Florida State has had the best defense in the country for two years running. This year they're 5th. That kind of consistency doesn't come from luck. It's not a byproduct of recruiting long athletes. It's a result of great coaching which leads to players exerting maximum effort and demonstrating a nuanced understanding of how 5-pieces working in concert with one another can accomplish a common goal. In this case, it's stopping their opponent. Bad defense is often caused by selfishness. Players focus so hard on making sure their man doesn't score that they fail to help ensure that someone else's man doesn't score either. And this is the basic principle of Leonard Hamilton's defense (and all good defenses). Work together. Understand the principles. Play hard.
Hamilton runs man-to-man probably 80% of the time. So that's where I am going to start. I'm going to illustrate plays out of his basic set to give an idea of the core principles which make this defense run. As the season wears on I'll look at more complex situations.
Here are three plays from the Georgia Tech game. The Yellow Jackets were held to 0.78 points per possession.
In this first play Mfon Udofia (circled, left) has the ball across the timeline. Tech is running a baseline screen and Luke Loucks and Deividas Dulkys (circled, right) are talking through the defense. GT ran this play to pick Luke Loucks off his man, but instead Loucks just stays put and as the Tech players cross faces he and Dulkys switch assignments.
The ball ends up with Brandon Reed (bottom) who passes to Daniel Miller (circled, left) at the top of the key. At the same time Kammeon Holsey seals Xavier Gibson to the outside (circled, right) for what should be a dump down from Miller to Holsey for an easy bucket. But Luke Loucks plays 18' off his man and is in position to take that pass should Tech be foolish enough to make it.
Miller has to wait for Holsey to reset his post position before he makes the pass (circled) and then Miller dives to the basket.
Georgia Tech backs out their guards in an attempt to spread the defense, but FSU doesn't bite. Dulkys and Loucks are 8' to either side of Holsey (circled, left) in position to make a steal if his move goes wide. Bernard James (circled, right) is aware of his own man, but is defending the ball. Holsey puts up a shot which doesn't end well.
Here's the video:
Here, Tech is inbounding the ball versus pressure from FSU. This isn't a true full-court press, rather they're trying to surprise Tech and force a turnover (which almost happens). Once Tech gets the ball in, FSU retreats to set up their defense.
Tech goes to the left wing (circled, left) and they want to go into the post to Julian Royal (circled, right). Okaro White fronts Royal to take away the post entry, and Bernard James sags off his man enough to take away the lob to Royal. This is basic post defense for FSU. Front the post when they're deep, and expect backside help.
The play in the post isn't there so the ball handler (Jason Morris, circled left in the image above) attempts to beat the defense one-on-one off the dribble. But note FSU's alignment (circled). A core principle of the FSU defense is to deny dribble penetration, and here all five defenders are in position to attack the ball.
Here's the video:
Here's another set later in the half which is a great illustration of the combination between effort and understanding. Keep in mind that three non-starters are on the floor for the Seminoles. Mfon Udofia has set the offense at the deep right wing (circled). But note where Deividas Dulkys (20' to the ball handler's right) is positioned. He's 2/3 of the way between the ball and his man. His man (#14 Jason Morris) is the only current pass option. So Dulkys is up in the passing lane rather than in his man's face. This means the only option for the ball handler is to dribble or wait for someone else to come open.
Tech begins running the defense side to side. Watch any game announced by Bobby Knight and he'll expound ad nauseum about two things: shot fakes and getting the defense moving side to side. The latter is important as the movement creates gaps in the defense for the offense to exploit. So Udofia drives left (circled, with arrow) and Julian Royal sets a screen (circled, right). This is where things get interesting. Udofia is being guarded by Ian Miller (a 6'3 guard). Royal is being guarded by Xavier Gibson (a 6'11 center/power forward). If Royal were being guarded by another guard (say, Deividas Dulkys) then Miller and Dulkys could switch the screen which would leave Dulkys on the ball handler. But if Miller and Gibson switch then the 6'11 Gibson will be guarding a 6'2 Udofia and the 6'3 Miller will be guarding a 6'7 Royal. So to get around this Gibson will typically hedge the screen, meaning that he's slowing down Udofia long enough for Miller to get through the screen and catch back up.
But this isn't a typical defense. Gibson and Miller switch, and the play continues.
To reset the mismatches that Georgia Tech just created, FSU begins doubling everything. The next :12 seconds on the tape are fun to watch. FSU attacks the ball and uses doubles to prevent post entry. Georgia Tech can't do anything, and they finally set a two-man play on the left wing with Jason Morris (circled, left) and Daniel Miller (circled, right). Note that Jon Kreft isn't fronting Miller like described above in the Okaro White example. This is for two reasons. One is that Kreft is bigger than White and can afford to play a bit deeper, and two is to guard against the baseline drive. Kreft instead plays off the low shoulder of Miller.
Georgia Tech tries to drive anyway and it's easily cut off by Kreft. After a near turnover they reset the post and dump the ball into Kammeon Holsey who is guarded by Kreft (circled, right). Once the ball goes inside the Florida State defense it's time for all five players to attack the ball. Gibson doubles, Dulkys rotates to defend the shot opened up by Gibson double teaming, and Peterson and Miller sag into the middle to take away cutters. A huge space (circled, left) is left open, and this is where FSU fans typically complain of the opponent getting wide open threes. Tech could kick the ball out and get a three (assuming they can get the ball over or around Gibson), but they'd have to do it over a big FSU guard closing them out. This isn't an easy thing to do, and if you don't believe me then look at the data.
Regardless, Tech, with few options, goes to the baseline drive.
Here's the video:
The defense on that third clip is REALLY impressive, and the explanation just further enhances my understanding of what the FSU defense is instructed to do.
What a great article! This really helps explain the little things that make the big things happen. It's no wonder Tomahawk Nation is #1 on SB Nation. Thanks y'all!