The Hot Way to Turn Up the Heat

The undermanned Providence Friars used pressure defense in last season's NCAA tournament to burn some better teams and reach the Final Four. Don't think that other coaches didn't notice
November 18, 1987

Gordon Chiesa thought it appropriate when, last season, he nicknamed the Providence full-court pressure defense the Mother-in-Law. "Constant pressure and harassment," explains the Friars" new coach, who assisted Rick Pitino, now of the NBA Knicks, during Providence's unlikely drive to the Final Four last season. "We want the inbounder to beg for mercy, to beg for mercy. We want him to turn to a cheerleader and call timeout."

But the name hasn't exactly been applauded by outraged mothers-in-law around New England, many of whom have written Chiesa angry letters. Curiously, Chiesa didn't catch hell from Mrs. Carol Bing, his own mother-in-law. "She loved it," he says. "She loved it."

Chiesa tends to say things twice. It's a by-product of his intensity and enthusiasm, which happen to be the two qualities that pressure defense presupposes, and which the rather ordinary Friars rode as far as an NCAA semifinal game last March. Because of Providence's success, bringing up pressure defense at a coaching clinic has become like mentioning V-J Day down at the Legion hall. Pressure D involves elements so many coaches hold dear: a little John Wooden, a little B.F. Skinner. It embodies an apparently contradictory notion: You can get your players to do what you say while still letting them "play."

Pressure defense is hardly new: While Providence was instituting its Mother-in-Law, Cleveland State was using its Run-and-Stun. Before that, in the 1960s and '70s, Drake and Iowa State ran the Belly Button. Before that, in the 1950s and '60s, St. Joseph's had a variety of pressure defenses and a coach, Jack Ramsay, who wrote a book on the subject. Nor is full-court pressure something that everybody's doing. Everybody's not, because playing proper pressure D requires enormous amounts of practice time and patience to learn the precise footwork and positioning.

But if you riffle through a list of teams that play with withering full-court pressure—UNLV, Iowa, Louisville, Duke. Cleveland State and Georgetown, in addition to Providence—you'll note that every one has reached the Sweet Sixteen at least once in the past two seasons. Others, such as Ohio State, were right on the brink. Coaches may not be able to understand the arcana about recruiting in the NCAA Manual, but the correlation between pressure D and W's makes perfect sense to them. "I guess I was like a lot of coaches this summer," says Arkansas's Nolan Richardson. "I looked at a lot of Iowa and Providence films."

Recall what last spring's NCAA tournament wrought. The Southeast region featured Ohio State and Georgetown in an end-to-end classic and a Providence blackboard-come-to-life upset of Alabama. Duke and North Carolina, man-to-man pressure teams both, were major players in the Midwest and East, respectively. And the West was an absolute pressfest, as UTEP-Iowa, Oklahoma-Iowa and finally UNLV-Iowa left everybody who played—or even saw—these games with their tongues hanging out.

Of these, Georgetown's 82-79 defeat of Ohio State was perhaps the most remarkable. This was not basketball as we know it. The leading rebounder was a six-foot, 152-pound guard, Ohio State's Jay Burson. And the game turned on the play of a squat Hoya, a defensive specialist named Charles Smith, who inexplicably sank five of seven three-pointers. Pressure can do that, turn a game upside down. "It was like watching a Ping-Pong game," remembers Temple coach John Chaney. "I couldn't stand it. How much faster can a car go? Both teams had their feet on the accelerator."

In that epic, and in Vegas's 84-81 defeat of Iowa, the eventual losers had built leads of 19 and 17 points, respectively. In fact, many big leads didn't hold up last season. At the time, these turnarounds were heralded as evidence of the invidious work of the three-point shot and, to be sure, the trey helped whittle those leads down. "Instead of going two-four-six, you're going three-six-nine," says Ohio State coach Gary Williams. But in one memorable Big Ten game at Illinois, Iowa scrapped back from 22 down in the second half not by sticking remote parabolas, but by sticking long-limbed Brad Lohaus, the manic human Q-tip, on the baseline after every Hawkeye score and harassing the Illini mercilessly.

