Commentary

Simplicity works for Florida State's D

Originally Published: March 23, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- There must be some secret. Some revelatory strategy. Some gimmick.

In this modern, saturated hoops age, every variation of every new X's and O's scheme is treated with slack-jawed wonder. Tell us more of this dribble-drive motion, oh wise one. Aspiring coaches and hoops aficionados grasp at any potential advantage, any cunning angle, any minor evolution in the game of basketball.

So when one team has quietly been the best defensive unit in the nation for not one but two consecutive seasons, the first thought that comes to mind is this:

[+] EnlargeLeonard Hamilton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastLeonard Hamilton's defense helped carry Florida State to its first Sweet 16 since 1993.

There has to be a secret. The Secret.

In other words: What does Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton know that the rest of the country doesn't?

"I don't think I have any original ideas," Hamilton said. "What we do is just try to be consistent with what we teach our players. We try to hold them accountable for everything we do."

Come on. It can't be that simple, right?

Thing is, it just might be. To hear Hamilton describe it, the key to building a defense that has allowed the lowest opponent field goal percentage in the past two seasons -- the first program since the John Thompson-coached Georgetown Hoyas in 1990-91 to do so -- boils down to the simplest of principles. It's stuff any high school freshman learns (or, at the very least, should learn): participation, effort, teamwork, fundamentals, focus, accountability.

"They're just certain fundamental things that I think most coaches would like to see their players execute," Hamilton said. "We try to have our players understand that defense is something that everyone can participate in. It doesn't have anything to do with your quickness, your speed, your athleticism. It's your ability to stay focused and be consistent each time the ball moves to a certain place.

"That's when you have a team defense," Hamilton said.

True to his point, those two words -- team defense -- might be the best way to explain Florida State's quiet rise in the past three seasons. In 2009, after six years at the school, Hamilton led his team to its first NCAA tournament berth since 1998. On Friday, Florida State will make its first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 1993. That seminal -- pun totally intended -- step for the program came on the heels of a 71-57 win over No. 2 seed Notre Dame on Sunday. Florida State's accomplishments in that game included a thorough dismantling of the nation's third-most-efficient offense in front of a legion of Irish fans in Chicago, a mere 95 miles from South Bend, Ind.

And the Seminoles did it as star forward Chris Singleton -- widely regarded as one of the best defensive players in the nation -- played limited minutes thanks to a still-healing foot injury suffered on Feb. 12.

"We pretty much handled them," guard Derwin Kitchen said. "I'm not a cocky guy, but they're a No. 2 seed, and we pretty much just handled them. We shut their offense down, and we had enough guys step up on offense, too."

Kitchen sounded almost surprised at the notion. He had reason to be. After all, although FSU's margin was bolstered by plenty of defense -- the Seminoles held the typically locked-in Irish to 30.6 percent shooting on the night -- it also came thanks to a rare burst of offense from the Noles, who drained seven 3-pointers in the first half to build a lead from which the Irish offense never recovered.

Chris Singleton
AP Photo/ Mike GrollChris Singleton (left) is widely regarded as one of the best defensive players in the nation.

If anything, that's been the most intriguing thing about this Seminoles team: For the past two seasons, FSU has been largely mediocre. Why? The Seminoles cough up possession as often as any other team in the country -- they were No. 312 in turnover rate in 2010-11 and No. 326 in 2009-10 -- and to say they've lacked reliable shooting would be an understatement.

The scouting report on Hamilton's team has been -- and, frankly, is -- pretty simple. FSU can guard you. But you can guard FSU. "We've been so bad on offense, we know we better stop the other team," Kitchen said.

Still, that dynamic doesn't diminish what Florida State has accomplished on the defensive end, where it has ranked No. 1 in Division I in adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the past two seasons, according to number cruncher Ken Pomeroy. The Seminoles' defense can be a thing of beauty, provided you're willing to sit through some truly ugly offensive possessions. FSU hassles ball handlers and shooters out to 25 feet. It tries to deny easy passes and entries to the post. It stocks a bevy of athletic forwards on the interior -- rangy shot-blockers like Singleton, Bernard James, and rising freshman Okaro White. That kind of personnel allows Florida State's perimeter defenders to extend further than most teams possibly could around the 3-point line; if an FSU defender gets beaten on penetration, the bigs in the middle are sure to have his back.

Despite Hamilton's understated explanation, there's more than just effort and focus behind this defense. There is something like a systemic logic behind it. That strategy starts with recruiting; Hamilton stocks his team with athletes, then gets those athletes to buy in to a good old-fashioned, floor-slapping, we're-coming-after-you-so-get-ready defensive style.

"Coach Hamilton's developed a system," said James, who joined the Seminoles this season after a six-year Air Force career. "It doesn't rely on athleticism or skill, really. It's really all about effort. And then when you add athleticism and skill to it, it just puts it way over the top."

Said White, "It's the emphasis by the coaches. When we first start the season, the first thing we focus on is defense."

In an age of magic bullets, of offensive systems purported to reinvent the game itself, of $50 instructional DVDs and the era of coaches as stylistic salesmen, perhaps there's something refreshing in FSU's defense. What you see is what you get, and what you get is an old-school, defense-first ideology outfitted with new-school athletes. It's a Division I clinic in the classic defensive fundamentals. Move your feet. Call out screens. See ball and man. Close out shooters. Apply furious pressure and don't ever let up.

It's the same system that worked when Hamilton was at Miami, the same one that worked at Florida State in 2009 and 2010, the same one that has quietly made the Seminoles the fourth-winningest team in the ACC in the past four seasons and the same one that has taken this program closer to the Final Four than it has been in nearly 20 years. "We try to have a defensive system that is always five guys against the ball," Hamilton said. "Our principles allow the ball to lead us where we're supposed to be on the floor. If we're consistent with that, then we can be pretty effective."

Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.