Man to Man Defense: The Key to the Defensive Success of the Florida State Seminoles Men's Basketball Team

When Florida State finally cracked the code to get into the NCAA tournament at the end of the 2008-2009 season, the national media immediately caught on to the fact that Leonard Hamilton's squad played outstanding defense and was the key to their success. In fact, many identify Coach Hamilton as a defensive minded coach that gets his players to playing 40 minutes of pressure man to man defense. Last year, Toney Douglas earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors and was joined by Solomon Alabi on the 2009 All ACC Defensive Team.

In the last six years, Coach Hamilton's defense has ranked in the top 50 four times. In 7 out of his last 11 years in college basketball, his defense has held its opponents to less than 70 points per game. (In case you didn't know, Coach Hamilton has coached at the Division 1 level for 21 seasons)

After the jump, Tomahawk Nation will take a closer look at Leonard Hamilton's defense and how it stacks up to other defenses in the ACC.

Florida State v Wake Forest

Photo from here.

It's not surprising that Coach Hamilton's team plays a strict man to man defense with very little zone defense added in. When the Seminoles made the intermittent switch to a 2-3 zone, it was clear that the team was out of its element and comfort zone. Last season, Tomahawk Nation took an in-depth look at zone defenses and whether or not the tallest team in the nation should settle into a zone. The conclusion at the end of that article was that the Seminoles should not play zone defense and the same holds for this year. Some of this may be a gross over simplification for basketball gurus. The goals and objectives of this article is to provide our readers with a solid understanding of the fundamental principles of basketball and how they relate to our team. This is not intended to be an exhaustive review of how to play man to man defense. These kinds articles were well received last year and we hope they are this year as well. 

Playing man to man defense the way the Seminoles night in and night out takes commitment and creativity. A defensive assignment may not be strictly based on position. A coach has to be able to assess each of his player's abilities to defend an opponent in every offensive situation. In general, the best defensive player will guard the best offensive player, within reason of course. For example, if Toney Douglas was still on the Seminoles this year, he would not match up with Derrick Favors of Georgia Tech. Typically a team's big man will match up with the opposing team's center, clearly there are some exceptions.

Hasheem Thabeet #34 of the Connecticut Huskies and DeJuan Blair #45 of the Pittsburgh Panthers fight for the rebound on February 16, 2009 at XL Center  in Hartford, Connecticut. Thabeet was thrown to the ground on the play.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Hasheem Thabeet;DeJuan Blair

Other general principles of man to man defense include assigning the best defensive rebounder to the best offensive rebounder and assigning responsibilities during transition. Other principles of man defense include good position, stance, balance, peripheral vision and communication. While it may seem that man to man defense is dependent on individual effort and skill, it really is a collective effort of the team. A good man to man defense can be described as the following: "The best man defense looks like a zone and the best zone defense looks like a man." Coach Hamilton gets his players to buy into this philosophy. Toney Douglas was a great on the ball defender, but he could not do that without the support of the rest of the team.

Man to man defense has a number of variations: normal, tight, loose, double team etc... These permutations will depend on a team's personnel and the intent of the defense: who are they trying to limit, what style of game play are they trying to prevent, do they need to shut down a particular player on the opposite with double teams. It isn't just about finding your man and sticking to him at all times. A good, patient offense will work through offensive sets to get players free from the man defense to get open looks at the basket. Or, if they have enough individual talent, the offense will spread the floor or stack onside of the court to provide space for the one on one game-- meaning, the everyone get out of the way strategy.

Floor positioning and spacing are one of the key elements to establishing a fundamentally sounds man to man defense. If a team starts a defensive set out of position, opening up passing lanes or space for dribble penetration or movement off the ball, a lot of easy points will be put on the board. Here are some examples of basic alignment and spacing when playing man to man defense: 

 

Slide3_medium

In the diagram above, the defense (represented by the X's), is playing a true denial man to man defense. The Green lines represent direct passing lanes to the various offensive players. With the exception of the player guarding #4, all of the defensive players are "on the line." The player guarding #4 is "up the line," sagging more toward the center line or help side line. The "up the line" position is permitted due to the length of pass required from 1 to 4. The distance that the defensive player is able to sag toward the help side line is dependent on that player's ability to close out on the offensive player. If that player is quick or has a long reach, they can play deeper into the lane. As we will start to show in the next few frames, the players across the help side line start to settle into an almost backside zone look as the ball moves around the perimeter.