Let us stop talking history and turn to a few matters of nomenclature and theory. You may think pressure defense is what a simple press became when coaches began taking themselves too seriously. But, in fact, a press is something you resort to out of desperation, when you must have the ball. Pressure, on the other hand, is applied throughout a game. Most important, all the above-mentioned teams use full-court pressure. Their goal is to goad those killjoys who insist on a deliberate style into playing at a faster pace over all 94 feet. Talented full-court-pressure teams like Vegas and Iowa want to increase the number of possessions in a game, so their talent is given more chances to prevail. Pressure teams with less-skilled athletes—the Duke and Providence clubs of last season, for instance—want to turn the game into a conditioning contest that will nullify differences in talent.

In either case it's a matter of tempo, and defense is the throttle. Half-court pressure—the process of hindering an offense by overplaying, clogging up passing lanes, etc.—tends to slow a game down. That's what Indiana usually uses, what Pete Carril's Princeton teams of the late 1970s played and what Georgia coach Hugh Durham did to get his decimated Dawgs into the NCAAs last spring. Full-court pressure, by contrast, sends gas to a game's engine. Providence, in fact, is so conscious of accelerating the tempo that the players are told not to cut off passing lanes in the Indiana style. Instead, the Friars are counseled first to invite a pass, then to step into the passing lane to make the interception.

So it is that many pressure D teams are the very ones whose high scores fallaciously suggest they don't play any defense at all. "The only way to create tempo is with defense," says Durham. "You can't do it with offense. Say Vegas doesn't press. The opponent comes down and takes 40 seconds to shoot. Vegas goes the other way and takes five. The opponent comes back and takes 40 again. That's not creating tempo."

A deliberate team that encounters pressure can find it very difficult to hold its pace, to continually downshift and move the ball around. During its tournament game with Ohio State last season, slow-paced Kentucky trailed the pressing Buckeyes by only 42-40 at the half, but Ohio State was in control. "I liked where we were." says Williams. "It was very important we got the score in the 80's. I didn't want to play a 60-point game with Kentucky." The Wildcats, who averaged 67.4 points per game, went on to score 77—and lose by 14. Care to guess what Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton said afterward? "We didn't control the tempo."

"We've got to control the tempo" has become the "It's not the heat, it's the humidity" of college coaching clichès. But a fact can't be overstated. When a team isn't in its cadence, says Chiesa, "you force its secondary players to make the play instead of its primary players. Pressure Syracuse and suddenly it's a forward who's going to the basket, not Sherman Douglas. Syracuse is still great. Syracuse is still great. But it's not great the way it's used to being great."

In 1986-87, Providence was the consummate tempo-busting team. Basketball normally consists of a succession of human convergences on the basket and ensuing retreats to play defense. But the lunatic Friars turned the flow of the game completely around, peppering the basket with accurate three-pointers from afar and then rushing to the baseline to apply the pressure. "They had an attitude on that team." says Iowa coach Tom Davis. "Pressure defense gave them a chance to take advantage of those intangibles."

There was logic to the Friars' scheme too, and they proved it in their 103-82 Southeast Regional semifinal victory over Alabama. Centerless Providence faced Derrick McKey, one of the nation's best postmen, and a splendidly balanced Crimson Tide team. The Friars couldn't sag in on McKey, because Jim Farmer, James Jackson and Mark Gottfried would let loose from three-point country; they couldn't go out on Farmer, Jackson and Gottfried lest those three dump the ball into McKey for a sure two. So Providence pressed, furiously. The 'Bama gunners got their shots, but hurriedly, in transition, and without McKey to follow them up. The Friars got their shots, but as they liked them, either in transition or outside the circle. McKey finished with six shots and a lot of minutes wasted in the horse latitudes between the foul lines.

The less-talented team clearly won, and intensity and enthusiasm had a lot to do with it. But pressure D demands the same effort from talented teams, too. Says UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, "When we're behind, our kids feel all they have to do is up their intensity level and concentration, and they'll end up winning. That's why, over the last five years, we've never lost to Johnny Junior High, never been upset by a team we should have blown out."

