O Canada! (HV Weekly: 8/23/2020)

The secret sauce of college basketball's modern dynasty.

Even in normal times, the month of August is generally pretty slow in college basketball. A select group of programs go on foreign tours, playing games against opponents often severely overmatched by DI competition.

The most notable exception to that rule is the Carleton University Ravens.

If you can’t immediately figure out why that name sounds familiar, it’s likely that you are quite aware of some of the Ravens’ prey over the past few years. In fact, it’s basically become an annual August tradition for DI schools to travel north of the border to Ottawa, just to get smoked by Carleton.

The most dominant month of August for Carleton came in 2018. The Ravens played Cincinnati, Mississippi, South Dakota State (twice), and Maryland Eastern Shore — going undefeated with an average margin of victory of 30.2 points.

That’s not a typo. THIRTY-point-two.

For those unfamiliar with the Carleton dynasty in Canada, they have won 15 out of the last 18 U Sports national championships. Since the turn of the century, the Ravens have won over 94% of their games.

To go along with all of that success, Carleton also has a distinct style of play. Dave Smart — the long-time head coach of Carleton (who now serves as the program’s director of basketball operations) — is highly regarded among coaches as an elite tactician. Many NCAA coaches have consulted with Smart on his defensive philosophy.

“Their defensive system is the most unique I’ve seen. I’ve tried to steal it, just based on watching film, but I couldn’t do it, so I asked Dave to come and explain it in depth to our staff.”

Jay Wright on Carleton

Our new 13-minute voiceover video dives deep into the Carleton scheme — including quotes from Dave Smart himself and data visualization.

Video topics include:

  • Carleton’s U Sports dynasty and success against NCAA teams

  • Forcing versus dictating the ball to a direction

  • Two situations where Carleton does force the ball to a direction

  • The statistical effects of forcing to the weak hand

  • Pack line principles on the right side of the court

  • Late help against shorter guards, allowing them to get deep

  • Sagging off of non-shooters

  • Dave Smart’s thoughts on forcing to a weak hand against NBA players

  • Shock-and-under ball screen coverage

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All Defenses are Hybrids

In Hoop Vision coverage, we like to label styles and schemes as neatly (or definitively) as possible.

Virginia and Louisville use the pack line. Texas Tech and Baylor use no-middle. While these definitive labels make it easier to cover the sport, it’s important to remember that any given defensive scheme has nuances based on a coach’s philosophy and preferences.

Generally speaking, a pack line defense is one that stays in the gaps, clogging driving lanes instead of denying. But that’s not to say pack line defenses can’t deviate from each other in meaningful areas.

Defenses must make stylistic choices on:

  • Foot angles guarding the ball

  • One-pass-away positioning

  • Help rotations

  • Ball screen coverage

  • Post-up coverage

There may be certain choices which align better with one another — for example, no-middle foot angles and ice ball screen coverage — but there are no inherent truths for how a specific scheme must operate.

Carleton’s personnel-based defense especially highlights this point. They use elements of multiple different defensive schemes depending on the context. Trying to group them (or many others defenses) into one category misses the overall point.

Personnel-Based Principles

“Our defense is based on the individual players and what they like and don’t like doing”

Dave Smart

Some of the best college defenses tend be fairly rigid in nature. They first and foremost operate under a base set of rules and principles. For a given game, the base might be tweaked to account for an opponent’s strengths — but these are only marginal adjustments, the base stays the same.

Dave Smart and Carleton take the inverse approach. The Carleton scheme first and foremost starts with the opponent.

The rules and principles aren’t simply tweaked based on the opponent, they are determined by the opponent.

The most obvious example of this for Carleton is guarding the ball. Against right-hand drivers, the on-ball defender forces (or dictates) the ball to the left — and vice versa.

As a result, Carleton usually (not always) looks similar to a pack line style on the right side of the court and similar to a no-middle style on the left side of the court.

