Florida Gulf Coast's exciting dunk-a-thon offense gets all the publicity, but it's their defense that's been the biggest difference. (Elsa/Getty)
PHILADELPHIA -- Dunk City. Lob Coast. Call it what you like, but No. 15-seeded Florida Gulf Coast University's brand of carefree basketball catches the eye on the offensive half of the hardwood.
It was the Eagles' defense, however, that flummoxed coach Steve Fisher's San Diego State Aztecs and helped turn the tide of a close game. During a critical 10-2 run, the Eagles leaned heavily on a non-traditional 1-3-1 matchup zone which the Aztecs were not only unprepared for but couldn't figure out, despite timeouts. The result was empty possessions for SDSU. And, of course, the now-infamous lobs for the FGCU.
Assistant coach Kevin Norris described the zone as "a simple matchup" with a wink and a smile, insisting he needed to "keep it under wraps" because there were more games to play. But the zone was anything but typical. A standard 1-3-1 defense is designed to extend to half court and trap in the corners.
Instead, FGCU used it to pack the paint, with forward Chase Fieler serving as a center fielder and roaming the foul line area. Norris insisted the goal of the defense was to mix and confuse opponents. At its best "it may look like a 1-3-1 and end up being a 1-2-1-1." That type of disguise of the base configuration of the defense makes it harder for an offense to figure out what to run.
SDSU never did. By keeping three guards along the perimeter, the Aztecs allowed the Eagles to defend their guards without moving or chasing screens. Instead, they knew Fieler, playing at the foul line, would clean up any mistakes. Everywhere the Aztecs went, Fieler was waiting. And by mixing it in with their standard 2-3 zone as well as man-to-man, the Eagles ensured the Aztecs could never make an adjustment.
With all the flash and glitz of "dunk city," it's easy to miss the fantastic job this coaching staff is doing on the other end. The Eagles' "simple matchup" kept the Aztecs on their heels, running the wrong stuff, and created turnovers not through havoc, but through preparation. Head coach Andy Enfield doesn't just have his Eagles flying high for dunks and threes, he has them executing subtle wrinkles and effectively switching defenses. That's the sign of a well-coached club.
@SteveDanley is a former Penn basketball player and Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford. He will be an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers-Camden this fall.