Other reasons why full-court pressure is making more and more sense:

•New rules dovetail with it. A three-point attempt late in the game is tougher to hit when the shooter is bushed from the pressure. "You have to extend your defense anyway with the three-point goal," says Penn coach Tom Schneider. "Why not go all the way?" Moreover, the 45-second clock generates additional possessions. "You just can't go down and sit in one defense anymore," says Miami (Fla.) coach Bill Foster.

•History is on its side. Quiz: Which of the following centers never won an NCAA title? And which of the following centers never played in a full-court-pressure system? a) Bill Walton, b) Lew Alcindor, c) Patrick Ewing, d) Ralph Sampson. Hint: The answer to both questions is the same—and we're talking pressure (d) here. Says Williams, "The coach who gets a great center and says, 'I'm not going to press because I've got a big guy,' is crazy."

•It's fun for everyone but the officials. More people run, play and score, and score more often. "Too many coaches won't play the game." says Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs. "I won't name names, but you see them on TV a lot. The camera focuses on them because their teams aren't doing anything worth focusing on."

But that may be changing. Television spotlighted the drama of pressure defense last March: big scores, wild turnarounds and a darling of a Cinderella team named Providence. The intensity and enthusiasm seem to be catching. So don't be surprised in the next few months if you begin hearing more and more coaches saying things twice, saying things twice.

ILLUSTRATIONJOE LERTOLA1 LORENZEN
2 MOE
3 MARBLE
4 ARMSTRONG
5 HORTON
ILLUSTRATIONJOE LERTOLA1 LEBO
2 SMITH
3 REID
4 WILLIAMS
5 BUCKNALL
ILLUSTRATIONJOE LERTOLA1 KIMBRO
2 SMITH
3 CROOK
4 WILLIAMS
5 ELLISON

1-2-1-1 Zone Pressure

LOOK FOR: A long-limbed thyroid case harassing the inbounder after a basket. Two good-shooting teammates are aligned behind him like splitbacks in a backfield. A guard and the center are in an I formation behind them.

WHO USES IT: Most notably, Iowa, Ohio State and Cleveland State. The coaches at the latter two schools, Gary Williams and Kevin Mackey, both assisted Iowa's Tom Davis when he coached Boston College. Providence used the 1-2-1-1 in their surge to the Final Four last season.

GOALS: To force tempo by contesting every pass while the five- and ten-second rules apply. To demoralize an opponent with scoring spurts, achieved by applying pressure after your own field goal or free throw.

FORERUNNERS: Davis has become a sort of Johnny Trapleseed of the 1-2-1-1, although he credits both John Wooden and Jack Ramsay, who used a 3-1-1 trap at St. Joseph's, with exposing him to the principles. This is the defense in which athletic ability is least essential. "Tom Davis has used pressure successfully at every level," says Penn's Tom Schneider. "He did it at Lafayette, BC, Stanford and Iowa." With all respect to last season's Friars, George Blaney's 1977 caped Crusaders of Holy Cross were perhaps the most overachieving 1-2-1-1 team of all time, using it in a near upset in the NCAAs of then No. 1 Michigan.

SHOWN HERE: In Iowa's 94-Foot Denial, Jeff Moe, Roy Marble and B.J. Armstrong overplay their men, 2, 3 and 4, respectively, while Al Lorenzen harasses the inbounder 1. Lorenzen joins Moe in a trap of 2 after he receives the inbound pass. Marble and Armstrong cut off the passing lanes to 3 and 4, while Ed Horton monitors 5 and protects against offensive players releasing long. If 2 and 4 scissor off to get open for the inbounds pass, Moe and Armstrong simply switch assignments.

The power forward on the baseline is the 1-2-1-1's bellwether. "You want a guy who goes crazy up there," says Williams, "and the bigger the better." More than a few seemingly ordinary collegians have blossomed into big-time baseliners in a pressure system. "Take Marty Conlan and David Kipfer," says Providence coach Gordon Chiesa, referring to the Friars' two 1-2-1-1 point men last season. "We timed their wind sprints with a calendar. But playing pressure defense, slow guys get quick."

Man-to-Man Pressure

LOOK FOR: All five defenders picking up their men full-court, overplaying them or guarding "straight-up."

