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How Cal Should Attack Rick Pitino's Full Court Press

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About a year ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about underdog strategies and how groups use unorthodox methods to beat the enemy (or in the case of sport), the opponent. One of those strategies featured was Rick Pitino's full court press. Here is the background.

Pitino became the head coach at Boston University in 1978, when he was twenty-five years old, and used the press to take the school to its first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance in twenty-four years. At his next head-coaching stop, Providence College, Pitino took over a team that had gone 11–20 the year before. The players were short and almost entirely devoid of talent—a carbon copy of the Fordham Rams. They pressed, and ended up one game away from playing for the national championship. At the University of Kentucky, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, Pitino took his team to the Final Four three times—and won a national championship—with full-court pressure, and then rode the full-court press back to the Final Four in 2005, as the coach at the University of Louisville. This year, his Louisville team entered the N.C.A.A. tournament ranked No. 1 in the land. College coaches of Pitino’s calibre typically have had numerous players who have gone on to be bona-fide all-stars at the professional level. In his many years of coaching, Pitino has had one, Antoine Walker. It doesn’t matter. Every year, he racks up more and more victories.

"The greatest example of the press I’ve ever coached was my Kentucky team in ’96, when we played L.S.U.," Pitino said. He was at the athletic building at the University of Louisville, in a small room filled with television screens, where he watches tapes of opponents’ games. "Do we have that tape?" Pitino called out to an assistant. He pulled a chair up close to one of the monitors. The game began with Kentucky stealing the ball from L.S.U., deep in L.S.U.’s end. Immediately, the ball was passed to Antoine Walker, who cut to the basket for a layup. L.S.U. got the ball back. Kentucky stole it again. Another easy basket by Walker. "Walker had almost thirty points at halftime," Pitino said. "He dunked it almost every time. When we steal, he just runs to the basket." The Kentucky players were lightning quick and long-armed, and swarmed around the L.S.U. players, arms flailing. It was mayhem. Five minutes in, it was clear that L.S.U. was panicking.

Pitino trains his players to look for what he calls the "rush state" in their opponents—that moment when the player with the ball is shaken out of his tempo—and L.S.U. could not find a way to get out of the rush state. "See if you find one play that L.S.U. managed to run," Pitino said. You couldn’t. The L.S.U. players struggled to get the ball inbounds, and, if they did that, they struggled to get the ball over mid-court, and on those occasions when they managed both those things they were too overwhelmed and exhausted to execute their offense the way they had been trained to. "We had eighty-six points at halftime," Pitino went on—eighty-six points being, of course, what college basketball teams typically score in an entire game. "And I think we’d forced twenty-three turnovers at halftime," twenty-three turnovers being what college basketball teams might force in two games. "I love watching this," Pitino said. He had a faraway look in his eyes. "Every day, you dream about getting a team like this again."

Never mind the fact that the type of team Pitino constructed at Kentucky belied underdog methods and contradicted Gladwell's underdog argument; the Wildcats were by default King Kong in this example. The type of defense Pitino employs has become a staple of his teams, and the key to beating his Cardinals will come in beating that press. After the jump, we look at ways the Golden Bears can break the relentless pressure Louisville will throw at them.

The defense

According to the Xs and Os of Basketball blog (an excellent site which you should be reading if you have any desire to broaden basketball knowledge), Pitino's most integral defensive style is a 2-2-1 sideline matchup press. Here are the sort of end goals they have in mind when they run that defense.

1. Forces bad shots. If you are a pressure team, you'll know from experience that good pressure will force the opposing team to take bad shots in transition. The reason for this is once the press is broken, teams are always taught to "make the defense pay". Well, this usually means taking a 3-pointer on the run, or a jumper with 3-defenders on him.

2. Forces bad passes. This is the most important one. Most teams will break your press with a fast dribbler, a Leandro Barbosa type player. Problem is, most of the time when they play top speed, they are out of control. If you're the defensive team, out of control is good, out of control means throwing the ball away. Also, you'll see on the inbounds, pressure just makes the offense make bad plays they wouldn't normally make.

3. Creates steals. Most obviously, a good pressure team will get plenty of steals off of all of the above.

The first point should give Cal hope, because the Golden Bears rarely take bad jump shots. It's our acumen to take high percentage jumpers. Theo Robertson is very good at making open jump shots. So is Jerome Randle. So is Jamal Boykin. Even Jorge Gutierrez can get his. Patrick Christopher is a little bit less efficient, but all of them have confidence nailing open shots, and that's all you can ask for. Cal does not take many bad shots in a game, and I doubt the strategy changes especially if we break the press.

