Lady Vols, Rebels focused on team defense
Crafting gifted defensive teams isn't easy, but the decision can result in a rewarding judgement. Both Tennessee and Ole Miss can testify to that.
DAYTON, Ohio -- Imagine a lone figure standing near a hoop nailed to a barn as dusk falls on a farm or on a playground surrounded by the constant buzz of city streets.
In your mind, are they playing offense or defense?
Ask someone to explain basketball at its most fundamental level, and they're more likely to tell you the basic objective is to score more points than the opponent than they are to say the goal is to allow fewer points than the opponent.
More than any other sport, basketball is a tug of war between the individual and the group. A football player can't catch passes if nobody is there to throw them. A softball player can't hit pitches if nobody is there to throw them. Even a soccer player gets only a weak imitation of the real thing in shooting against an undefended goal.
But a basketball player shooting in solitude is the goal of every offensive set ever designed. The result is a divide between the tangible reward available to individuals on offense and the less obvious gratification available on defense.
"It's so easy to teach somebody how to shoot," Tennessee's Alexis Hornbuckle summed up. "It's so hard to teach somebody how to be passionate about defense."
And a lack of passion on that end is ultimately just as damaging to a defense as a lack of individual talent is to an offense.
"Offense is more about skill; defense is more about heart and desire," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "When you go to defense, it really is all about the effort they're willing to put forward. You have to be just as unselfish or more unselfish on defense to have a great defensive team and to have a great support team. It's more glaring on offense when someone is selfish, but as a team, it's glaring to our team if we have a selfish defender."
Few teams are more unselfish on defense than the Rebels and Lady Vols, and both teams enter Tuesday's rematch of Tennessee's 81-69 win on Feb. 15 playing as well as they have all season. The Rebels have forced an average of 26 turnovers per game in tourney wins against TCU, Maryland and Oklahoma, while the Lady Vols have limited opponents to 33 percent shooting in wins against Drake, Pittsburgh and Marist.
Summitt and Ole Miss coach Carol Ross crafted gifted defensive teams out of the same generally offensive-minded pieces available to their peers. In most cases, being talented enough to play in the SEC meant being a major offensive contributor in high school. But it didn't mean that talent would be utilized the same way in college.
"I knew I wasn't a great defensive player at all, because my high school team, they played a zone so I wouldn't get in foul trouble," Ole Miss junior Danetra Forrest said. "I kind of knew that coming in to Ole Miss, but I think I've grown better as a one-on-one defender. My defense has gotten better, but it's not the greatest."
Freshman Alliesha Easley has become one of the key components in setting the Rebels' defensive tempo by applying full-court pressure on an opponent's primary ballhandlers, but she certainly didn't view herself as a stopper six months ago.
"I really wasn't thinking my role was going to be as a defensive player," Easley admitted. "It kind of surprised me when [Ross] told me, 'Alliesha, I think your biggest thing you should focus on is defense; I think you bring a lot to the table with defense.'
And I was like, 'Wow, I didn't know that.' Because in high school, it was more about scoring. When I got here I realized I could be a good defensive player."
Even Hornbuckle, the rare player who grew up focused on defense and considered it one of her biggest strengths entering college, has seen her understanding of that side of the ball change and grow in three years under Summitt's tutelage.
Last season, Hornbuckle's appreciation for the subtleties of defense wasn't necessarily shared by all of her teammates. Throughout the weekend in Dayton, a number of Tennessee players have talked about the team rededicating itself and refocusing on the defensive end, and it's a sentiment echoed by Ole Miss players talking about the aftermath of last season's second-round loss in the WNIT.
"Honestly, it's like night and day," Hornbuckle said of the Lady Vols. "Last year's team, we did so well early on outscoring opponents, outrunning opponents, and when a game called for us to defend, and defend for 40 minutes, we weren't used to doing that."
One player can bail out an offense on a possession, a stretch in one half or even an entire game, but defense is reactionary. One player exerting effort on defense won't matter if the play is occurring on the other side of the court. And neither the Lady Vols nor the Rebels could live up to the defensive demands of their coaches without playing as a single unit rather than as individuals.
"Defense is definitely more team-oriented than offense," Hornbuckle said. "I mean, it's very important to have the offense flow well, have five people working together at the same time but on the defensive end, if you have a player that gets beat but you don't have that person rotating, they're going to score. Or if five people aren't dedicated to maybe denying or trapping, or whatever the defensive call might be, that's a defensive breakdown and two or three points, or maybe a foul, for the other team."
For Ole Miss, that meant younger players stepping up to match the defensive intensity of Price, who has been one of the nation's best defenders since she stepped foot on campus. But for Tennessee, that meant getting its star, who so often dazzled with individual creativity on offense, to be one of five equal parts on defense.
"Candace [Parker] wasn't ingrained in defense until this year," Summitt said. "I think last year she took a lot of possessions off on us, and even early this year, but I think because of her desire to win, and she's a great competitor, she's also realized the value of defense. And what she can bring defensively she understands."
She's not alone. Few teams better understand the value of playing together on defense than the Lady Vols and Rebels.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.