK, Nolan Richardson (whose disciples were later responsible for the aforementioned UAB team) lead his famed “40 minutes of Hell” Razorback attack to back-to back championship games in ’94 and ’95 with a game-plan that got its nickname from its relentless ball pressure.

Why it’s become a relic of big time programs (Boeheim excluded) and solely a weapon of the non-BCS schools, I’m not sure. One theory: With fewer players staying for a full four years, the necessary practice and team cohesion can no longer be achieved with such frequent roster turnover. Whatever the cause, because the press seems to only be prevalent in the mid-major conferences, big time schools, being less exposed, are thus more susceptible to it.

For example, on Friday, the second-seeded and much hyped Wisconsin team (recall the mid-season Sports Illustrated feature) was losing by as much as 18 points with five minutes left in the first half. Here again, Texas A&M Corpus Christi’s full-court press was responsible, but in a yet slightly different way. It wasn’t so much pure turnovers and sloppiness on the part of UW, but rather an overall mental breakdown ostensibly due to CC’s claustrophobic defense. Shots were rushed and inevitable missed, rebounds were fumbled. Fifteen minutes had passed and the score was 25-7.

On Sunday, in a mini-upset (5 vs. 4 seed) USC beat Texas. Though they rarely pressed the length of the court, it was their pressure half-court defense that had those same Tack Minor-Greg Paulus effects on UT’s D.J. Augustin, a PG who relies on his speed and quickness (when he drives to the basket, which is all the time) to mask his propensity for losing control.

In this way the press is multifaceted. If not for actual turnovers, it serves to shock the opponent, to make them uncomfortable, to jostle their mental preparation that had their offensive sets and defensive assignments lined up so tidily in their mind’s eye. Like Wisconsin, teams are shaken. Unexpectedly there are travels and double dribbles even when players are momentarily left unmolested, the threat being sufficient. Furthermore, employing the press infects the pressing team with a greater sense of hustle. Beyond their press, once Wisconsin crossed half-court, CC “settled” into a 2-3 zone, one described by the announcers as a more active version of what OSU used. Recall that OSU beat UW 2 out of 3 times. UW’s poster boy, Alando Tucker, tried to look calm and collected through his body language when, for example, repeatedly passing the ball back to a teammate who had just thrown the ball his way in what was a blatant plea of “please save us Alando,” but what he really was, was passive, and scared to act. Harried and uncomfortable, he didn’t want to show it, instead putting the onus on his less able teammates. Eventually Wisconsin adapted and, more importantly, CC tired and couldn’t maintain the sufficient pressure throughout the second half.

This of course is one of two major disadvantages of running the press, lacking the sufficient energy to sustain it. That’s the nature of the press; it’s a gamble. Even if the pressing team can maintain the pressure for all forty minutes, good teams – well-coached teams – can beat it and capitalize on quick and easy baskets, leaving the pressing team out of breath and demoralized. That’s why it’s rarely used in NBA; the talent pool is too deep. But rarely is there a college team adept at consistently overcoming the press. The levels of talent, maturity, and basketball intelligence simply aren’t there up and down the roster on a college squad. That’s why it’s such an exploitable vulnerability.

So what do you get with the press when executed as designed? Well, besides the aforementioned basics, a nice side effect was exhibited in the VCU game. The fast pace lured the neutral fans, most of whom are at these games waiting for their team to play later in the day or to just enjoy college ball and don’t have a vested interest in 6 of the 8 teams they see that day. Combine that with the fact that it’s the underdog that is the more visually attractive team, and all of a sudden it becomes a home game for the little guys. The effect is so profound that it in the VCU game it even penetrated the professional armor of the announcers, who subtly, perhaps even unconsciously, began rooting for VCU, noticeably speaking excitedly about the success of the press even when it wasn’t achieving its optimum effect (i.e. they praised VCU even when they committed fouls in their haste, focusing on their hustle and neglecting to acknowledge such detriments).

And so it was with this collective emotional backdrop, the fans and even the announcers (Kevin Harlan and Bob Wenzel) rooting for him and the rest of the Rams that Eric Maynor calmly dribbled up the court before stopping suddenly at the free throw line and sinking the game winning shot, leaving less than two second showing on the clock. And for all his clutch ability, it’s not a stretch to presume that the Duke players might have been just a little more fatigued that usual, and Eric Maynor’s path up-court was made that much easier.

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