The second point is a little bit dicier.  Randle is not the greatest at breaking a pressing defense simply because of his size; bigger guys like Seth Tarver and Venoy Overton have given him trouble, especially when officials are more hands-off in the way they call the game. Cal also doesn't have great ball handlers. Jorge has shown point guard ability, but he vacillates in his decision-making with the ball. Whether Randle can win the battle with Edgar Sosa could go a long way to deciding how comfortably we can run our offensive sets without worrying about disruption from defenders.

The Golden Bears have had struggles with full court pressure this season; inbounds passes have never been our prettiest art. Our biggest offensive struggles came against the 1-3-1 Beavers zone, when we had trouble moving the ball around, which in turn led to some ugly-looking possessions and tough shots.

The third point? Cal doesn't turnover the ball much. They don't force turnovers either, but we're pretty good at ball movement, player movement. If we can get to our side of the court and Louisville ends up settling into their zones, we should have a good shot.

Play slow, play deliberate

One big key is tempo. Despite the common myth that Cal would enjoy playing at a high tempo, I'm fairly certain the shorthanded Bears would enjoy a "less than 70" point game on their side. They want things moving slowly and deliberately on offense so that they get the looks they want without moving things fast and allowing the Cardinals transition possibilities. Against Kansas, Cal moved at a ferocious pace for much of the game, but slowly ran out of steam as they succumbed to the depth of the #1 Jayhawks. It was a daring but somewhat foolhardy strategy to try and challenge Kansas to a scoring meet. One hopes they try a more patient strategy against Louisville and try and make sure everyone gets a share of the rock and look for mistakes to exploit.

If you see Cal trying to take shots early in the shot clock (whether at the rim or in the form of a jumper), then you know Louisville's strategy is working in disrupting the way the Bears are playing. You don't want to see our players taking shots early because it means more time and more opportunities for the other team.  Considering Lousiville is the deeper team, that does not bode well for us.

Breaking the press

One possible way to break the press is to bring a ball-handling big somewhere near halfcourt and have him take the ball down. While I wouldn't trust Markhuri Sanders-Frison or Max Zhang to dribble the ball two inches, much less across the halfcourt line, I do believe either of them would receive less pressure than any of our traditional shooters/scorers/points and could possibly work on some sort of plays that gets them into their halfcourt offense fairly quickly. Jamal Boykin would also be a possibility.

But there are two much better ways I feel the Bears can break down the press. One way  of dealing with pressure is ball reversal, or moving the ball to the man that's behind you and advancing up the sideline. So if the man taking the ball out of bounds (like Gutierrez or Christopher) passes it into his man (usually Randle), have him trail the ballhandler so that when the trap comes, he can have the ability  dish it back and have. Teams that play full court will rarely trap the guy playing the reverse since it leaves them vulnerable to 2 on 1 or 3 on 2 situations down the court.


via (thanks to Xs and Os for the image)

From this game a few years ago between Pitt and Louisville, you see two options for the ballhandler to dish it off too; in this case the reverse player will come back for the ball and will have the space to bring it up away from the press.

The other possibility is a quick give and go, where the inbounder throws the ball in and gets the ball back almost immediately as he cuts to the middle of the court and gets across the stripe. In this case I'd ask a ballhandler like Randle or Gutierrez to inbound the ball to a taller guy (Boykin or Robertson?), who then quickly dishes it off to the inbounder to get it to the halfcourt line. Of course the problem is that Randle might not have the height to get the ball over taller defenders, so Jorge might be the ideal candidate for such plays, even if his handle is a little erratic. I feel switching the responsibilities of who inbounds and who handles could be an effective way of minimizing the press's impact on our team's performance.



From the same Pitt-Louisville game, you can see how the inbounder has taken advantage of the lack of defender to run across the sidelines and now has the avenue with which to get across front court if the ballhandler can get him the rock.

So if I were Montgomery, I'd try and keep 3 guys in the backcourt at all times, the simplest iteration being the ballhandler (Randle), the inbounder (likely Gutierrez or Christopher, who are both alright ballhandlers), and a third option (I'd guess Robertson). That'll make it hard for the Cardinals to guard against all possibilities of who will take the ball across without allowing a fast break easy bucket opportunity for Cal in transition. If Louisville sends extra guys, run quick passes and use the type of schemes that'll give Cal easy opportunities downcourt. Make quick decisions, get to the other side of the court, then have the freedom to decide what to do from there. If they have numbers and the ability to get to the rim for a quick basket, go for it. If not, settle into the halfcourt zone offense and wait for the moment to strike.

Obviously, if Randle can take on Sosa, then everything concerning the press shouldn't be a big deal. But given our past history struggling with pressure I'd be wary of just saying we can handle whatever Louisville throws at us. Although we're underdogs in this one, let's hope we're accustomed to the gambits Pitino will put out there for us to counterattack without fear.