Billy Gillispie: What we can expect defensively

Yesterday, I took a look at what we can expect to see next year from coach Gillispie on offense for UK, and promised a look at his defense today.  As before, I will disclaim this post by saying that I am a fan, not a coach -- basketball is a subtle game, and subtleties obvious to a trained basketball coach will be missed by the layman, and I am only a fan, just like you.

With that said, let's begin.  Gillispie, as we all know, plays a pressure man-to-man defense.  That doesn't mean he utilizes a full-court press, but it does mean that it is an in-your-chest type of defense designed to force turnovers and deny the passing lanes.

Before we look at Gillispie's defense, let's take a basic look at Tubby Smith's famous ball-line defense.  The ball-line defense has been much maligned around here recently, perhaps somewhat unfairly so.

Ball line defense with the ball in the low post.

The ball-line defense is designed to prevent easier, close-in shots and force more difficult outside shots, preferably contested ones.  Back in 2003-2004, the SuffoCats demonstrated just how effective the ball-line can can be when it is run with commitment.  It also takes time to learn -- Chuck Hayes famously said that it took him a year just to learn the defense.

The ball-line suffers from a couple of weaknesses, especially when the defenders aren't committed to it's principles or don't understand them well.  The weakness that used to endlessly irritate Kentucky fans was the propensity for the ball-line to surrender open looks at 3-pointers.  Why does this happen?  A look at the illustration will tell you.

The ball-line requires defenders on the weak side to sink to the level of the basketball, and to the mid-line of the court, while keeping an eye on the ball.  You can see from the illustration that the 3 is completely open, with his defender in proper position.  A skip pass from the 4 will get an open  look, especially if the 3 moves a bit toward the corner.

The real fault here is allowing easy post entries, which force defenders into help-side defense, not the defense itself.  By allowing an easy post entry, you force defensive reaction and this sort of problem.

Gillispie's defense is more traditional.  Now, defensive strategies are far more subtle than offensive strategies:  For example, some man-to-man defenses attempt to deny the wing pass, others try to get the ball out of the point guard's hands.  Smith denied the wing pass, because most post feeds come from the wing and better shooters tend to live there.  Gillispie's strategy appears to be to force the point guard to surrender the ball, and to have the wings handle more.

Coach Gillispie's man-to man with the ball in the low post.

This strategy allows easier access to the post and allows better shooters to touch the ball more in theory, but it also keeps the ball out of the hands of the primary penetrator and ball handler, increasing the likelihood of turnovers.

Gillispie likes to have his defenders force the wings toward the sidelines, making post feeds harder and allowing defenders to wedge the wings toward the corner, where traps become possible.  He also had Law pick up the point at 3/4 court most possessions, again trying to get the ball out of the primary ballhandler's hands as quickly as possible.

Gillispie's more traditional man-to-man makes it easier to guard skip-passes from the post, because help-side defenders stay closer to their man.  Spacing is critical in this setup, because help-side defense must come quickly on drives to the hoop.

Gillispie's TAMU team did not like to switch on ball screens much, they tried very hard to fight over them -- same thing Tubby taught.  I never saw TAMU in a zone one time, and neither did they ever go into a zone press.  I saw a couple of man presses, but the zone press is what you use to try to deny inbounds and force back-court turnovers.  So if you are looking for the Pitino days of constant press, you will be disappointed.

I am sure there is much more to coach Gillispie's defense than I can cover here, and as I mentioned, college basketball defenses contain many subtleties which are simply opaque to all but the trained eye.  But I think UK fans will love the tough, in-your-face brand of defense Gillispie will bring, and welcome a move away from the more difficult ball-line defense of the recent past.

Put simply, Gillispie's philosophy appears to be one of well-executed simplicity on both sides of the ball.

Thanks to HornsFan of Burnt Orange Nation for linking this post.

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