Can I Get Some Defense With a Side of Defense, Please?

With the NBA becoming more geared to shooters and higher scoring, this type of mindset and style of play has trickled down to the college and high school levels. This has become very apparent in the Horizon League, who has three teams ranked in the top-10 in the nation in scoring. Oakland leads about 350 Division 1 teams with 87.3 ppg; Green Bay is third with 85.6 ppg; Detroit Mercy is eighth at 83.8 ppg. No other conference has more than one team in the top 14. Sure, watching the ball go into the basket more often is exciting for players and fans.  But why is there suddenly an aversion to playing good individual and team defense?  After all, the famous and often true saying is that “defense wins championships.” Rule changes also have something to do with the increased scoring and pace of play in college. Most people agree that reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 was a good move. For NCAA men’s play, the restricted area arc was increased from three feet to four feet. The arc is there to make it more difficult for defenders to draw charges (player-control fouls). This gives the offensive player an advantage because the defender has less space to draw the charge. If any part of the defender’s foot touches the arc, it is a blocking foul, regardless of him being in legal guarding position and the offensive player initiating the contact.

On Friday night, I attended the Detroit Mercy at Oakland game. Those who wanted to see lots of offense were not disappointed. Detroit Mercy attempted a mind-boggling 84 field goal attempts, as the game was played at a quick pace with lots of transition opportunities and neither team working the shot clock down very much. Oakland attempted 64 field goals, with is still a healthy amount, but more in line with their season average. Keep in mind that number is lower because the Golden Grizzlies got to the free throw line quite often. There was one stretch in the second half that epitomized the high scoring game. With about 14 minutes left, Oakland led 60-52. The ensuing seven and a half minutes was as frenetic a pace as one will see on a basketball court. It was an offensive barrage that was characterized by lots of threes, fastbreaks, and easy opportunities around the basketball. Detroit Mercy outscored Oakland in that stretch 31-27, to cut the Golden Grizzlies lead to 87-83. That means that the teams combined to score 58 points in just over one-third of the half. UDM’s Chris Jenkins was particularly on fire in the latter part of that timeframe, scoring an amazing 13 of his team high 22 points in just 2 minutes and 14 seconds. Teams should certainly ride hot shooters and a fast pace of play if they are succeeding. But the lack of defensive effort was unbelievable as players were barely contesting jump shots, not getting back on defense in transition, and post defense was porous.

Teaching good defense needs to start when kids are playing in youth leagues. High school and college coaches also need to start putting more of an emphasis on the defensive end. Doing this would work greatly to their advantages because so few teams make good defense a priority. Just finding the mindset of good defense is an uphill battle because we live in a culture that tells us that scoring and making fancy offensive moves is king.  This makes some individual college and NBA players offensive numbers actually diluted. For example, a player averaging 16 ppg on a team scoring 80 ppg is scoring 20% of his team’s points. Whereas in past years where defense was stronger, a player averaging 13 ppg on a team averaging 52 ppg is scoring 25% or his team’s points. So the player scoring 13 ppg is actually more efficient for his team than the higher scoring player. There are a lot of variables in an example like that, but you get the gist. Valparaiso is only sixth in the Horizon League in scoring. However, they are clearly the league’s best team. Why? They lead the league in scoring defense by large margin, allowing only 60.8 points per game, which is sixth best in the nation. Remarkably, there is not another Horizon League team ranked in the top 50 nationally in scoring defense. There is a good chance that Oakland will play Valparaiso in the Horizon League Championship game: The best offense versus the best defense. In a single game, anything can happen. But history tells us that a good defensive team steadily prevails in the longer term. Give me a team with a great defense any day of the week, over one who is only offensive-minded.

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