In general, the further you are away from the player with the ball, the more you can drift towards the helpside line. This allows the defender to help with any dribble penetration or close down passing lanes. Doing so requires good positioning and always keeping an eye on your man. Here is a video of Michael Jordan explaining this premise. The next sequence of images will demonstrate the weak side sag to the help side line (Player 1 starts with the ball. Click on the images for larger pictures):

Slide4_medium Slide5_medium Slide6_medium

As the sequence starts, all defensive players are on the line. As player 1 is deciding where to pass the ball, the defensive player on player 2 is able to slide towards the help side line, closing the passing lane. In the third image, the ball is passed to the corner, as represented by the dotted green line. Now, since player 3 is technically two passes away from the ball, the defender on player three is able to slide toward the helpside line further down the lane. Additionally, the defender from player 2 can slide further. However, this can be a tricky situation as it may set you up for an illegal defense, unless you really make this look like a zone. Now, if the ball is passed back around the wing players, the defensive player for player 2 and 3 will have to recover to their original position. This should demonstrate the fluidity that is required to play man to man defense. By the positioning of the players on the weak side, you can see how passing and driving lanes are closed as players drift toward the help side line. Also, by drifting, the defensive players can get themselves in a better position for a rebound, if they do a good job of boxing out if the offensive players crash from the wing. However, if that player who is drifting isn't keeping a close eye on their offensive player, it opens up passing lanes as that player can cut to the basket without the defender reacting appropriately.

A team's ability to react, help and recover is one of the major tenants of playing man to man basketball. Let's workthrough the example below. Player 1 starts with the ball on the left wing, above the free throw line:

Slide7_medium

 

The offensive player then has the following passing options:

Slide8_medium

Recognizing the large void in the middle and that his player is two passes or further away, the player guarding player two is able to drift toward the helpside line. But,  Player 1 still has the option to pass or recognizes that the following space on the floor is available:

 

Slide9_medium

 

Now, player one, recognizing the space to his right, can take the opportunity to drive the lane to create more passing opportunities or drive to the basket or pull up for a jump shot in that space.

Slide10_medium

The key to the defense is to recognize that if the defender on player 1 gets beat, the defenders on player 3 and 2 must step into fill the void and prevent player 1 from getting a clean look or path to the basket. This is where the player drifting toward the help side line can be beneficial-- less distance to cover. In the image above, the red line indicates the path of the offensive player and the blue lines represent the potential paths of the defenders. Now, the defenders have to be able to move their feet and get into good position to stop the defender. They cannot simply reach in and try to strip the ball. That is a sloppy way to play defense and sets you up for cheap fouls.

In the next image, player 1 is stopped by the collapsing defense. Player 1 can then pass the ball to player 3 as indictaed by the green dotted line.

Slide11_medium

 

This is where a good man to man defense will make their money. They have to be able to help, as demonstrated above, and then recover as indicated by the blue arrows. If they do not, you can see that Player 3 either has an open look, an easy pass to Player 2 for an open look or a more risky pass to Player 5 in the post. Depending on the speed at which Player 1 gets the ball to Player 3 that pass to the post may be less risky if the Defender from Player 2 is traveling too quickly toward the help side line. If the defense can stop the penetration and quickly recognize the passing options and recover back to their defensive responsibility, they will prevent the easy baskets that may occur from playing an aggressive collapsing defense.

There are countless permutations of how to defend in the situations demonstrated above and this was not intended to be a clinic on playing man to man defense but to highlight some of the neccesary fundamentals. Teams will vary how they rotate on defenders depending on the position of the ball on the floor, they can try to trap to the corners, double on the post, double on the wing. How to slip screens and defend cutters is an entirely different discussion. As you can imagine if you get yourself on the wrong side of the passing line (the green lines above) as you try to move around a screen, there can be an easy pass and basket on its way.

The key to a successful man to man defense is getting the entire team to buy in to the fundamental principles of the defense. If there is a player who does not commit, the weakness in the defense will be exposed and exploited.

Leonard Hamilton has done an outstanding job in recent years to get his players to buy into the system. It helps that he has been able to recruit long athletic players who are able to play a tight man to man defense on a regular basis. The key, however, is that their athleticism allows them to collapse on the paint and recover to the wings at lightening speed. Florida States' speed allowed them to get into good position without creating cheap fouls.

Despite playing more than 36 minutes per game and guarding the premier guards in college basketball, Toney Douglas was only called for 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes of game play. As a team, Florida State was only called for 18.7 fouls per game, which is respectable and about average for college basketball. If you play man to man defense without moving your feet or getting in good position, you end up fouling a lot. One of the benefits of a zone defense is that you can 'hide' a defender who is in foul trouble or a player who is foul prone.

