If he's said it once, we've said it a thousand times: Jay Wright is a defensive coach. Take care of your assignment and effort level on the defensive end, and everything else will follow. Great defense has been a staple of the most successful teams during his tenure at Villanova, the driving engine behind the deepest - Sweet 16 (Top 7 in '04-'05, only 37th in '07-‘08), Elite 8 (16th), and Final 4 (13th) - runs he's made as coach.
Through the first third of the young 2014-2015 season, this Villanova squad has been one of the best defensive teams Jay Wright has ever coached. Currently allowing a tempo & opponent adjusted 89.1 points per 100 possessions (per kenpom.com), this squad would rank as the stingiest in Jay Wright's history at the school if it closed out the season at this level. This defensive rating will vary with a larger sample of Villanova games as the season continues, as well as larger samples for opponent adjustments (by the same token), but the shorthand is this - the team's defense has been truly elite by Villanova (and NCAA) standards. But why?
That's a question this two-part article endeavors to look at, in some detail. First, we'll take a look at the strategy of the team, with some assists from game footage/still frames. Then, of course, we'll dive into some of the stats behind what's driving the performance that go beyond what's easily countable/observable from the eye test.
The Qualitative Look
There are a few things that popped up for me while watching the Wildcats this season that help explain why Villanova has been so successful on defense this year. It's far from a comprehensive list, and I don't pretend to be seeing anything no one else does; just highlighting a few strategies and tendencies I enjoy and believe help contribute to the excellent defense we've seen so far this year.
Beyond schematic idiosyncrasies, Villanova has just been playing very, very good fundamental defense. The players seem tied together - ‘on a string' - consistently hedging the right way, cutting off the right angles, and making the right rotations as a team to contain the offensive action the other side is using. It's often legitimately beautiful to watch - and the strength of their fundamental defense has been used to leverage a much more aggressive, steals generating style than we've seen in years past.
Jay has doubled down on his use of the 1-2-2 press, and the team has excelled in its performance of the same. Along with the obvious benefit of added turnovers (discussed more in depth below), even a ‘failed' press attempt forces the other team to take 5-10 seconds off the shot clock before getting into their more comfortable half-court sets. This benefit closes down the time available for a team to work an open shot, and makes it easier for Villanova to maintain maximum intensity for the duration of the half-court possession.
Even within the half-court, Villanova's players have been very aggressive about jumping passing lanes and going for steals and deflections. Part of this is the development of the team's (and the individual player's) instincts on that end of the floor - playing together in the same system for a couple of years has afforded a level of comfort in reading passing lanes, and making calculated gambles within the system. But much of it, from my view, is an evolution in the personnel we have on the floor - both in the players that are now part of/out of the major rotation, and the improvement from those players between last year and now.
It's not only a sense of when to jump passing lanes, and the requisite skill in doing so, but the confidence to do it and trust in the teammates behind them to cover mistakes. Villanova's help rotations after defensive breakdowns (caused by steal gambles or allowed dribble penetration) have been uncannily good this year. Not only is someone typically always in the right spot between the rim and the attacking player, someone else is typically sliding behind the play into the lane of the most likely outlet pass for the driving player, poised to snag easy steals on kick attempts. It's something you can see in the play outlined below:
Here, in an early play from the Illinois game, you can see Josh Hart about to be picked. The big's defender (Daniel Ochefu in this case) switches over to main responsibility for the ball-handler.
The ball-handler, sensing an opportunity to attack Ochefu off the dribble, heads for the rim.
Ochefu manages to use his quick feet and size to position himself between the basket and the ball, walling off the driving lane. Kris Jenkins also safely helps off his man to protect the basket. Jaylon Tate, seeing this, picks up his dribble and begins to look for an outlet.
Dylan Ennis sees this, and begins to drift into the passing lane between his guy and the suddenly-without-a-dribble-and-under-duress Tate.
Ennis cuts off the lane as Tate goes to pass, and steals the ball, leading to a transition chance for the offense.
It's just good fundamental defense - and, as mentioned above, being this good at the fundamentals allows you to play a higher risk-reward style while mitigating the ‘risk' side - and reaping the rewards. The steals generated (and Villanova has been 14th best at it in the country so far) have the double benefit of taking possession away from the other team (obvious, but also extremely important in the calculation of overall defensive efficiency) and creating easy points on the other end for Villanova. Thus far, it's been an effective method of goosing Villanova's efficiency on both ends of the floor.
Another little tendency I've enjoyed is Villanova's proclivity to switch pick and rolls. It's something they've been doing for years, obviously. But, so far this year, it feels like they've just been more effective in doing it, thanks to the personnel on hand and how they execute. I typically hate saying something like that without stats to back it up (and believe me, I wish there was an easy way to get those stats. I'd absolutely quote them), but I feel pretty confident in it.
A squad composed of a big with the athleticism of Ochefu and essentially athletic types between 6'-3" and 6'-7" lends itself to what's been an aggressive ‘switching' strategy on opponent pick and rolls. ‘Switching' on pick and rolls is relatively self-explanatory: the wing or guard getting picked sticks with the big man rolling toward the rim, while the player who was guarding the big setting the pick steps out onto the guard handling the ball.
The benefit of this strategy is simple - you use two of your guys to defend two of their guys. In a typical scheme, where the bigs stay with the bigs and the wings stay with the wings (during a typical pick and roll), should dribble penetration be allowed off the pick and roll action, a rotating third ‘help' defender is needed to defend against the wing's foray to the rim/the rolling big man's straight path to the rim; if the big helps off his own rolling big man to help on the penetration, he leaves his own man open for dunks/lobs. Thus, a ‘help' defender must rotate to put a body in front of the rim, leaving the vacated man open (many times, on the perimeter). This is the simplest case of bending the defense with a pick and roll - once a help defender comes in, leaving his man, the defense is left to scramble to the open man/men created by the pass back to the perimeter. It can be lethal for the defense on a given possession.