WHO USES IT: Duke and UNLV play full-court pressure man-to-man better than anyone. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski has taken Indiana's Bob Knight's notions of half-court pressure and applied them over 94 feet. At Vegas, coach Jerry Tarkanian, who claims that man-to-man pressure is the most difficult to play, discourages his players from switching when their men cross. "The more you think." he says, "the slower your feet get." Georgetown and North Carolina use pressure man-to-man fundamentals for their multiple defenses.

GOALS: To isolate each offensive player and force the ball to be worked, rather than passed, up the floor. To shut down the passing lanes.

FORERUNNERS: When Kansas won the 1952 national title with an overplaying, pressure man-to-man, Jayhawk coach Phog Allen had a brainy young guard named Dean Smith, who would take the defense one step further when he moved on to Air Force as an assistant coach and. eventually, to North Carolina. Smith's 33 Run-and-Jump mixes zone and man-to-man principles. Like so many inventions, the run-and-jump owes a debt to serendipity: Smith credits Al Kelley, an overaggressive reserve on the '52 Kansas team, with unwitttingly serving as the inspiration for the run-and-jump. One day in practice. Kelley foolishly abandoned his man to go after the ball, but he earned kudos from the coaching staff when they saw the confusion he had created. Later, Smith simply imposed a little method on the madness.

SHOWN HERE: In North Carolina's 33 Run-and-Jump, Jeff Lebo steers the dribbler, 1, toward Ranzino Smith, who starts to follow his man, 2, upcourt. Suddenly Smith doubles back on 1, to double-team and force 1 to pick up his dribble. Steve Bucknall looks to intercept a pass from 1 to Smith's abandoned man, 2, while J.R. Reid steps into the passing lane on the opposite side of the court. Scott Williams plays goalie.

This is a variation on Carolina's Scramble, a form of man-to-man pressure that was once Smith's mainstay, but was "used sparingly last season because of the Tar Heels' inexperience. "When the three-point rule came in, I thought about taking the Scramble off completely," says Smith, noting that open jump shots are sometimes conceded in the forecourt. "Then I thought about how much fun I've had coaching it for 26 years." So the Scramble lives.

2-2-1 Zone Pressure

LOOK FOR: The two front men play off the baseline, conceding the first pass inbounds if it's in front of them.

WHO USES IT: Louisville, better and more often than anyone, primarily to turn up the tempo. Coach Denny Crum apprenticed at UCLA under 2-2-1 guru John Wooden and has attracted to the 'Ville such big and agile defenders as Rodney McCray and Lancaster Gordon. "When you have guys as big as theirs cutting down passing lanes, that court starts to look awfully small." says Ohio State coach Gary Williams.

GOALS: To encourage lazy lob or bounce passes that are more easily intercepted. To force the dribbler into a trap. To wear down a less-well-conditioned team.

FORERUNNERS: UCLA's 1964 national champs. With no starter taller than 6'5" and no bench to speak of, the Bruins went 30-0 using this press, which Wooden installed after the same group lost nine games in 1963. When he speaks at clinics, Wooden is still asked most often about the 2-2-1. A high school coach who once inquired: Tom Davis, now at Iowa.

SHOWN HERE: Louisville's trapping application of the 2-2-1. La Bradford Smith invites the in bounds pass and then forces 2 up the sideline to just across the midcourt line. Herbert Crook retreats to join Smith at what the Cardinals coaching staff calls the "hot spot," where the sideline and time line serve as extra defenders. Tony Kimbro, Keith Williams and Pervis Ellison all angle into the passing lanes, looking to intercept 2's pass out of the trap.

Wooden didn't trap much out of the 2-2-1. "When you reach, you foul," he says. "Worse, you leave open passing lanes." But the 2-2-1 lends itself to aggressive man-to-man principles. When Louisville beat Kentucky in the 1983 Mideast Regional final, coming from 11 points down, the Cards used their 2-D (for denial) press, a turn-the-screws version of the 2-2-1 that doesn't wait for the ball to be advanced into the forecourt. Kentucky went two minutes in OT unable to bring the ball past the time line.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)