Coach Hamilton's Defense by the Numbers

PPG

PPP

OE

OPPG

OPPP

OOE

AdjDE

DE Rank

96-97

65.1

0.9

93.7

63.9

0.9

93.1

97-98

70.1

1

95.8

68.6

0.9

94.8

98-99

72.6

1

99.9

72.4

1

101.1

99-00

69

1

100.6

63.4

1

95.6

2002-2003

68.1

1

96.9

64.2

0.9

93

2003-2004

71.5

1

103

68.1

1

99.5

88.3

14

2004-2005

68.6

1

99.1

65.8

1

95.6

95.4

75

2005-2006

76.7

1.1

106.7

74.4

1

103.8

93.3

44

2006-2007

74.5

1.1

108.9

73.4

1.1

110

93.7

55

2007-2008

72.1

1

103.4

69.4

1

99.5

92.5

43

2008-2009

68.3

1

100

70

1.01

100.5

89

12

Avg

70.6

100.7

68.5

98.7

92.0

40.5

StDev

3.2

4.5

3.8

5.1

2.7

24.2

 

 

Key: PPG = Points Per Game PPP= Points Per Possession OE = Offensive Efficiency AdjDE = Adjusted Defensive Eff, if there is an O before any value it is the Opponent's value. AdjDE aren't available before 2003-2004. Hamilton joined FSU in 2002. OE is defined by how many points a team will score given 100 possessions.

These numbers, on first glance are reassuring and demonstrate that Florida State's defense has been at least consistent through the years, with one exception. The average number of points scored by a team in a college basketball team is approximately 68 to 70 points per game. This average has decreased significantly in the past 10 years:

 

 

While Florida State's defensive numbers are respectable, how does it compare to the rest of the ACC in the past few years?

North Carolina                     DE

Rank

2003-2004

90.4

23

2004-2005

86.7

5

2005-2006

90.4

20

2006-2007

85.6

4

2007-2008

89.4

19

2008-2009

89.6

16

Avg

88.6

14.5

Stdev:

2

8.1

Duke

2003-2004

85.4

4

2004-2005

84.9

1

2005-2006

89.8

13

2006-2007

85.6

5

2007-2008

87.6

9

2008-2009

90.8

20

Avg

87.4

8.7

Stdev:

2.4

6.9

Wake Forest

2003-2004

96

82

2004-2005

95

72

2005-2006

98.5

115

2006-2007

96.7

88

2007-2008

94.1

63

2008-2009

91.1

23

Avg

95.2

73.8

Stdev:

2.5

30.6

Maryland

2003-2004

86.8

7

2004-2005

91.3

27

2005-2006

92.9

37

2006-2007

85.8

8

2007-2008

91.9

37

2008-2009

94.7

61

Avg

90.6

29.5

Stdev:

3.5

20.4

Georgia Tech

2003-2004

85.2

3

2004-2005

87

8

2005-2006

96.7

92

2006-2007

91.3

36

2007-2008

97.2

96

2008-2009

91.9

32

Avg

91.56

44.5

Stdev:

4.9

40.5

These is a very small sample set and the teams were selected as they are typically associated/synonymous with ACC basketball. The Stdev aren't the best either as the sample sets are small with large variation. These stats show that the defense in the ACC is outstanding and the standouts are Duke and UNC. Comparatively, Florida State's defense is excelling on the national level and is one of the better defenses in the ACC. Granted, think about how excellent the offenses are in the ACC. There wasn't a single team in the ACC last year that had an OE of less than 100, but then again neither did the Pac-10 and the Big East only had one less than 100. However, that was done despite the quality defense that was played. An OE of 100 would give most basketball teams about 60 to 70 points per game depending on the number of possessions.

http://z.about.com/d/raleighdurham/1/0/r/A/-/-/Chris-Singleton-31-of-the-Florida-State-Seminoles-fouls-Tyler-Hansbrough-50.jpg

Photo from here.

These data are simply used to highlight the outstanding defense that is played in the ACC and Florida State contributes significantly to that excellence. The impressive thing is that Florida State is 100% committed to playing man to man defense. In the few instance they played a zone last year, it looked uncomfortable. The players seemed lost and it was ineffective, reflecting the little time that is spent in practice working on the zone. Hamilton and his coaching staff all have NBA experience and it should come as no surprise that Florida State is so good at it.

With the departure of Toney Douglas, there are significant concerns about who will be the shut down on the ball defender. Fortunately, the Seminoles young guards had a year to learn from Toney. Loucks showed moments of being a great defender last year. Jordan DeMercy will continue to bring his hustle and energy to the defensive end of the court. Alabi will continue to own the paint and Singleton will turn a lot of heads this year on the defensive end of the court. Michael Snaer has demonstrated that he is not a one dimensional player and is committed to playing defense. As with any good defense, it is going to be a team effort and the Seminoles will most certainly be prepared.

What are your thoughts on the Seminoles defense? Are they a top 25 defense this year? What will be the identity of the Seminoles this year? Offense? Defense? Who will be the defensive leader?

As always, appreciate your input and feedback.

 

Go NOLES!

Cheers,

TC

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