Tom Crean and IU Channeling Denny Crum’s Defense

Posted on Jul 5 2012 - 3:01pm by Brent Lepping


If you missed it, columnist (still feels weird saying that) Rick Bozich wrote an interesting article this morning about current Indiana head coach Tom Crean and how he’s emulating former Louisville coach Denny Crum’s legendary 80’s defense. Cool Hand Luke was known for his constantly-changing defenses that were fueled by long, rangy athletes that could play multiple positions. There were also interchangeable parts on the bench and a deep roster (typically) of guys that could hurt you on a given night. Crean says that IU has tried to mirror that idea of recruiting athletes that can become interchangeable parts of a unit, all of whom can shoot the ball and defend nearly every position on the floor. Sound familiar? Crum’s Final Four teams and, especially his two National Title teams were littered with 6-5 and 6-6 guards that posed nearly impossible match-ups to the opposition. Alongside lanky forwards with equal athleticism, they could guard any team in the country with few problems. Thankfully, this approach seems to finally be hitting home with current Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who appears to be recruiting more players capable of playing multiple positions. Furthermore, ESPN national college basketball writer (and noted IU graduate) Eamonn Brennan, further expounded upon Bozich’s article and talked about the Crum connection. It certainly raises some interesting points. Specifically, with the pick and roll (see UK’s nearly flawless execution this past year) becoming such a dominate force in both college and pro basketball, how can it be stopped? Especially if teams run it to perfection? Having rangy, athletic players capable of guarding multiple positions, may be the only answer.

In the past five years, and maybe longer, the pick-and-roll has become a nigh-unstoppable force in the game of basketball at nearly all levels, from the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats to the NBA Champion Miami Heat, and everywhere in between. Why? Because it is intuitively simple and, when run properly, borderline unstoppable. It gives the offense instant space and options — pick and roll, pick and pop, penetrate and score, drive and kick — while forcing defenses to rotate and help. There is a counterpunch to every defensive maneuver, and these little tweaks can be taught as easily to sixth-graders as pros. It is, I’d wager, the defining play of the current basketball era.

And Crum’s switching defense may be the only way to stop it. Coaches have long since taken to switching “like” screens — screens that feature two similar players, like two wings, that both defenders can guard with relatively equal success. But teams don’t run many like ball screens. They force big men to come hedge on the perimeter, which forces help, which moves the defense the way the defense doesn’t want to be moved.

A switch-everything defense could alleviate that. If every defender can reasonably guard every offensive play, you can hedge high and immediately defuse the pick and roll before it has a chance to cause a larger defensive reaction.

Of course, that’s much easier said than done. Rare is the team, especially at the college level but also in the pros, that boasts five defensive players capable of guarding every position on the floor. Last season’s Kentucky team might have been the first in recent history, thanks not only to Anthony Davis‘s agility but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s size on the defensive perimeter and Terrence Jones‘s versatility on the low block. Indiana may not quite have the players; it is hard to imagine Cody Zeller keeping Louisville guard Peyton Siva out of the lane if Gorgui Dieng sets a good ball screen on Jordan Hulls, for example.

But the general idea is really interesting, not only as a one-off strategy but as a sign of the evolution of the game. The pick and roll has wrecked defenses for years. Teams have devised non-switching strategies to defend it, with minimal success. It would be no surprise if, in the next four or five years, we saw teams intentionally recruit as much versatility into their lineups as possible, stocking up on players who can guard a multitude of positions at any given time. This, more than any other measure, could be the big macroeconomic counterpunch needed to stop the pick and roll once and for all.


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