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Offense Takes a Holiday

   by Al McMordie - 03/20/2006

Notice anything about the NCC 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. On Friday and Saturday tourney games went under the total by 17-8.

This is also not unusual. Each day the tourney sheds teams while the winner (or should we say survivor) advances to the Sweet 16, the Elite 8, 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 possession could be the difference between advancing or ending the season.

Look what Duke did Saturday. Duke and George Washington have wide open offenses, yet the Blue Devils can play defense when they put their minds to it. And put their minds to it they did, not to mention a few hand checks, elbows and muscles under the glass. Duke held George Washington to 30% shooting in a 74-61 win that sailed under the total by 22 points.

Other times, teams that like to play up-tempo face teams that like to slow it down. The slow-down teams often dictate the tempo, which was the case when LSU and Texas A&M squared off. If you watched the game, you saw two teams that refused to allow any easy baskets. The result was a tense, tight, slow, defensive duel. LSU won on a late prayer despite shooting 35%. A&M got the game it 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 the Bruins' defense saved them in a 62-59 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 Thursday as Penn 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.
And how about Bradley? The 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. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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