Brent, a frequent reader of this blog, posed a question regarding why more basketball teams don’t employ the full-court press more often or, for that matter, don’t use it at all! He attached to his comment the website address of The New Yorker magazine, which contained the article from the Annals of Innovation section entitled, How David Beats Goliath, subtitled When Underdogs Break the Rules by Malcolm Gladwell.
A brief summary of the eight page article is as follows: Vivek Ranadive (who had never played basketball) was the father of one of the players on a girls’ 12-year old basketball team from Redwood City (CA) and became its coach. He couldn’t understand why teams freely gave up so much territory, i.e. why they would allow the opponent to get the ball and advance it 70′ of the 94′ of the court with no resistance. He decided, as the coach, he would instruct the girls (basically a bunch of little blond girls from the heart of the Silicon Valley, devoid of height or good basketball skills) to full-court press, every minute of every game. They had phenomenal success.
Gladwell compared this strategy of full-court pressing to what Lawrence of Arabia did to the Ottoman Army near the end of World War I and also proclaimed that David beat Goliath because he, David, pressed. The author even brought up the one (and only) year Digger Phelps coached Fordham (1971-72) and spoke of the time the Rams beat Dr. J’s UMass team in Amherst, by pressing - yet, subsequent to that game, Digger didn’t press again, nor did losing UMass coach, Jack Leaman, incorporate it. The person most impressed was the Minutemen’s freshman guard, Rick Pitino - and he went on to use it very effectively at BU, Providence College, UK and Louisville. Interestingly enough, in what must have been an oversight, there was no mention of the press and its success when Pitino was head coach of the NBA’s Boston Celtics.
The Redwood City girls denied the inbounds pass and trapped when the ball was successfully inbounded. They’d be shutting girls out, while getting layups and short, high percentage shots, jumping out to leads of as much as 20-0. I found it an amusing side note, but their season ended, according to the coaches, players and the author as did most other teams’ - in a loss where the referees were blamed for screwing them! Some things never change.
For years, I have been a vocal adversary of the full-court press philosophy and here’s the main reason why: it’s difficult enough to guard the opponent within 25′ feet of the basket, let alone 94′ - with the same number of players. Before I further explain that belief, I want to say I applaud Ranadive and his team and, quite honestly, I’d have done the exact same thing had I been in his shoes. That’s because this is an excellent strategy to use for younger kids, whose bodies haven’t fully matured, so when they see a teammate all the way down the floor and (s)he’s wide open, they physically can’t throw the ball that far - assuming the ballhandler actually saw the open offensive player.
So, in my mind, the all-out, full-court pressing strategy is a good one until players get older (e.g. high school varsity age). In the college and NBA, forget it! It would be pretty much laughed at. OK then, you ask, how did Rick Pitino have so much success with it? In the San Joaquin Valley, what is it that makes the “Vance Walberg devotees” want to scream from the rooftops that this system will insure coaches and fans alike the identical overwhelming success Vance had, first at Clovis West HS, then at Fresno City College? I feel the one major answer to this question that transcends all others is they are both great coaches, each with the ability to impose his will upon the team - independent of what strategy they employ.
When I coached at Buchanan High School, since it’s in the same league as so many of those “copy (Vance) cat” teams (and in some ways, how can anyone blame them?), I tried (for the most part, unsuccessfully) to calmly and thoroughly explain that when you (the ballhandler, or BH) are being trapped, the two opponents who are trapping you are not going to hit, kick, knife, punch or shoot you. All the defense is doing is putting two players on you and frantically waving, shouting and yelling jibberish in hopes you’ll turn it over. No need to panic. As I was to later discover, this would be a great deal easier said than done - until younger kids were cultivated and, as they got older, understood the game better and had fewer and fewer problems with it.
Ranadive had two main points of emphasis: the first was regarding the inbounds pass, where the ball must be put into play by the inbounder within five seconds. If your team’s press attack, run properly, can’t inbound the ball within 5 seconds, you probably need to begin thinking about a second career (or hobby) choice. The second area, advancing the ball past the midcourt line in ten seconds must have been during a summer tournament because in girls’ basketball, there is no 10 second rule, only a rule that a shot must be taken within 30 seconds from the beginning of the possession. Let’s assume that, in fact, the tournament these Redwood City girls were in, there was no time limit, only the “rule” the ball must be advanced beyond midcourt in 10 seconds.
Any coach, even a novice, ought to be able to see that a main coaching point against a full-court press, since their five guys can only cover so much of the 94′ x 50′ playing area, is to properly space the floor. One major flaw in press attacks is the thought that it’s a good idea to “bury” your worst ballhandler, i.e. put him as far away from the action as possible. NO!!! Now you’re playing right into your opponent’s hands. They can now double team the man receiving the ball and still deny all other outlets.
Instead, space the floor by always having a guard behind the ball 10′-12′ away from it (until, of course, the ball crosses midcourt), so when in real trouble, your other guard is behind the BH, serving as a safety outlet. Have one player sprint to the open area in the middle of the floor. Another teammate should be up the floor from where the BH is, close enough so the BH can see him (and pass it to him) while the final member of the five guys on the floor is near the basket at which you’re shooting, which the opponent had better guard since now your BH is physically capable of hitting that guy. Advancing the ball via the pass is usually preferred over the dribble as the pass is a faster way of covering ground.
Proper execution of a press attack should lead to easy baskets, thus defeating the main purpose of the defense, which is to get more easy points off it than you give up. Once good teams see full-court presses, their eyes usually light up because if the passes are sharp, i.e. fundamentally sound, presses will be shredded time and again.
Coaching is leading and the line about leaders is apropos here:
“The leader’s purpose is not to get the team members to do their jobs. It’s to get them to do their best.”