Coach’s Corner: Defense Dominates the Sweet 16

PJ Carlesimo P.J. Carlesimo (image: NBAE/Getty Images). P.J. Carlesimo is no stranger to March Madness. The veteran basketball coach led Seton Hall University to “the big dance” six times, taking the Pirates all the way to the NCAA Championship Game in 1989. A former NBA head coach, he has also been a head coach and an assistant coach for medal-winning USA national teams, including the legendary 1992 USA Dream Team.

One week into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, there are 16 teams left in the battle for college basketball’s top honor. These are the best college hoops teams in the country. Some of the players on these teams have already represented USA Basketball in international competition. Some of them will go on to play professionally in the NBA.

There’s a reason the NCAA tournament – also known as March Madness -- is one of the most popular sporting events year in and year out. There’s plenty of great action and every game has a chance to become a “classic.” But in addition to watching the tournament just for the fun of it, a young basketball player can learn a lot, too. So we’ve asked a coach who has plenty of experience at all levels – college, NBA and USA Basketball -- to offer some viewing tips. For the 16 teams left, what do they do that makes them so good? More importantly, what can you learn by watching them?

The one thing that stood out the most for veteran coach P.J. Carlesimo was defense.

“As much as you need to score points to win,” said Carlesimo, “the constant to it all is that these are very good defensive teams. The deeper you go into the tournament the more apparent that is.”

Some teams that have advanced to the Sweet 16 play man-to-man defense and some teams play zone. Most of them play “half-court defense” – in other words, they will fall back after scoring a basket and let the opponent bring the ball up the court before getting into defensive position. Two teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament, however, play a different style.

Louisville and San Diego State like to put pressure on their opponents no matter where they are on the court.

“What’s unusual about these two teams on defense is that they will press and trap the other team,” said Carlesimo. “What they do is expose players whose fundamentals aren’t good. If all of a sudden you’re passing isn’t good – you’re not passing the ball with two hands, you’re not meeting the ball when you catch it, you’re not real careful when you come to a jump stop – you’ll turn the ball over against them.”

San Diego State takes on Arizona Thursday night in the West Regional semifinals, while Louisville faces in-state rival Kentucky Friday in the Midwest Regional semifinals. As Carlesimo pointed out, it will be very important for Arizona and Kentucky to focus on the fundamentals against these pressing defenses.

“If you’re not fundamental, you’re more apt to commit turnovers against teams like this,” he said. “So that’s something to watch in the San Diego State and Louisville games, because that’s what those teams do. And they are really good at it. They trap teams and get teams rattled, and all of a sudden there’s turnovers and interceptions and steals all over the place.”

So many upsets

If you watched the first week of the NCAA Tournament, you saw more upsets than ever before.

“Where teams are ranked doesn’t make any difference anymore,” said Carlesimo. “There was a record number of upsets and overtime games, and I expect that to continue. The quality of play is so even.”

Another thing Carlesimo thinks you’ll see is lower scores. Louisville and San Diego may have the most unique style of defense, but many of the other teams still alive play great defense, too. Three really good half-court teams Carlesimo said to keep an eye on are Arizona, Michigan State and Virginia. “It’s just really hard to score against those teams,” he said.

So what’s the key for a team to score against those tough defenses?

“It’s just the execution,” said Carlesimo. “It gets back to fundamentals. If you want to attack a good defensive team, you have to take care of the ball, pass it, get the ball inside. You have to set good screens, move without the ball. You have to be patient.

“It’s not just about going out there and shooting the ball. You have to do a bunch of good things in order to get a good shot. That is the challenge -- be fundamental and pass the ball well.”

Which teams will handle the pressure and advance to the Final Four? We’ll find out in a few days!

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