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Earlier this week, I tweeted out a Butler defensive clip from the 2010 National Championship game.
At this point, regular readers of the Hoop Vision Weekly know that it’s usually only a matter of time until a seemingly innocent tweet develops into long-form analysis.
So this week we go back to the 2009-10 Butler team — yes, that team — led by Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward, which found themselves a soft rim away from winning a championship.
More specifically, this edition takes a look at Butler’s defensive scheme and concepts:
Early help outside the paint
On ball sags to help guard the post
Jumps to the ball when guarding pin downs
The best worst shot-blocking defense
Brad Stevens had a remarkable six-year run at Butler on the defensive end. His average adjusted defensive efficiency (via kenpom.com) was 94.1 points per 100 possessions.
Among seasons that took place in this century, the 94.1 puts Stevens 20th out of 911 coaches. The 19 coaches ahead of him (in order of efficiency) are:
Dick Bennett, Bill Self, Rick Pitino, Tony Bennett, Eddie Sutton, John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Chris Beard, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, Craig Esherick, Tom Izzo, Jerry Green, Thad Matta, Greg Gard, Billy Donovan, Bo Ryan, Nolan Richardson
Of course, Stevens did it with a Butler program which was in the Horizon League for five of his seasons and the Atlantic 10 for one.
Every coach ahead of him (listed above) has or had spent at least part of this century coaching in a high-major conference. And that’s not to mention the coaches directly behind him: Jay Wright, Bob Huggins, Jim Boeheim, Bruce Weber, Lute Olson.
Stevens’ best defensive team was in 2010. Butler posted an adjusted defensive efficiency of 88.5 that season - making them one of 151 teams in this decade to finish a season allowing less than 90 points per 100 possessions.
Those 151 teams are plotted in the graph below:
The x-axis is block percentage, where 2010 Butler checks in at dead last. Butler blocked just 6.5% of shot attempts.
The y-axis is turnover percentage, where 2010 Butler was about average among this group (remember: this is relative to other historically elite defenses); Butler turned opponents over on 21.9% of possessions.
Butler had good defenders that season; Ronald Nored (6’0) was one of the best college perimeter defenders in recent memory, bringing notably quick hands and agility to the Bulldogs’ backcourt. Willie Veasley and Shelvin Mack were also good perimeter defenders, although both were listed at just 6’3.
Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard manned the frontcourt, and both were very strong ball screen defenders. Butler would mostly switch with Hayward, but with Howard they used fairly aggressive coverage and took advantage of his lateral mobility.
So Butler had five good defenders, but zero shot blockers. Hayward actually led the team in block percentage, but it was Stevens’ scheme that provided the rim protection.
Early help outside the paint
Stevens didn’t have great positional size or vertical jumpers on his roster, but he did have great positional quickness and basketball IQ.
On drives to the basket, Butler used that quickness and awareness to mitigate the need for a shot blocker.
The above video is reminiscent of 2019 Texas Tech. While Butler didn’t force the ball baseline nearly as heavily as Texas Tech, their help defenders had a similar urgency if baseline drives were occurring.
This type of early help defense goes hand-in-hand with taking charges — something that 2010 Butler and 2019 Texas Tech both did at an elite level.
No team wants the ball to get to the rim, but that’s especially true for a team lacking shot-altering bigs. Sinking to the level of the ball and giving early help was the first way Butler lowered volume at the rim.
On ball sags as a first line of post defense
A common coaching axiom is that “ball pressure is the first line of post defense.”
A post player might only be able to get good position inside for a very brief moment of opportunity. If the ball handler is being pressured, it’s that much harder to capitalize on the opportunity.
Given Butler’s lack of size, this idea might seem particularly relevant to their post defense. But Brad Stevens actually had the opposite philosophy.
Butler played a post-heavy UTEP team in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. In that game (as well as versus Syracuse and Kansas State), the Bulldogs guarded post entries by heavily sagging off the passer.
For the most part, Butler did not extend out past the three-point line in their base on ball defense. Ronald Nored had some freedom to disrupt ball handlers, but general team ball pressure was not a big priority.
When guarding a non-shooter (or even an average shooter), they used that opportunity to clog the paint and deter drives or post-ups from happening at the rim.
We dove into three-point defense back in July, including a piece on why taking away the attempt is not necessarily a priority of all (or even most) elite defenses. It’s not that a defense wants threes to be taken, but the coverage behind taking away the attempt can have severe repercussions on the rest of the defense.
In both the Final Four and National Championship, Butler played teams with 4-men (Draymond Green and Lance Thomas) that didn’t shoot threes. That allowed Gordon Hayward to sag even when guarding off the ball.
Those different types of sags were the second way Butler was able to overcome a lack of rim protection.
Jumps to the ball on pin downs
The synchronized stunts mentioned at the top of the newsletter were not just a one off coincidence. Here are two similar plays by the Butler baseline out of bounds defense during their NCAA tournament run.
From Fran Fraschilla:
“Great stunting creates the perception that a defense is quicker than it really is.”
Post defense was the major theme for Butler early in their NCAA tournament run, but against Michigan State and Duke — that shifted to guarding pin down and floppy action.
Butler locked-and-trailed on the player coming off the pin down and had the defender guarding the passer “jump to the ball” on the flight of the pass. Jumping to the ball is a more specific example of stunting that yet again helped Stevens’ team cover up their lack of rim protection.
Of all of the defensive principles discussed, this one is probably the most risky. Duke took advantage of the jumps to the ball at times by making the boomerang pass back to a shooter.
Ultimately, there’s no perfect coverage — especially against a Final Four caliber team. It’s all about choosing the coverage that gives you the optimal expected value, and Butler did just that throughout their Cinderella tournament run.