Forcing to a Weak Hand

“A lot of people talk about it like it’s a weak hand defense or a force left defense. And yes, there are places on the floor where we want people to go where they’re weakest in terms of their ability to pass, but we’re not forcing anybody anywhere early”

Dave Smart

Dave Smart is quick to note that oversimplifying Carleton’s philosophy to “force weak hand” is inaccurate, but the actual results of the defense show why outsiders have a tendency to do just that.

Last season, 64% of opponent isolations against Carleton were going to the left.

Just one other team in the OUA (Carleton’s league) was over 60% — the league average was 52.4%. For a notable NCAA comparison, Texas Tech opponents drove left 51% of the time. Virginia opponents were at 48%.

In my previous scouting and game-planning experiences at New Mexico State and Nevada, I was always a bit skeptical of forcing to a weak hand. In general, isolations are one of the most inefficient shot types. A defense, I hypothesized, should want to persuade opponents into isolation shots. Forcing a player to the weak hand might have the opposite effect — deterring opponents from trying to isolate.

There are two important components missing from the above logic.

1) Carleton doesn’t choose force to a weak hand for scoring purposes.
Carleton forces to a weak hand to take away passing. Smart’s whole philosophy revolves around limiting an opponent’s ability to make “on target, on time” passes.

For a ball handler, the skip pass to a corner shooter is a significantly harder pass to make with the weak hand. If the pass is delivered outside of the shooting pocket it, theoretically, lowers the percentage of the shooter — or prevents the shooter from even taking the attempt. Which leads to…

2) All play types are less efficient for an offense when performed under the stress of an expiring shot clock.
For a defense, deterring an inefficient play type like an isolation might seem suboptimal. But if the ultimate result for the offense is that same exact isolation later in the possession — this time with the shot clock running down — it’s a win for the defense.

(Also of note… hedging ball screens or doubling the post — as long as it doesn’t lead to an immediate shot by a secondary player — can be viewed under the same framework.)

The Carleton Effect

Besides from forcing opponents to drive left during isolation plays, there is another statistical area where Carleton has dominated.

Last season, 26.3% of opponent shot attempts in half-court offense against Carleton were jump shots taken off the dribble. That was the highest rate of off the dribble jumpers forced since Synergy began regularly tracking U Sports games in 2016.

Among all U Sports and NCAA DI teams over the past five seasons, Carleton owns the second and third best seasons in this statistic.

Defenses forcing the most jumpers off the dribble (2016 to 2020):
  1. William & Mary, 2020 — 26.9%

  2. Carleton, 2020 — 26.3%

  3. Carleton, 2019 — 26.2%

  4. Elon, 2018 — 25.0%

  5. Wisconsin, 2017 — 25.0%

Carleton is committed to keeping the ball out of the paint and giving up no easy baskets at the rim. (It’s another example of an elite defense that doesn’t necessarily prioritize taking away threes.)

Against ball screens, Carleton will change their coverage multiple times in the same game. But they tend to go under quite a bit, specifically using a coverage they call “shock and under” — where the big briefly jumps out to provide some resistance on the ball while the guard slides under. The coverage baits guards into pull-up jumpers.

Below, I calculated defensive averages for each U Sports and NCAA DI program by combining the last five seasons. The x-axis is the volume of off the dribble jumpers allowed and the y-axis is points allowed per half-court play.

  • Over the last five seasons, 24.1% of opponent shot attempts in half-court offense against Carleton were jump shots taken off the dribble. New Mexico State was next highest at 22.7%.

  • Just one other U Sports defense was over 20% — University of British Columbia

  • The average NCAA DI offense is significantly more efficient than the average U Sports offense (take that, college basketball haters)

In order to take advantage of Carleton’s swarming the ball and cutting off drives, you better be able to pass on target and on time with your weak hand. Because opponents aren’t able to do that against the Ravens, potential spot-up threes instead turn into contested pull-up twos.

More Info on Carleton

If you read the newsletter without watching the video, I’d highly recommend watching the video in the opening section.

If you found this newsletter and its contents interesting, that video expands on a lot of the topics and Carleton’s philosophy as a whole.

While creating the video, these three pieces of Carleton content were especially helpful:

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