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The Hot Way to Turn Up the Heat
Alexander Wolff
November 18, 1987
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
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November 18, 1987

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

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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.

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