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Defense a Staple at Minnesota and Dayton

by Andrew Force | March 13th, 2009

De-fense. Clap! Clap!  De-fense. Clap! Clap!

Defense wins championships.  It’s a highly regarded maxim that covers all sports.  If defense is so vital and clearly intrinsic to success, then why are defensive values rarely addressed in the written word?

In Minnesota, Tubby Smith brought a renewed focus on defense.  “We take away sight from the player who has the ball,” revealed his son and Assistant Coach Saul Smith.

Before Tubby arrived, Minnesota opponents heated their bodies beside the fire emitted from their own scorching shooting percentages. 

Foes shot nearly 44% on the Gophers.  The change is stark.  A self-actualized Michigan State Big Ten Tournament performance raised Minnesota’s FG% defense to 40%. 

“Some coaches don’t teach jumping to try to block it, but we try to block every shot be it a three or a layup,” acknowledged Smith. 

In one of the snuggest of the snug games this season, Morehead State’s leading shot-blocker Kenneth Faried raised up to thwart Wes Channels.  The score was 63-63 upon release.  Certain to win the game if successful, the shot was hurried but manageable.  “As long as he raises straight up we have no problem with him defending that shot,” offered MSU Coach Mark Tyndall. 

Rarely is a jump shot blocked though.  Officials are more prone to whistle a slap on a shooter’s wrist than a Russian Leg Sweep underneath.  Those that shoot also convert more often from the stripe. 

Regardless, the Smith father-son duo realizes “if you get your hand in his vision the shooting percentage will go down.” 

And it has.  Less than two years into this venture, Tubby’s troops plunged the field goal % defense to sub 40. Actually, only 29 teams in the nation defend the shot better. 

On New Year’s Eve, Big Ten Champion Michigan State trudged into Williams Arena expectant and positive.  What they experienced in the first half can only be described as goldfish fending off piranhas. 

“We tried to pressure the ball as best as we can,” said Saul Smith. 

The mighty Spartans frankly looked frightened and nervous.  Michigan State was forced to submit to the will of Minnesota, go where the Gophers directed them. 

Imagine it.  A potential Final Four offensive unit scrambling around the floor, turning blindly into traps, completely unable to see the open man across the floor. 

No on-ball defender harasses the common dribble better than Rob Lowery, Dayton’s backup point guard.  Though currently injured JuCo transfer Lowery made the ordinarily tame task of dribbling into the frontcourt hell. 

“I just think you have to have that passion and have that heart to sit down and try to keep your man in front of you,” said Lowery.  The 6’2″ guard is so incredible at keeping his man in front of him that he repeatedly drew ten second violations.  By himself. 

“When he brings [the ball] down to make a move you gotta give him some space, backup and try to move laterally,” said Saul Smith.

Moving laterally is by far the most tiring action in basketball.  And it’s easy to sprint with the ball in your hands, all eyes on you.  Reaching deep to initiate defensive slides takes will power, motivation that can highlight-seekers cannot cull. 

“The biggest adjustment young guys have to understand,” views Dayton Head Coach Brian Gregory, “is you don’t make a shot and then get excited and then play defense.  You play defense and rebound and make hustle plays and then all of a sudden the shots become a little easier.”   

Gregory’s Flyers yield 61.0 ppg, the same as Minnesota.  Coach Gregory learned under Tom Izzo. 

“You get high school kids that aren’t accustomed to pressuring the basketball with their hands,” said Assistant Coach Smith.  “They usually have them down.”  

The old baseball adage about being discovered in Dominican Republic is ‘You don’t walk off the island,’ implying DR youth are free swingers.  In the same vein, basketball scouts are not flocking to see the conference leader in steals play.  Buckets equal bucks. 

Defense is rarely a source of pride for anyone younger than 20 years of age. 

“It is not easy,” said Lowery.  ” It ain’t easy, but I think if you do it over a period of time it will wear your man down and help our team.”

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