"D" Up - Bracketography.com

"D" Up


BACK TO MAIN ARCHIVE PAGE

by Andy Force
Senior Writer, Bracketography.com
January 25, 2004

 


The crowd roars, raining down praise upon the home team. All you need is a stop, a defensive stand to shift the tide in the contest. What player do you look to get the stop? From a team standpoint, what squad makes open shots a distant memory? It takes a special kind of commitment, a willingness to bypass the accolades associated with Sportscenter-caliber highlights. "Defense wins games" is the traditional saying. At least of half of the games broadcast this year have included silly-long stretches of offensive ineptitude. Shooting has looked abysmal at times, but prepared defenses have contributed. As Dick Vitale preaches, the biggest adjustment for college basketball players is learning what a good shot is. Talent makes buckets, but mental toughness on the other side of the ball repels the threat. Here is the D, full strength.

Pittsburgh took its first loss Monday, January 19th but not for lack of trying. They ground out a tight match with occasional #1 UConn. The Pitt D held a team of McDonald's All-Americans to 68 points. The Huskies average 84 points per, though the Panthers made them play a slower, methodical game. This bruising effort embodies Pitt's success thus far, as they stand 18-1 on the campaign. Through the 19th of January, the Panthers stood 8th in the country in Scoring Defense. They allow a meager 56.6 points per game.

The cast of characters is long, but Pitt's strength is its strength. Six players weigh in over 230 lbs. and clog the lane sufficiently. That is a lot of roadblocks to deter aspiring drives. Julius Page plays outstanding on-the-ball defense and for the first time Carl Krauser is learning to play within a system. Twice this year the Panthers have held their opponent below 40 points (and under 30% from the field). There are 40 freaking minutes in a basketball game. Imagine going to the free throw line once every two minutes and knocking down a pair. That is it. That is your quota. Nothing comes easy against Pittsburgh and their man-size boys.

For the Purdue Boilermakers surprising the Big Ten Conference has become commonplace. Each year Gene Keady embraces the role of teaching stifling defense to marginally talented players. Do the names Cuonzo Martin, Matt Waddell, and Justin Jennings conjure up thoughts of conference championships? Well, with these fixtures Keady won three consecutive titles 94-96. This season Purdue has held opponents to 59.4 points per contest. Factored into this statistic are the typically high powered offenses of Illinois and Duke. Guard Kenneth Lowe earned the 2003 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honor. Purdue's post players are more than big they are strong. It is a given that Boilermakers will tack on 15 pounds of muscle between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Physical and mental maturity both enable Keady's Boilermakers to compete for a Big Ten Championship every year.

While determining the best defensive team in the land depends on style preference, the best defensive individual is Emeka Okafor. A player who entered Big East prominence as a freshman two years ago, Okafor began as a specialist. His offensive game has always trailed his game-altering, disruptive shot blocking. As staggering as 5.1 blocks per game is, it in no way grasps the enormity of Okafor's contributions. Statistics are not kept for shots changed, shots not taken, or entire plays scratched from the gameplan.

Watching UConn play, you quickly realize the impact he has. Players look frightened when they don't see Okafor. It is as if they take comfort in his presence, because they prefer to see their predator. In an 86-59 drubbing of then #6 Oklahoma, Okafor missed a triple-double by one block. He did manage that feat against a severely undermanned Army team earlier this year. OU's coach, Kelvin Sampson called Okafor "the star but he doesn't play like it. He plays every game like it is his last game." That hunger, his tenacity frightens opponents. OU post players shot 2-18 against Okafor and pals. Two shots made in a game.

UMass coach Steve Lappas stated "Emeka Okafor is maybe the best inside defender in the country." A poignant thought by Sooner guard Jason Detrick reveals the mind games a shot-blocker plays on hopeful offenses. "They (UConn) were just forcing us to the hole…we were trying to shoot over Emeka…they were baiting us in there," recalled Detrick. You will never hear a player more fearful of the basket area.

With one ball for five players, there are only so many chances for players to "get theirs." Defense is something everyone can do, at which anyone can excel. Effort makes the biggest difference on the less spectacular side of the ball. While Emeka Okafor hosts block parties twice a week, the Pitt Panthers and Purdue Boilermakers keep entire teams in check. They use their imposing frames to frustrate, deny, and ultimately defeat opponents. Okafor's Huskies, Pitt, and PU will win a lot of games in 2004 courtesy of their pride in defense.