Basketball strategy, like strategy in all sports, evolves in fits and waves. The game changes, and teams change with it, from player body types to positional traits to coaching philosophies and defensive styles. The game becomes more physical, or less so; the rules allow hand-checking, or don't; a specific type of play wreaks havoc on defenses, until it doesn't. And the beauty of it all is that you never know where a new, seemingly radical strategy might originate.
Indiana coach Tom Crean has what many expect to be the best team in the country in 2012-13. He has the player, sophomore forward Cody Zeller, most expect to compete for national player of the year awards. But if his team is going to live up to such lofty expectations, it will take more than Zeller's expanded skill set and contributions from a score of supporting players. It will also take improved defense. Indiana was the No. 4-ranked offense in the country last season, per Ken Pomeroy's efficiency metrics, but the Hoosiers' defense came in at just No. 64 overall -- a major improvement from 2010's ugly performance but still not at the level of a national title contender. The Hoosiers will score, and score a lot. But as their run-and-gun 102-90 NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky proved, at some point, to win a national title, they'll have to get some stops, too.
Which is why Thursday's column from WDRB.com columnist (and longtime Louisville Courier-Journal scribe) Rick Bozich is so interesting. Crean has been spending lots of time looking at old Denny Crum-era Louisville Cardinals footage, particularly the 1980 and 1986 national title teams, that specialized in Crum's trademark switch-everything defense:
"We've got a chance to have more depth," said Crean, who has talked with Crum about visiting IU practices. "We have a chance to pressure the ball more. We definitely have more length. We can do more switching. That's why I'm so interested in looking at the old Louisville teams of Denny Crum and how they did that.
"There's so many more opportunities we have defensively right now because of our length and versatility. That's how we have tried to recruit it. Get versatile, multi-dimensional, multi-positional guys. And try not to get too many people that can't shoot the ball."
That last part is kind of funny, because it's so blunt, but I'm more interested in the defensive implications of Crean's film study -- particularly as it relates to the trademark play of the modern game, the ball screen.
In the past five years, and maybe longer, the pick-and-roll has become a nigh-unstoppable force in the game of basketball at nearly all levels, from the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats to the NBA Champion Miami Heat, and everywhere in between. Why? Because it is intuitively simple and, when run properly, borderline unstoppable. It gives the offense instant space and options -- pick and roll, pick and pop, penetrate and score, drive and kick -- while forcing defenses to rotate and help. There is a counterpunch to every defensive maneuver, and these little tweaks can be taught as easily to sixth-graders as pros. It is, I'd wager, the defining play of the current basketball era.
And Crum's switching defense may be the only way to stop it. Coaches have long since taken to switching "like" screens -- screens that feature two similar players, like two wings, that both defenders can guard with relatively equal success. But teams don't run many like ball screens. They force big men to come hedge on the perimeter, which forces help, which moves the defense the way the defense doesn't want to be moved.
A switch-everything defense could alleviate that. If every defender can reasonably guard every offensive play, you can hedge high and immediately defuse the pick and roll before it has a chance to cause a larger defensive reaction.
Of course, that's much easier said than done. Rare is the team, especially at the college level but also in the pros, that boasts five defensive players capable of guarding every position on the floor. Last season's Kentucky team might have been the first in recent history, thanks not only to Anthony Davis's agility but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's size on the defensive perimeter and Terrence Jones's versatility on the low block. Indiana may not quite have the players; it is hard to imagine Cody Zeller keeping Louisville guard Peyton Siva out of the lane if Gorgui Dieng sets a good ball screen on Jordan Hulls, for example.
But the general idea is really interesting, not only as a one-off strategy but as a sign of the evolution of the game. The pick and roll has wrecked defenses for years. Teams have devised non-switching strategies to defend it, with minimal success. It would be no surprise if, in the next four or five years, we saw teams intentionally recruit as much versatility into their lineups as possible, stocking up on players who can guard a multitude of positions at any given time. This, more than any other measure, could be the big macroeconomic counterpunch needed to stop the pick and roll once and for all.
The good news? It's been done before. Crum proved as much during his fabled Louisville tenure. Now 30 years on, it may be time for the switching defense to rise again. If Crean's squad can master it, the Hoosiers could rise again, too.