"I think everybody who's played basketball can remember the
first time they were really guarded," says Kansas coach Roy
Williams, regarded by his peers as one of the best defensive
practitioners in the game. "It happened to me in seventh grade,
and I thought, Jeez, what's this guy doing? He's not supposed to
be bothering me like this."
This is an article from the Oct. 24, 1995 issue
Every fall Williams asks each freshman on his team if he can
recall the first time he felt that hot breath on his shoulder
and those rude hands flicking at the ball. Invariably, each
remembers. And, says Williams, "that's how we want teams to feel
when they play us."
For Williams, the best instrument for inducing frustration and
rage in an opponent is a tenacious man-to-man defense. And not
some exotic variant, but the basic out-of-the-box man that most
peewee and high school coaches teach. "Our first goal is to
steal the ball," Williams says bluntly. "But if we can't steal
the ball, our goal is to get you to shoot an outside shot over
our hands and for us to get the rebound. Our third goal is to
keep you from running what you practice all the time. And our
fourth goal is to force a faster tempo."
As basic as this four-point program sounds, it does require
further explication. Here are Williams's defensive principles
again, with comments from the coach and a few exemplars:
Steal the ball. "We're big on pressuring the ball," says
Williams. "It's hard to do because the closer you get to the
guy, the easier it is for him to go around you. But when you put
someone in his face, the ball handler can't just look to pass--he
has to worry about losing the ball himself."
Usually Williams directs the player covering the opposing point
guard to pick up his man in the backcourt, at the top of the
key. "Two years ago we had Jacque Vaughn and Calvin Rayford at
the point, two quick players who could force turnovers and wear
out opponents." But Rayford tore the anterior cruciate ligament
in his left knee and couldn't play last season, so Williams
spared Vaughn, allowing him to wait until his man crossed
midcourt before picking him up. "This year we have Calvin and
Jacque back," says Williams. "We're going to go get 'em again."
When bold larceny fails, Williams sends his players out in the
passing lanes to deny the entry pass from point to wing. But
unlike some coaches, he doesn't want his players putting their
bodies directly between passer and target, just their hands. "We
want you to think the man is open," he says. "We want you to try
to make that pass."
There is one pass that Williams doesn't want his opponents even
to try: the pass into the low post. When the opponent's pivotman
sets up in the low post, Williams asks his center to front him.
Defenders on the weak side (the side of the court away from the
ball) are supposed to sag off their men to help defend against
lob passes into the low post and backdoor passes to baseline
cutters. In practices Kansas players shout out their
responsibilities as the ball is passed around the perimeter. The
man guarding the ball handler yells, "Ball! Ball! Ball!" The
defenders one pass away scream, "Deny! Deny! Deny!" And
defenders on the weak side bellow, "Help! Help! Help!"
Says Williams, "Every time the ball is passed, the player has to
let his coaches know his responsibility."
Challenge every shot. When the '94-95 Jayhawks used a front
line of 6'11" Raef LaFrentz, 7'2" Greg Ostertag and 6'10" Scot
Pollard, they were considerably bigger and slower than previous
Williams teams and thus less able to scurry around and pressure
the ball. But they made up for it by filling the air with raised
arms; over his four-year career Ostertag (now with the Utah Jazz
in the NBA) set a Big Eight record of 258 blocked shots. "Every
shot the opponent takes must be over our hands," says Williams.
"Even at this level, that bothers shooters."
Last season the Jayhawks bothered shooters enough to rank second
among Division I teams in field goal percentage allowed (37.8%).
Take opponents out of their offense. "If you're a very set
team, we're going to try not to allow you to do the things you
practice," says Williams. Kansas's pressure defense succeeded in
doing exactly that to a regimented Indiana team in an 83-77 win
during the 1993 NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks did it again last
December to then-No. 1 Massachusetts in an 81-75 victory,
causing Minuteman coach John Calipari to tell Williams, "You
took us out of everything we wanted to do."
