These defenses never rest
What's a girl to do if she can't score or pass in basketball?
At least, that's what I'd share with an aspiring youngster who really loves the game and really wants to play it, but sees the hoop through 10 miles of fog.
And that's because not many coaches can afford to overlook a defensive specialist. Detroit Pistons star Ben Wallace, for example, couldn't stroke a 10-footer if a conveyor belt carried the ball for him -- yet he's one of the best players in the NBA. Early on, he figured out that if he used his athleticism, infused it with infinite energy and anticipated where the next play would occur, he could compete at the highest level. Energy, sheer will and focused defensive preparation are qualities that can make an average player, or even an average team, special.
The best teams can do it all. They're efficient at both ends of the floor, racking up points but also getting stops at the other end. And when all is said and done, really quality clubs -- through basic, fundamental team defense and utter determination -- can protect their basket in the waning minutes of battle.
A look at five of the teams that have impressed us defensively this season in women's college basketball, including one or two that people might not have previously recognized for their defensive prowess:LSU
Pokey Chatman and company have always been able to score points with gemstone players such as swinger Seimone Augustus and the very generous Temeka Johnson. But to legitimately pursue a national title, the Lady Tigers adopted a new defensive mentality this past fall.AP Photo/John BazemoreSylvia Fowles helps shore up LSU's interior defense and averages 2.8 blocks.
Said Chatman: "It's not what you teach, but what you emphasize. We have a mantra that started back in the fall: one hand on the basketball at all times."
For LSU, that has translated into an in-your-face, man-to-man style with, of course, a hand on the ball at all times. The scheme has really thrust LSU -- which will not play a zone in Pokey's regime -- to super heights.
Specifically, her players stretch deep to scoring threats and apply pressure in frenetic fashion. In the half court, they force most rivals toward the baseline corner -- not the baseline, mind you, since Chatman joked that some players will actually give the dribbler a first-class ticket to the low block if instructed to push that way.
The real beauty and difference in LSU's defense this season, however, has been the improved play of 6-foot-5 freshman Sylvia Fowles, who's averaging 2.8 blocks.
"Having Sylvia deep in the hole allows our perimeter game to gamble more often and play more aggressively," Chatman said. "She's been asked to come in and change all of the life habits she's developed, and instead, play a motion offense, guard smaller players and get her teammates open. She has learned how to rotate defensively ... 50 percent of the shots she blocks come from her excellent help-side positioning and impeccable timing.
"For someone who's been taught to play behind the post her whole life, she has really adapted."
Though Chatman might tell you her best single-coverage defender is senior forward Scholonda Hoston, who can trigger multiple deflections, there are no superstars. Instead, the Lady Tigers just get better each day with defense as their backbone for success.North Carolina
If LSU's defense is frenetic, North Carolina's is feverish. Sylvia Hatchell believes in maximizing possessions to score the most points humanly possible. She also adheres to the policy of giving her players the absolute freedom to exercise the talents bestowed upon them at birth. As a result, the Tar Heels play with wild abandon at both ends of the floor. They know that if they create multiple stops, they will in turn have more opportunities to push the envelope offensively.AP photo/Sara D. DavisUNC has it all: speed, tenacity and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Nikita Bell.
While there aren't many secrets to UNC's "D," there is plenty of surprise. Opponents know that it's coming; they just can't predict when.
"We get out in passing lanes and throw a lot of different looks at you, whether full-court, half-court or with multiple traps," Hatchell said. "We might call something in a timeout, but you just never know what we're going to do."
Changing things so often at such a rigorous pace gives UNC a tremendous advantage.
"It's really hard for teams to run patterns against us," Hatchell added. "Basketball is a game of rhythm and timing, and we can throw that off against people."
Truth is, this is the most exciting Carolina team to watch in recent memory, and Hatchell knows it.
"We play basketball that's fan-friendly and exciting," she said. "It's basketball that people want to watch."
Ultimately, the Tar Heels are quick, athletic, unpredictable and relentless on the defense. Heck, they've led the country for a good chunk of the season by averaging better than 14 steals per contest. And yeah, it helps when you have the ACC defensive player of the year, senior Nikita Bell, and fiery point guard Ivory Latta, who sets the tone at the top.
But their commendable effort and unquestioned passion also stand out. The result? A No. 1 seed in this year's Dance and a legitimate chance to pursue a national title.Duke
You can't leave Duke out of the defensive picture after all it has accomplished this season. We have repeatedly focused on the adversity the Blue Devils faced before the 2004-05 campaign even began. They lost Alana Beard, Iciss Tillis and Vicki Krapohl to graduation. Then it was forward Brittany Hunter (transfer) and speedy point guard Linsdey Harding (team violations). That's three starters -- including two All-ACC defensive honorees -- plus waves of athleticism.AP Photo/Grant HalversonAlison Bales has swatted an ACC-record 118 shots this season.
