When Athleticism Beats Execution (HV Weekly: 8/2/2020)

Kentucky's 2012 national title + "Fly Around Defense"

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Suddenly, it’s August.

As the summer has flown by and we’re still in a bit of a wait-and-see period as it comes to college sports, our TV and computer screens here at Hoop Vision HQ have been tuned in to a lot of throwback college basketball.

With the return of the NBA and real, live basketball, today seems a good day to go back through some notes from the past few months of watching some iconic games and teams from the past couple decades.

In an effort to better understand how the college game has (and hasn’t) changed in recent years, I’ve been going back through old national championship games.

The 2012 national title game was a battle of size. Kentucky (led by Anthony Davis) ranked number two in the country in average height and Kansas (led by Thomas Robinson) ranked number 11.

That season, Kentucky protected the rim at an all-time level. The Wildcats finished first nationally in defensive two-point percentage and block percentage, all while finishing eighth in defensive free throw rate.

Defenses in the kenpom era to block 20% of opponent shots
  1. UConn 2007 — 21.0%

  2. UConn 2005 — 20.4%

  3. Kentucky 2012 — 20.2%

  4. Texas 2015 — 20.0%

Even with all of the length and athleticism, the 2012 Wildcats played a typical John Calipari style of “gaps” defense — placing a priority on protecting the rim over getting in the passing lanes and forcing turnovers.

In watching the championship game from that season, there were shades of 2018-19 Duke in Kentucky’s defense. Those similarities weren’t necessarily scheme related — Duke was far more aggressive in the passing lanes with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett — but rather from the team’s ability to instantly recover from any schematic mistakes with overwhelming size and athleticism.

Blocking Bill Self’s favorite play

Below is an example of Kentucky guarding Bill Self’s favorite play in the first half of that championship game.

This play — designed to clear out the help side for a Thomas Robinson post pin — actually plays out as intended.

Anthony Davis doesn’t identify the dummy ball screen and chases Jeff Withey out beyond the elbow area. Thomas Robinson catches the entry pass with two feet in the paint while Terrence Jones is buried underneath in the hoop.

And yet, Davis erases the mistake with an “easy” block at the rim.

Drop coverage vs ball screen wheel

Davis had a similar defensive impact on another one of Bill Self’s go-to sets: the ball screen wheel.

Davis sagged off of Withey all game, clogging up the paint and daring Withey to shoot.

In the ball screen wheel action above, Withey sets the final ball screen for Tyshawn Taylor and rolls to the hoop — but Davis stays in the paint the entire time and uses his length and athleticism to support the ball while still recovering to the lob.

Kansas would run the same play just four minutes later, but this time with Davis on the bench. See how the result changes…

With Terrence Jones guarding the ball screener this time, Tyshawn Taylor was able to make the pocket pass for a dunk.

On top of not having the same length as Davis, Jones extended farther out on the drop coverage. Kyle Wiltjer as the weakside help defender didn’t help the matter either.


“Fly around” defense

After a Duke-Virginia game in February 2019, I tweeted about the contrasting defensive styles:

The contrast in styles yesterday was amazing... Nobody executes their scheme with more precision than Virginia. Then you have Duke making 3 mistakes a second and just flying around covering them all up. And yet both styles result in top 5 defenses in the country

In the closing minutes of the 2012 national championship game — with Kansas making a comeback — Kentucky’s defense showed the same “fly around” tendencies as Duke.

With just over a minute remaining, Bill Self drew up a play for Tyshawn Taylor. Kansas placed three players in the middle third of the court near the top of the key and dribbled at Taylor, triggering a backdoor cut.

Again, the play “works” as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was (seemingly) beat.

And yet…he wasn’t.

Taylor used his left hand on the other side of the basket and Kidd-Gilchrist recovered to block the shot.

About 30 seconds later, Self again dialed up another quick hitter — this time an elevator screen — for a potential Kansas basket.

Kentucky’s initial defensive effort on the elevator screen was lackluster. Elijah Johnson broke free of Doron Lamb — who got disconnected from Johnson and then unsuccessfully tried to go over the top screen.

But Anthony Davis was there to save the day. Despite being a half second behind, Davis left his man to run out to Johnson. Not only did Johnson not get a shot off, but he was called for a traveling violation after leaving his feet. It was the defensive stop that sealed the deal for Kentucky’s national championship.


If you missed it a few months back, we also did March Madness rewind videos on the 2005 national championship game (UNC vs Illinois) and FGCU’s Cinderella run. Feel free to leave us a note if there’s a classic game or team you’d like to see broken down in the future.

With the NBA officially back, we may cross over into some playoff coverage later this month. Before then, we have a #WatchSmarter long-form video on ball screen concepts and a new tutorial (“How to Watch Film Like a Coach”) coming soon.