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Tourney Play: Offense Takes a Holiday

   by Al McMordie - 03/16/2008

Notice anything about conference tournament play? Well, sure, the obvious thing is all the upsets and surprises. But that's common this time of year. Something less noticeable, but important from a handicapping perspective, is all the defense. We think of ACC Champion North Carolina as an explosive offensive team, and they are, running the court as often as possible. However, in the ACC tourney the Tar Heels went 2-1 under the total.

A couple of things are happening. One is that defense rules come tourney time, because the games mean so much. Even uptempo teams can play great defense, if they are well coached. Another thing is that teams that don’t have the kind of depth that North Carolina has, have to try and control the tempo to have a chance. That’s what Virginia Tech did in losing 68-66 to the Tar Heels, slowing the pace down and covering as a +11 dog.

Wisconsin carries a 6-2 run under the total into the Big Dance, the Oklahoma Sooners are on a 7-0 under run, while Texas A&M is on a 9-4 run under the total. This is also not unusual. A year ago, the first two days of the Big Dance saw games go 17-8 under the total! Each day the tourney sheds teams while the winner (or should we say survivor) advances to the Sweet 16, the Elite 8, or the Final Four. This means games are more meaningful. You win and you advance, bringing all kinds of glory and pride to your institution. Lose, and you go home. A lot is at stake. It's only natural to assume that the defensive intensity is going to pick up as the games become more important.

No more ignoring a loose ball on the floor because a player might not feel like diving for it, as might happen in a January game. Every loose ball, every hustle, every position could be the difference between advancing or ending the season.

Look what USC and coach Tim Floyd did in the Pac 10 tourney – allowing 55 points in a win over Arizona State, then 57 in a 57-54 loss to powerful UCLA. The game was about the emotions of postseason basketball, of two neighborhood rivals playing for the third time in a season and where nobody wanted to leave the court the loser. An intense atmosphere! "We didn't want to be in the summer, after our season with them talking trash to us," UCLA freshman Kevin Love said. "We couldn't lose this game." USC shot 42% from the field, UCLA just 39% as both rivals turned up the intensity.

Other times teams that like up-tempo face teams that like to slow it down.

The slow down teams often dictate the tempo, which was the case when Virginia Tech stayed with North Carolina. How did Georgia surprise everyone in the SEC tourney? Slowing it down and playing great defense, allowing 60 and 56 points to Mississippi State and Kentucky. Kentucky scored 56 points in overtime! Both games sailed under the total.

I recall a year ago in the big Dance when LSU and Texas A&M squared off. You saw two teams that refused to allow any easy baskets, a tense, tight, slow, defensive duel. LSU won on a late prayer despite shooting 35%. A&M got the game they wanted, coming up short for the victory, but getting the ATS cover. Excellent defense allows underdogs a better chance to hang in there.

Coaches make a big difference in whether a team knows how to play defense or not. This applies to practice, where the coach has to work on teaching players when to switch and to recognize what the offense is doing and how to adjust, as well as in making in-game adjustments. UCLA coach Ben Howland is outstanding at both and their defense has saved them numerous times the last few years. In a 62-59 win 2007 tourney win over Alabama, the defense was the difference as UCLA clanked free throw after free throw down the stretch.

Other times, teams have little shot of winning a game unless they slow the pace way down and try to hang in with tough defense in the hopes of pulling an upset. That was evident last March as Penn of the Ivy League shot 32% against Texas, but held the Longhorns to 40% shooting in a 60-52 Texas win. Penn was leading 23-22 at the half and only down one point with 5:53 left in the game. "We were able to control the tempo and get the shots we wanted," said one Penn player.

That same tourney, the Bradley Braves shot 37% and STILL upset Pitt, 72-66. Defense led the way, of course. Pitt point guard Carl Krauser said before the tourney started he was looking forward to a possible rematch with former Pitt coach Ben Howland and UCLA in the regional final. Oops! Focus on the game at hand, guys. And don't be surprised if you see more defensive, low scoring games over the next few weeks, because defense means even more this time of the year.

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