SI Vault
Larry Keith
December 03, 1979
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December 03, 1979

Putting A Lid On The Basket

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Iowa Coach Lute Olson calls Smith "the greatest exponent of multiple defenses" in the country. And he's right, because Smith has been teaching the concept since the early '60s, longer than any other coach. Now that multiple defenses are the vogue, the days when a team used an old reliable defense throughout the game and fell back on a press only in moments of desperation are fast disappearing. But not without great opposition. John Wooden feels "the more defenses you try to play increases the likelihood that none of them are going to be strong." Bobby Knight still clings to his tenacious man-to-man, forswearing all others. Clemson's Bill Foster prefers the man-to-man, too, although he sometimes uses what he calls an "alumni zone" to satisfy the coaches in the stands.

Among the other leading coaches who use a multiple-defense system are Olson and Notre Dame's Digger Phelps. "If you play only one defense, you can play it very well," says Olson, "but if you meet a team that can kill that particular defense, you're in trouble." Phelps recalls winning an NCAA tournament game against DePaul in 1978 because the Blue Demons failed to recognize a defensive switch. "We shifted to a 1-3-1 zone, and they didn't pick it up right away," Phelps says. "We went up about 12 points before they adjusted and easily won what had been a tough game."

Smith has long favored multiple defenses, because he believes in "change just for the sake of change. That way the defense dictates to the offense, forcing the other team to adjust, instead of the reverse. It's like the baseball pitcher who mixes in off-speed stuff with his fastball. It keeps the batter guessing."

Even Smith's primary defense, the man-to-man, runs contrary to some old defensive tenets, but he feels adjustments were needed to keep up with basketball's advancing offensive skills. Instead of forcing play into the middle of the court, Carolina pressures to the outside. Instead of positioning himself in the classical manner between his man and the basket, a Tar Heel defender plays between his man and the ball, a tactic called "overplaying." Instead of emphasizing individual responsibility, Smith demands team play, helping out. "When we grade an individual's defensive performance," Smith says, "we do it on the basis of his execution of principles and not his man's scoring total."

With proper execution, North Carolina's man-to-man disrupts the other team's offense by drawing charging fouls or by forcing turnovers that lead to fast breaks. If the pace becomes too tiring, a Carolina player is allowed to take himself out of the game and, when he feels rested, put himself back in. Smith calls this accelerated style "taking the offensive on defense."

By constantly gambling on defense and looking for the fast break on offense, the Tar Heels inevitably give up a lot of points and a lot of easy baskets. But the freewheeling style also leads to numerous steals and fast-break baskets, making North Carolina first in the country in field-goal percentage over the last 10 years. "Our defensive philosophy complements the type of overall tempo we usually like to establish and is designed to help us achieve our total objectives," Smith says.

Characteristically, Smith defines his team's offensive and defensive aims differently than most other coaches. Rather than judge the Tar Heels' performance by the score of the game, he uses a "points per possession" ratio he devised while an assistant coach under Bob Spear at the Air Force Academy in the mid-'50s. To Smith, a team's offensive and defensive output depends on the number of opportunities it has to score or be scored upon.

The perfectly executed offense would result in an average of two points per possession and the perfect defense would hold a team scoreless. Of course, such perfection is not possible against major college competition; in fact, Smith has computed that .85 points per possession (ppp) constitutes good offense and .75 ppp is good defense. Even though Smith had one of his best defensive teams ever last season—giving up little more than 65 points per game—the Tar Heels met his tough defensive standard only seven times. In the last three seasons, North Carolina's defense allowed .75 ppp or less in 27 games—and won them all—while its opponents attained that figure only twice, winning once.

By Smith's reckoning, the Tar Heels played bad defense last year while beating North Carolina State 70-69 and Wake Forest 76-69, because the defense allowed the opposition .87 and .82 ppp, respectively. When North Carolina does hold an opponent to .75 ppp, the defense is good, no matter what the final score. For example, it once beat Louisville 105-91 but allowed only .73 ppp. The Tar Heels played a whale of a defensive game, but, as usual, all anyone wanted to talk about afterward was the offense.

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