For Williams, it isn't always necessary to harass opponents to
take them out of their game. In the 1989 NIT final against St.
John's, Kansas blunted a scoring rampage by guard Boo Harvey by
creating a mismatch on another player. "Harvey was really
hurting us, so we took Terry Brown, a 6-footer who was not a
good defender, and put him on 6'8" Malik Sealy, who's on the Los
Angeles Clippers now," says Williams. "Sealy saw the mismatch
and started calling for the ball." Three times in a row St.
John's tried to go to him. "One time, Brown deflected the pass
and we got the ball," recalls Williams. "Another time, Malik got
the ball and missed the shot. The third time, somebody else
slapped it away. So [St. John's coach] Lou Carnesecca stood up
and said to get the ball back to Boo. But Boo had gotten out of
his rhythm and didn't bother us much after that."
Force a faster tempo. "If I play Tom Watson in golf, I've got a
better chance to win if we play one hole than if we play 18,"
says Williams. "It's the same in basketball. If I have more
talent than you and we play more possessions, I have a greater
chance of winning."
Kansas, with top players at every position, wants events on the
court to transpire quickly. The Jayhawks do everything they can
to discourage their opponents from holding the ball, and
Williams doesn't want any drawling Ozark whittlers on his
offense, either. That's one reason he was unhappy two years ago
when the NCAA rescinded the five-second rule, which called for a
ball handler to make progress toward the basket or pass the ball
within five seconds if he was being closely guarded. "That
change really hurt. Before, you could attack the dribbler and
force him to do something after three or four seconds. Now he
just keeps dribbling."
Two or three times a game (usually in the second half, so
opposing coaches can't adjust at halftime), the Jayhawks change
to a 1-3-1 trapping zone defense to speed up the pace. The rest
of the time Williams uses his aggressive man-to-man to push the
tempo. "My guess is, over the last five years we haven't played
more than a hundred possessions of zone in any one season."
Williams's Four Laws of Defense have a few corollaries, too.
"One guy is not going to beat us," he likes to tell his players;
but now and again, one guy does--like last Feb. 6, when Oklahoma
State's giant center, Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, had 33 points
and 20 rebounds in a 79-69 win in Stillwater. Williams, changing
his mantra to "Don't let their best player beat you," decided to
clamp down on Reeves when the two teams met again a month later
in Lawrence. "Against most post men we won't double-down,"
Williams says, but in this case Ostertag got help from swarming
teammates whenever the ball got near Reeves. Big Country scored
zero points on 0-for-8 shooting, and although Cowboy guard Randy
Rutherford scored 45, the final score was Kansas 78, Oklahoma
State 62. "I didn't think Rutherford could shoot us out of the
building," says Williams. With a laugh, he adds, "But he shot us
close to the exits."
Another of Williams's tactics is to shuffle defensive
assignments. "I believe in giving people different looks, having
someone different guard them." Last season he put Vaughn on
Missouri star Paul O'Liney in the teams' first meeting and
sophomore guard Jerod Haase on O'Liney in the rematch. (The
Jayhawks won both games.) To bother Colorado star Donnie Boyce,
Williams shuttled in three defenders of various sizes and
strengths; he did the same to Iowa State's relentless Fred
One other element of Williams's defense is the retrieval of the
missed shot--i.e., boxing out. No drills at Kansas are performed
with more intensity or have more potential for fraying tempers
and inflicting bruises. "I had a prospect come one time and
watch us practice," says Williams, "and when practice was over,
he said, 'I never realized failure to box out was such a mortal
sin in the eyes of God.'"
It's not God, of course, whom Jayhawk players generally fear
when they practice in Allen Fieldhouse, but a D-ity of another
sort. "Every coach has a passion," says Williams. "Mine just
happens to be defense."
X defensive player
O offensive player
1 point guard
2 shooting guard
3 small forward
4 power forward