Of course, this simplistic breakdown of a pick and roll ignores many of the tactical variations of defense (and offense) off this action. Defending bigs can step out to contain penetration from the wing/guard while the picked player recovers, then sag back to their original ‘big' man when their teammate can cover the perimeter player again. Offensive bigs can ‘slip' screens instead of setting them, if they see teams leaning too hard towards a pick, and go to the rim for a lob/pass attempt. These are only a few of the typical deviations; there are a ton. The point is, though, that successful dribble penetration from a guard/wing off a pick and roll typically draws help, which bends the defense, which often leads to open shots.
Switching nips this possibility in the bud. The big leaves his man to contain the ball handler, while the defender getting picked sticks with the big as he goes toward the rim. There's no breakdown in the defense to exploit, no obvious holes to probe, and no need for an extra defender to stop the action. Switching is a natural antidote to offenses designed to bait defenses into contortion/bending with their half-court actions - it's the equivalent of saying ‘What else you got?'
Of course, the disadvantages should also be clear - it can generate mismatches. Your perimeter defender is asked to defend their big in the post, while your own big guy is asked to contain a perimeter player. Smart teams can slowly exploit a switching tendency to get a favorable matchup in the post, or a good 3 point shooter/dribble penetrator against a big, especially with the 35 second shot clock in college.
However, Villanova's interchangeable personnel tends to mute the matchup problems caused by switching. First, Villanova's perimeter defenders are very, very good at avoiding picks; Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart, especially, are excellent at sensing when a pick is coming and avoiding heavy contact with the big in order to stay in front of their man. Obviously, being able to avoid the pick precludes any necessity to switch.
When they do need to switch, however, it's hard for the other team to get a truly ‘short' guy matched up against a big, as Ennis is the team's shortest starter at 6'-2" , and Villanova compensates in cases where their wings are guarding bigger players by aggressively fronting in the post to deny entry passes. While this can leave the team open to lobs over the top of the ‘front', typically, the giant set of arms provided by Ochefu (the only big who does have some problems - though not many, thanks to his smarts/athleticism - passably guarding perimeter guys), and the sneaky length of our typical ‘fronters' dissuades this effort. In this series of still captures from the Michigan game, you can see the problems this causes for other teams:
Ryan Arcidiacono, after getting back first on transition D, ends up matched up with Michigan's Max Bielfeldt, who has quite a bit of a height and girth advantage on him.
Arch attempts to deny any entry pass by fronting his man, as Michigan's guards pass it around the perimeter, looking for an opportunity to get it to the post.
A high entry pass over the stiff defense of JVP is thrown in. Josh Hart, seeing the possibility of this, is helping hard off Zak Irvin in the opposite corner.
The high arc of the entry pass allows Hart to get into perfect position underneath Bielfeldt, as he goes up in the air to catch the pass. Ochefu (though he hasn't quite shown it in the above frame) starts a sprint toward the wide open Irvin, while Ennis begins to rotate off his man to Levert at the top of the arc.
By the time Bielfeldt lands, the window for an easy pass for a wide open 3 has closed. Surprised by the aggressive help of Hart and trapped between him and Arch, Bielfeldt tries to dribble and pass out to the open man behind him on the perimeter, traveling and turning it over in the process.
The aggressiveness of this strategy is essentially a bet that the team's defensive rotations will be stronger than the ability of the big with the mismatch to make the best play. It was borne out here, and it's seen more success than failure so far this year. The team just knows where to rotate and what to cut off, and has the team athleticism/speed to close out quickly on gaps and mistakes.
In another game situation, the length of Villanova turns what looks like an easy dunk into a turnover. We'll go to the VCU game, on a possession near the beginning of the 2nd half.
As Mo Alie-Cox jumps out aggressively to screen Hilliard, Jenkins begins to fall off his man (Mo Alie), anticipating the switch.
Jenkins cuts off the dribble penetration, while Hilliard tries to chase down the play.
It looks like Alie-Cox has a clear path to the basket here. Briante Weber pulls up to slot the pass through to him for an ‘easy' dunk.
But Hilliard (and his insanely long arms) has other ideas. His sprint back to cover the big results in a tipped pass and deflection off Cox for Villanova ball.
Success! Well, not really. It was certainly a close call - but Villanova again won the bet on its athleticism and recover ability.
While, obviously, this sample of two instances where it worked is tiny and skewed, I believe it's a big part of what Villanova's been doing this year, and helps isolate some of the ramped-up aggression we've seen from our guys in going for turnovers and steals.
Villanova has also used switches on off-ball action, releasing off guys running through the paint to the other side of the floor and switching to a sort of zone, knowing that the guy on the other side will pick up the man they left as he runs through. It's an interesting sort of hybrid man/zone, and helps minimize the time individual defenders spend chasing one player around the floor.
Switching has served the team very well by forcing other teams to explore options and actions they're not as familiar with, while minimizing problems caused by the ‘mismatches' generated by a team switching philosophy.
It's been a very effective tool in the arsenal, though I would like to see Ochefu's time guarding a perimeter player when the ball's been moved away from his side (i.e. his man doesn't have the ball) minimized - he can swap with the guy he originally switched with, or whichever of Jenkins, JVP, and Hart is guarding the other ‘big' that's likely on the floor. He's fine-ish 1 on 1 against a perimeter guy with the ball, but shouldn't be chasing those types of guys around screens / the rest of the floor. Not his forte, or what's good for the defense. Keep him close to the rim!