Breaking down FSU’s defense and how they stifle opponents
Florida State has been the model example for tough defensive teams in college basketball over the past several years. Per review of Leonard Hamilton’s coaching resume, we see that FSU has been the #1 defense the past two seasons and an extremely strong defense since 2003. FSU has never advanced far in the NCAA tournament (last year’s Sweet Sixteen being their best finish), so Hamilton is not mentioned in one of the top echelons of coaches, but it is clear he knows how to teach defense.
Let’s take a look at how FSU forces their opponents into bad shots and turnovers. The two factors we are going to look at today are their ball pressure and outstanding rotations. They do a lot more than this on the defensive end (rebounding to end the possession is the big point missing) but these two are arguably the most important.
A defense that is hard to score against always starts with good ball pressure on the guards. By not allowing the guards to easily penetrate into the lane or make the first pass to the wing, the offense will have a hard time getting a good look at the bucket. The FSU pressure starts with big guards, as 2011-12 returning guards Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys stand 6’5″, respectively and were helped by Derwin Kitchen in prior seasons. This allows them to harass the guards of the opposing teams and make it very difficult to start the offense by either the dribble or the pass.
The next few frames illustrate my point. Look at how the FSU guards meet the ballhandlers way before the three point line, making it hard to initiate the offense in a favorable place. They are long enough to bother the offense and athletic enough to stay in front of the ballhandler.
By pressuring the ball from the start, the guards make it extremely difficult for the offense to move the offense north and south. They force the ball east and west instead to force the offense to stay outside the three point. As the shot clock winds down, the offense is still a long ways from the basket. This usually results in a rushed shot, playing right into the hands of the defense.
This is a great clip showing the intense ball pressure of FSU. The ball never makes it below the three point line, as each ballhandler is met with pressure almost the moment they catch the ball. The defense is able to move their feet quickly and stay in front of the offensive player, forcing them to dribble side to side instead of toward the basket.
The following set of clips shows a few more examples of FSU using intense ball pressure to force the offense to move side to side instead of moving the ball below the three point line. You will notice that some of these plays end in fouls, but that is the nature of an aggressive defense. I think Hamilton will live will the majority of these fouls, as long as they are fouls made from aggressive defense, not lazy defense.
Off Ball Rotations
The second point to touch on is the great help defense rotations that FSU is able to complete. All defenders, from the guards to the bigs, scramble to rotate to the open man to deny the easy pass.
Let’s look at the following frames and clip from the VCU game. After Chris Singleton steps out on the ball screen, Dulkys scrambles to get back to Skeen, who popped out for the three point shot (in the play seen here). Dulkys then sprints to the basket to take away the pass to the block, as a second teammate has already rotated to Skeen.
This may look like chaos but this type of scramble defense works for the personnel of FSU, as their bigs can handle themselves against athletic guards, and the guards can rotate to the big men before the defense recovers. The keys are knowing where the open man is going to be before you start to recover and communicating on defense.
The rest of the play is a textbook example of helping on penetration and closing out on shooters. The length of players like Singleton, Okaro White and Bernard James makes it tough to shoot over the player who is closing out. Here is the full play.
In the following set of clips, key in on the off ball defenders. Notice how they are always moving into better help position and rotating to the open man after they help on the ball. The players rarely get screened, as they both put the screener in a bad spot and allow the player to be screened through the screen but when they do, there is always a secondary defender there to temporarily cover the open man.
Can they sustain it?
The question is, how will the FSU defense perform this year? They lose two of their top defenders in Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen, but they return the rest of their core, which features staunch defenders in Dulkys, James and White, to name a few. FSU had some of their best defensive performances without Singleton last season, as comparable players were able to step in and fill the void.
I do not think it is delirious to say that FSU has a great chance to be a top 5 defense again this year and it is not out of the realm of possibility that they can be the #1 defense the third year in a row. If they ever figure out the other side of the ball, watch out.