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Defending is Down: Analytics of the Jay Wright Defense

Can NBA defensive strategies work for Jay Wright and the Wildcats?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round- Villanova vs Purdue David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Wright runs one of the most analytically efficient offenses in college basketball. His offense is very simple with apparently few sets in his arsenal. The simplicity benefits his players, and him in the end. The sets he does choose to run are unpredictable and flexible. He is most famous for running the 4-out-1-in motion offense, where you’ll see two players tucked into the corners and two players on opposing wings, with a big man is down low initiating a lot of the action (more about this offense here). He also mixes in some 50 series (5 players on the perimeter) and the occasional horns set (2 screeners on either side of the primary ball handler at the top of the key). All of these sets are very progressive in the modern basketball trend, emphasizing more efficient ways of playing the game discovered through analytics. What these sets mainly do is create a lot of shots at the rim and from 3-point-land.

The Houston Rockets would be the best NBA comparison, especially their 2016-2017 season. Take a look at their that season’s aggregate shot chart:

Basically, the Rockets eliminated mid-range shots, which is close to what Jay Wright has done with Villanova. It’s a smart, modern offense which has gotten Villanova a lot of success in the past and, despite a disappointing result this season (compared to the winningest four year stretch in college basketball history), kept his team in games this year which they otherwise might not have had a chance at winning.

So, this raises a question, if Coach Wright is so advanced on the offensive end, can he also become as advanced defensively? Although he lacked the personnel to make certain adjustments, other modern tactics seem to be ignored. Prime example: ICE defense on sideline pick and rolls.

ICE defense is a concept where the on-ball defender will switch his body positioning so that he is facing the middle of the court, forcing the ball handler towards the baseline. The big then drops to contain and delay the ball handler until either the on-ball defender catches up and they switch back, or the ball handler tries to pass the ball, in which case the two defenders switch. The only weakness to ICEing on these pick and rolls is that it is vulnerable to a pick and pop scenario (Instead of rolling to the basket, the screener moves back beyond the three point line). In college, there aren’t really that many centers who can shoot like Omari Spellman so, for Villanova, it’s a lot safer. If you want to read more in-depth on ICE, click here.

A particular game where this would have been useful was against UPenn. Penn ran flow offense for 40 straight minutes. Flow is an offense that relies on a big initiating a sideline pick and roll to get middle penetration. In 40 straight minutes, Jay Wright never had them ICE once. By disrupting this flow, ICEing likely would have shut Penn down on the offensive end and, even though Villanova was off that night, would still have given them a high chance to walk away with a W.

Beyond that, Wright’s players tended to defend ball handlers by making them play with their off-hand on drives to the basket. Nowadays, the more progressive strategy is to play ball handlers to the baseline, even if it’s their stronger hand. The rationale is to deny the middle of the court at all costs. Middle penetration leaves ball handlers with options and is very dangerous, even if it is with the off-hand. Reason being that if you force middle penetration and the player gets to the basket, he has access to the highest points per possession area on the court. If he does not get to the basket, he now has his choice of shooters to pass to when help comes, leaving the second highest points per possession area open. Even if he makes a bad pass because he uses his off hand, if the shooter has six feet of space he will get off a good shot. The baseline approach makes players think too long or dribble too long or force a tactical error, while denying them the options that the middle of the floor provides.

If you watch any NBA game, you will see this approach throughout the entire game by both teams. Villanova also made the mistake of allowing middle penetration on some of the close-outs (shortening distance between the defender and the shooter to contest the shot), which will burn you if the penetrator can find the open man (i.e. Markus Howard) or if there are enough sharpshooters to knock down shots. By not allowing this type of penetration, it will force much tougher shots and passes for opponents from an executional and tactical level.

Creating situations that may force mental errors is especially critical at the college level. As has been written in many books about lower levels of competition, self-inflicted mistakes more often cause a team to lose than executional excellence causes a team to win.

These several defensive concepts might be implemented over a summer and be key in making Villanova’s defense one of the best in the country. This past season was difficult because of the Villanova roster. Wright could not really do the amount of guard switching on the perimeter that he had done in the past. For example, the 3-point line can be protected by continuously switching on guard exchanges, which is easier to do with Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges than with Collin Gillespie and Joe Cremo. It’s completely understandable why he would coach to stay home in these situations. There are also arguments to be made on if his players should have 2 feet on the ground on close outs (if you want to read about this here is an article that describes this perfectly), but that’s nit-picking at this point.

But now that Jay Wright has some more athletic guards and a more versatile big in his incoming class, will we see any of these changes? Although he did not need to implement these while he had 2 national champion caliber teams, these concepts are becoming more and more prevalent every day as college offenses are advancing, especially when we see UMBC upset Virginia using these exact same concepts. Texas Tech was one of the first to implement a scheme like this and in their first year jumped from 72nd in the nation in defensive efficiency to 56th. The next year they were 4th and this last season they were first, which led them to a thrilling run to the National Championship game where they narrowly lost in OT. Considering that Villanova was 157th in the nation last season, they might want to take some notes for the 2019-2020 season.

Villanova was a top 12 defense for 5 straight years according to KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They were a top 5 defense in 2016, which was the pinnacle of their dominant 2014-2018 stretch that included 2 national championship and the winning-est 4 years by a D-1 school in college basketball history. This past season, they dropped to 89th in defensive rating according to KenPom, the second worst in Wright’s tenure behind the infamous 2012 season. Jay Wright has become known for his defense, but his defense relies on a combination of effort, experience, and talent. Last season showed that there may be some fundamental problems with his scheme that only came to light when the Wildcats lost 4 key players to the NBA, which accounts for a lot of talent and experience. Adopting these more advanced strategies may allow the new class to settle in, and the veterans to buckle down.