Looking at the Value of Pressing in College Basketball and Different Types of Presses
One thing that continues to shock me in the college basketball world is the lack of press defense. You have your staples – ones we’ll take a look at and breakdown here – in West Virginia, Louisville, Shaka Smart’s teams and Florida when Billy Donovan was around. But overall teams shy away from pressing.
This tends to come up quite a bit – and h/t to Big Cat for always tweeting about it – that kids just seems to completely blank out when they see a press. It’s obviously most noticeable during the NCAA Tournament when a team will lose a lead quickly due to a few turnovers or just completely shit the bed like Virginia did when Syracuse pressed them two seasons ago.
I decided to go back and chart the last five seasons for Division I as a whole. I wanted to chart a few things, average percentage of time spent pressing, points per possession and turnover percentage. I charted this year over year and vs half court defense.
Again, this is just the national average over the last five years. The one somewhat shocking thing to me is the fact that last year wasn’t the highest percentage. With the move to the shorter shot clock, I assumed we’d see more pressing to waste time. We’re going to get into some different press looks that teams show a little later, but while there was a decent sized jump from 2015-16 to last year, it was still shocking to see.
In doing the research, the one thing I found out is turnovers aren’t equal in the world of analytics and value of the press. In 2012 a study was done by Jay Cipoletti during the NCAA Tournament on points per possession off of turnovers. The key here was live ball turnovers vs dead ball turnovers. The difference was pretty staggering as points off live ball turnovers was 1.28 and just 1.04 off of dead ball turnovers. This is something that I want to illustrate when we look at the different types of presses that teams throw out. This is especially true for West Virginia and Louisville, who use the press to create offense. Those teams can struggle in the half court offensively, so they press for points, again different than when you see token pressure to waste time or show a different look. So with that in mind I wanted to show the last 5 years of turnover percentage and points per possession in both press and half court defense next to each other:
So with those numbers and the thought process, I want to get in to the different types of presses you’ll see across college basketball. There’s only one team that makes sense to start with here. Shit, they’re called Press Virginia for a reason and it’s something that Bobby Huggins prides himself on. I want to focus on their press forcing turnovers. Last year they led the nation in pressing 38.2% of the time a good 4% higher than the next team. They led the nation in turnover percentage, forcing a turnover on 27.6% of the time. They were also third in steal percentage at 13.8%, which goes back to the live ball turnover theory. You hear that when it comes to West Virginia during their games. When you turn the ball over against them you hope it’s a shot clock violation or a ball thrown out of bounds.
West Virginia was way below the average in points per possession – giving up just .671 while in press defense. That ranked in the 96th percentile nationally and obviously shows the strength of the program. It’s rare to see such a high volume in terms of percentage run and low points per possession, but here we are with the Mountaineers. While pressing they force turnovers at a staggering 33.2% of the time, way up than the overall number. So what makes them so good?
First, it starts with Jevon Carter, who was one of the best defenders in the country last year. His ability to apply pressure on the ball without help is what makes this press defense go. It allows the traps to happen. Throw in the fact he has extremely quick hands and you get more fumbled balls than most. After that it’s the rotations. West Virginia is one of the two best teams in the country when it comes to rotations in the press. They match up to an extent, but once the trap happens, the rotation of the other three defenders is so pretty to watch. The final piece of the puzzle is having an athletic big like they did last year in Nathan Adrian. He was able to be up top in the press and go trap in the corner when the ball was thrown in play.
Watch this press off a made basket. Right after the ball goes through the hoop, Carter face guards his guy, forcing him to the short corner. Big comes up on the ball and Bucknell is forced to throw the ball to their big at the free throw line. He’s able to immediately get it to the guard, but at that point you now have three West Virginia defenders in a small area. Carter leaves his man to trap and you can see the rotation starting to develop here:
Here’s the final look of the rotation taking place. You can see as the guard backs up, there’s really only one pass he can make due to the pressure by WVU. That’s taken away immediately:
Here’s the play as a whole:
So how do you beat West Virginia’s press? For starters you don’t want to inbound the ball into a corner, especially the short corner. That’s where West Virginia thrives in the trap. What makes it tricky is you don’t want to get it to your big in the middle of the floor either since he can’t do anything with it. The key is to bring a wing up to the middle of the floor and while he can’t see over West Virginia’s defenders he provides you another ball handler. Gonzaga attacked the press in a way that I think you’ll see more teams try. They put their main ball handler, Nigel Williams-Goss, up closer to half court, with their secondary ball handler Josh Perkins inbounding the ball. From there they’d look to do a couple different things. They’d try to throw over the top to NWG either on the inbound or get it to Zach Collins to throw it to him that way. They’d let Williams-Goss run back to the middle of the floor or it was a quick pass in to play and back to Perkins right away.
Again, West Virginia is a team that needs to press to create offense. They aren’t known for having a great halfcourt offense as they can get stagnant if the game slows down. On the flip side you have a team like Villanova, who presses more than the average number but does it for a different reason. They aren’t looking to create offense out of it as much as they are looking to limit points per possession by the other team.
Nova graded out in the 73rd percentile in terms of points per possession given up while in press defense. Nova pressed 13.4% of possessions and gave up just .798 ppp, well below the national average of .884 ppp. While you saw all the traps that West Virginia ran, Villanova was a lot more methodical in terms of their press. They showed more of a 1-2-2 look to make their opponent work. Did it force turnovers? Sure, but that was more due to end of shot clock situations. What Nova did well was limit points per possession defensively. They slowed the clock down, forcing their opponent to use about 18 seconds of the shot clock every possession on average. They were a top-75 team in effective field goal percentage defense, meaning they were forcing a lot of bad shots. It’s not like Nova had a bunch of rim protectors in the paint. Again, it was a lot of rotations and team defense. What Nova liked to do was show the 1-2-2 for the press and then drop back into a man look in the half court. Their press was also more 3/4 court with the trap coming right as the ball crossed the midcourt. That’s not to say they wouldn’t extend the press, but typically they liked having Mikal Bridges pick up just above the free throw line.
Here you can see the top portion of the press. Notice how soft it is compared to WVU’s hard trap. Again, they love turnovers, yes, but they aren’t actively going after it. They want to limit points per possession, something Villanova actively looks to do defensively.
Here’s the whole play below. You can see the trap happens the moment Koenig crosses halfcourt, providing Nova with that proverbial third defender. The other thing to notice is how the rotations are different for Nova than it is for WVU. West Virginia flies around the court, rotations coming up, meaning they are leaving the deepest offensive player alone. They want to cut off all passes that are one pass away. Nova doesn’t necessarily rotate as tough as West Virginia. In fact when the trap comes they let DiVincenzo guard three guys by himself. That’s because they know more than Koenig can’t make the diagonal pass to Trice or Showalter. Hart hardly rotates, he just slides over in front of Brown, leaving Koenig just one pass. Across the court to where DiVincenzo can jump.
There are more presses out there, but I just wanted to focus on these two teams and look at pressing as a whole in college basketball. I plan on tracking it this year to see if the number stays high with the shorter shot clock or if we see a dip at all. When you’re watching these games, don’t necessarily look at turnovers, but keep an eye on live ball turnovers for most teams. That will help you figure out some over/unders and what to expect from presses.