As a head coach, you plan for both your opponents' best actions and their best players. Personally, I always felt it was easier to defend against a system than it was to defend against a player who has an elite ability to create plays either for himself or for his teammates. Tricky plays are tough to defend against; tricky players can be impossible to stop.
Good players earn the respect of opposing coaches, but the players your defense must contain for your team to win are the ones who keep head coaches up at night, which is why I call them "matchup nightmares."
Here is my ranking of the 10 toughest players in the nation to defend against, and a game plan for each that opponents should try to enact to slow them down.
1. Russ Smith, G, Louisville Cardinals
Smith might be the best one-on-one player in college basketball. A high-volume shooter who changes speed and direction, Smith can get a shot off any time he wants. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino allows him to probe the defense and gives him the green light to attack the basket and create plays on his own. Smith can play off Peyton Siva's penetration or take the reins as the team's primary ball handler. He explodes off screens and can finish with an array of different layups.
On defense, he is relentless both off the ball and as an aggressive, on-ball defender in the Louisville press. Smith averages three steals per game, which often are live-ball turnovers that lead to transition layups.
Game plan: You need to defend Smith with a bigger defender, if possible. Keep him in front and stay down on his change-of-direction, change-of-pace game. Defenders need to use size to their advantage and close with their hands above the ball. Use help defenders to shrink the court so he doesn't have gaps through which to drive. Defenders must go over all side ball screens, and on flat and shake ball screens, the help defender must stay with the ball and make Smith a passer. With Smith, as is the case with all the players on this list, all five defenders need to be alert when he has the ball. One player may have the primary responsibility, but everyone else has a secondary responsibility. It needs to be five versus one.