So how do you counter the losses?
"We came in and stressed a more position-oriented defense," coach Gail Goestenkors explained.
That position defense starts with improved attention to close-outs (the way a defender approaches a shooter or ball handler, typically with a low stance and choppy steps to force the opponent one way or another, thus limiting the offense's options and almost dictating which direction opponents go).
Upon defenders closing out on the ball, coach Goestenkors and her staff made rigid guidelines to then funnel it toward the baseline, where 6-7 Alison Bales is waiting. Additionally, the close-outs also help protect 3-point territory, as shooters would have to earn their stroke. This might sound simple, but it takes great concentration for a group of five players to get in perfect sync while helping and recovering.
Ultimately, however, Duke has been successful, and the strategy has been effective. Though the Blue Devils will weave in zone defense about 20 percent of the time, their predominantly man-to-man approach has limited foes to just 33 percent shooting from the floor and led to nearly eight blocks per game.
Oh, and if you're wondering who the best Blue Devil defender is this season, Goestenkors tabs Bales. She averages nearly four blocks each game, and her 118 swats on the season is an ACC record. Interesting what a lot of drill work on the practice court and some good position-defense fundamentals will do for a team.Stanford
Though the Cardinal have typically been known for their healthy offense over the years, we simply can't deny the defensive job they have mustered this season. They've held opponents to an average of just 55 points at a dismal 35 percent accuracy. But coach Tara VanDerveer said it's all about having a veteran team with individuals who want to contribute and want to win.Stanford's Candice Wiggins is the first freshman in Pac-10 history to be named the league's player of the year.
"It helps that my returning players know the system and understand that they'll play if they play defense," she said.
It's also a huge influence to have an infant impactor such as Candice Wiggins on your roster. Wiggins was both the freshman of the year and the player of the year in the Pac-10. It's one thing that Wiggins can score, but VanDerveer said her player also "loves to defend."
Stanford, like Duke, isn't graced with an abundance of athleticism. Consequently, the Cardinal also carry out elementary position-defense techniques in which everybody must react cohesively. The Cardinal motto is to keep the ball in front and not foul. That philosophy is extended to transition defense, in that the opponent is given no easy looks in the open court.
The reality for VanDerveer is that she has highly intelligent players who have bought into her system. They delve into scouting reports and digest the information, then process it in game situations.
The Cardinal can score loads of points, but they'll stop rivals just as well.Rutgers
Remember back in December when C. Vivian Stringer's Scarlet Knights defeated giants Tennessee, Texas and LSU in a little more than a week? Well, they held those three teams to a miserly 49-point average and 35 percent accuracy from the field. They did it, as they've done all season, with tremendous work ethic, athleticism and guidelines.Chelsea Newton averages a team-high 2.2 steals for Rutgers.
Rutgers plays a suffocating man system that relies upon excellent on-the-ball pressure and containment. The Scarlet Knights do such a good job containing the ball, in fact, that their help defense doesn't always have to save the day.
It all begins with simple principles. Stringer's players pick up the ball in a low, wide stance, with constantly active hands. Because they are so physically quick, they're able to insert pressure as close as possible without actually touching the opposition.
The most impressive part of this on-ball persistence, however, is the way the Scarlet Knights deal with on-ball screens. Stringer's players do everything in their power to prevent a screen being set and used. This requires the defender to send the ball handler in a certain direction at the realization that the pick is on its way. Further, by disallowing the screen, the entire team maintains its defensive position and there is less chance for weak-side failure. Does it work every single time? No. Does it work often and give the Rutgers players a system to follow and adhere to in harmony? Absolutely.
Without question, the women of Piscataway are one of the best at protecting their basket.Five more worth mentioning
There are many quality defensive programs alive and kicking this season in women's hoops. Tennessee always offers up a draining man-to-man pressure that will burn you down the stretch, while Connecticut is a cut above most at helping, recovering and moving on strings.
Texas Tech has done a consistent job shutting down foes through the solid teachings of Marsha Sharp, and Jim Foster has created a rock-hard position team defense that has Ohio State thriving. And like Stanford, Joanne McCallie's Michigan State Spartans do a terrific job applying effective defensive scouting reports that have helped carry McCallie's team to three overtime victories.
Bottom line? The top teams go about the dirty work with the understanding that a whole lot of defense is often the difference between winning and losing.ESPN analyst Stacey Dales-Schuman is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's college basketball coverage.
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