Welcome to part three of our series on the greatest basketball debates of the day. We have looked at how to defend the final possession when leading by three points in Part 1 of the series and whether it is best to play man-to-man or zone defense in Part 2. Today we will examine if it is best to use a full-court press or drop back into a set defense.
For our purposes here, we are going to lump all full-court presses into one big category. There are many ways to use them, from denying the ball in-bounds, picking up man-to-man, using a trapping zone or slowing down the game. Rather than focusing on which method to use, this debate will be about whether to use any of the methods as opposed to playing defense exclusively on only one side of the court.
There is plenty of historical evidence to support using either strategy. John Wooden used a 2-2-1 press as part of his amazing UCLA run. Dean Smith loved to use the "Run and Jump" in the backcourt. Rick Pitino built his Kentucky juggernaut on full-court pressure and his protege Billy Donovan has mastered it as well. Nolan Richardson used "40 Minutes of Hell" to win its 1994 championship. John Calipari and Bruce Pearl have their teams ranked #1 and #2, respectively, in part because of their full-court pressure.
On the other hand, Bob Knight won three championships without using much full-court pressure. Billy Gillespie is one of the top defensive minds in the country, and he rarely employs it. Bo Ryan, Ben Howland and Mark Few are all more likely to fall back than press forward.
To press or not to press - let's look at the debate:
1) It leads to easy baskets.
There is no better place to swipe the ball than under your own basket. Backcourt turnovers lead to easy points. The alternative is trying to score against your opponent's set defense all game long - a difficult task. Why not press the attack forward and create open, easy buckets?
2) It wears down the other team.
Fatigue is a factor in basketball. Pressing a team will cause your opponent to wear down, leading to short shots, turnovers and poor defensive transition. There is no rest against a pressing team as every spot on the floor is contested. It wears on you physically and mentally.
3) It leads to runs.
A pressing team is always capable of a quick run to get itself back into a game or to pull away from an opponent. The en vogue word these days is "spurtability" (a Bill Rafferty gem, I think) that can quickly undue an unsuspecting opponent. Tennessee is a great example of this type of team. One minute the Vols are in a tight game, then suddenly they are up twelve points because of their press.
4) It is necessary to comeback from a deficit.
This applies mostly to high school games that do not have a shot clock, but holds true for college as well. Many teams turn to the press when they fall behind. It is not going to be as effective when used this way, so the team that presses throughout the game is at an advantage when it trails vs. a team employing it in emergencies only. Think about a football team that runs the ball all game and then suddenly needs to pass the ball to catch up. It helps to be a passing team in this situation.
5) It is low risk, high reward.
Pressing 80 feet from the basket is a relatively low risk strategy because there is so much floor and time to recover if the offense properly handles the pressure. It is high reward because if the press works, you get an easy lay-up. Why not take a chance in the backcourt by denying the ball in-bounds or looking for a quick trap, then retreating back before the offense can attack?
6) It is fun.
Ask players - they love to press. It is exciting, aggressive and athletic. Players like to steal the ball. They like to trap the ball. They like to dunk the ball. All of these things happen in a full-court press.
Why Not to Press
1) It is toughest to score against a set defense.
Ever wonder why coaches burn timeouts after made baskets? The answer is not so much to stop the clock (it does that anyway in college these days), but to allow its defense to be set and ready for the opposing offense. By retreating after made baskets, the defense gives itself the best chance to be prepared for the offense. No transition buckets. No defender out of position because of a failed trap in the backcourt. Nobody scrambling to find their man or spot in the zone. Get back and get ready.
2) It leads to bad fouls and bad defense.
Why commit fouls 80 feet away from your basket? Why put your team in 4 on 3, 3 on 2 situations when fouls are often committed? Why encourage things like reaching and gambling that get your team into foul trouble and give up easy looks? The advantages of pressing are out-weighed by the compromising positions into which it puts your team.
3) It gives up easy baskets to your opponent.
There is a passage from John Feinstein's classic "A Season on the Brink" in which Bobby Knight asked an Indiana player what the Hoosiers ought to address during that day's practice. The terrified player suggested Indiana's press. Knight, in classic bully Bobby Knight fashion, dismissed the idea by stating that good teams easily overcome full-court pressure.
As a coach, I try to sell my team on this idea. We want the other team to press us because we will beat it and get easy looks. We will get lay-ups or we will get odd man attacks (3 on 2, etc.) that work to our advantage. There is a common thought among coaches that pressing works great against bad teams, but it will kill you against good ones. Why focus on something that works in November, but hurts you in March?
4) It wears you out as much as your opponent.
Denny Crum, another coach who preferred to press, liked the fact that pressing allowed him to play lots of players. Louisville could recruit more talent because he could promise minutes to everyone, it kept the bench happy and practicing hard because they actually got to play and it made depth a factor in the game's outcome.
But what if you don't have much depth? Furthermore, what team can honestly claim it has a bench as good as its starters? Take Tennessee - Bruce Pearl likes to go 9 or 10 deep when he is pressing his opponent. That means benching Chris Lofton. That means benching Tyler Smith. That means benching JaJuan Smith. If I were the opposing coach, I would be more than happy to watch those guys sit down because they are using so much energy with their press.
5) You have to score to press - it only works in certain games.
Too many pressing teams over-rely on their press to generate energy and points. What happens when your opponent locks down defensively to keep you from scoring? The UCLA vs. Memphis Elite Eight game from two years ago is a great example of this problem. The Bruins put the clamps on the Tigers' offense, so Memphis was never able to make on its runs that came with its full-court pressure. The Tigers were stuck in a half-court game and were sent packing because of it.
I think it all depends on the level of play. I have never seen a successful full-court press in the NBA because the players are too good with the ball for it to be worth the risks.
In college, it seems to work well in certain situations. I would definitely use a full-court attack - it helps with recruiting, puts people in the seats and can blow open tight games - but would be wary of relying upon it too much once the conference schedule and March Madness begins.
In high school and middle school basketball, I would (and do) press all game long. It is tough to sell guys on riding the pine at this level (really hard to sell mom and dad on it), so playing 9 or 10 people is a good idea. Pressing helps that happen. Ball-handlers are less skilled at this level and are also pretty small, so trapping is most effective. Finally, it is so hard to run a good offense and knock down contested shots in high school that transition, easy buckets are worth the gamble.
Tomorrow - America's Game or the World's Game?