Ball-press for the defense

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Ball-press for the defense

Of all the high school basketball coaches I've ever met, Vergil Fletcher was the most innovative and perceptive of them all. He was the definition of visionary. He invented the ball-press defense and made it famous. So why don't more coaches employ the 1-2-2 zone press today?

"I don't know," said Lincoln coach Neil Alexander, who has been teaching the ball-press for 25 years. "It is successful for us. We spend a ton of time on it. There are too many options in college so they don't run it. But I'm stubborn. I won't change."

Alexander learned the ball-press from Loren Wallace, who coached at Lincoln and Quincy. Wallace learned it from Fletcher. They made it work. Fletcher won 792 games and two state championships. Wallace won 682 games. Alexander has won more than 600.

So why don't more coaches employ the ball-press? Even coach Bob Bone, who played for Fletcher and later coached at Collinsville, chose not to use it. The only schools in Illinois that currently play the ball-press are Lincoln, Rockton Hononegah, Moline, Mounds Meridian, Nokomis, Vandalia, Highland Park, Homewood-Flossmoor, Curie, Jacksonville and Warrensburg-Latham.

"It doesn't surprise me," Alexander said. "In high school, people don't want to commit to it. I believe in what Bob Knight said. If you believe in something, do it right. Some coaches do a lot to confuse you. We want to play our defense the best we possibly can. It is all about effort. Kids just have to worry about being in the right spot at the right time.

"We spend half a practice working on defense. What I like about it is we have to do it together as a team. In the man-to-man, you have a lot of breakdowns. We have daily drills that we work on. We have used quick kids, slow kids, smart kids and not-so-smart kids, kids who understand the game. Kids know they have to play it here. We work on foot speed every day."

Alexander and Steve Kimbro grew up together in Fillmore, 12 miles south of Nokomis. They played for Loren Wallace at Nokomis in 1971-72. Today, Kimbro coaches the ball-press at Nokomis. Alexander went back to it at Bushnell-Prairie City in 1987, when the three-point line was adopted.

"I started to go to the ball-press to put more pressure on," Alexander said. "I had a group of kids who couldn't plan man-to-man so I went to the ball-press and won 23 games. From then on, I stuck with it."

Alexander recalls sitting on the steps of Huff Gym in Champaign during a state tournament and talking to Springfield Lanphier coach Craig Patton, learning his concepts of the ball-press. Patton had been an assistant to Wallace at Lincoln. Alexander also learned the defense from one of his own assistants, John Welch, who also had worked with Wallace.

What is the ball-press? And what does it take to be effective?

When Fletcher arrived at Collinsville in 1946, he ran a screen-and-roll and a 1-2-2 offense and a man-to-man defense.

"I didn't like to run a lot because we weren't fast. But we weren't slow, either. I played man-to-man defense. Against big teams, however, I went to a 1-2-2 and opponents tried to hold ball on us," said Fletcher in an interview in 2002.

"So I introduced the zone press, the ball-press in the early 1950s. The emphasis is on the ball. Former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca saw me demonstrate it at a clinic and said it wouldn't work in college. Then he began using it the following year. Former UCLA coach John Wooden used it, too."

Fletcher's 1965 state championship team, led by Dennis Pace, played the ball-press as well as it could be executed. "They had a great desire to play and worked so well together. They set a school record for creating turnovers while averaging only five per game," Fletcher said. Pace later played at Illinois and was the only major college recruit on the roster.

In explaining the ball-press, Fletcher said: "The element of surprise can spell the difference in basketball. Pulled at the right time, an unanticipated move can turn a game around. Especially devastating in this respect are full-court presses in general and the full-court zone press in particular. A good full-court zone press is particularly valuable to the coach. Since its execution is similar to the regular zone, it can be easily learned and thus save valuable practice time. In addition, it capitalizes on two other regular zone advantages--pass interceptions and the anticipation of play development."

According to Fletcher, the trick to executing the ball-press successfully and constantly was for the defenders to understand where the ball was going once an offensive player had possession of the ball and was in a particular spot on the floor. Trapped, his options were limited and the defenders were keenly aware what they were.

"We have a man-and-a-half on the ball," Alexander said. "To be effective, you have to have five guys who are moving. The ball-press isn't a one- or two-man defense. They have to be aware of where the ball is on the court. They have to get to a point by physically being there and thinking of a passing lane.

"You have to have kids who want to play hard all the time. They can't take a break. If one guy quits, you have a hole in the defense. Every year, I get four or five coaches in the ball and four or five in the spring who want to talk about the ball-press. But all of them want to use it as a change of pace. I tell them they are wasting their time. They have to commit to it full-time. Kids have to believe in it."

Lincoln has been running the ball-press since Loren Wallace introduced it in 1976. "It's been here ever since. It has been a staple here and it's won a lot of basketball games. Our kids believe in it. So do our fans. But you must commit to it. A lot of people won't do that," Alexander said.

Roy Condotti, who coached at Westinghouse and Homewood-Flossmoor, used the 1-2-2 zone press for several years. When he served as Frank Lollino's assistant at Westinghouse, they developed their program around baseline-to-baseline pressure.

"We liked that style of play, the pressure, being the aggressor," Condotti said. "Not a lot of teams were doing it. The 1-2-2 is a safer form of the full-court press. It creates a style of play that allows you to direct traffic and dictate tempo. It isn't as simply as putting five guys out there. A lot of people don't do it because there is a lot to it.

"You need a method to your madness. There are specific responsibilities and breakdown drills for each one. You want to dictate where the ball is going. Five guys have to act as one. If one makes a mistake, it doesn't work. You have to commit to it fully. When we pressed, our defense was our offense.

"You need speed for full-court pressure. So you have to be willing to get beat in it. But you can't abandon it. You must commit to it, for better or worse. It is a mentality for the kids. Aggressive kids like it."

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

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USA TODAY

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

Remember when the season began and we were talking about the likelihood of Illinois ending a three-year NCAA tournament drought?

Yeah, about that.

The Fighting Illini were again walloped on the road Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, their fourth road defeat in as many games during conference play. Against Michigan, Purdue, Indiana and Maryland, the losses have come in extreme fashion, by a combined total of 73 points, an average of 18.3 points.

And those numbers would be much bigger if not for a garbage-time 18-6 run to close out Saturday's 66-57 loss to the Wolverines. The game saw Michigan's lead grow as big as 21 with fewer than six minutes to play. It was another blowout, even if the final margin of defeat was in single digits.

How this continues to happen is frankly somewhat mind boggling. Illinois entered the season with experience, health and depth and have kept all of those traits throughout the campaign. But the experienced players who were believed to lead the Illini to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013, Groce's first season, simply haven't shown up.

Malcolm Hill has, and he deserves a pass in this critique. Hill, the only Illinois player who scored in double figures Saturday, ranks fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 17.8 points a game. He also ranks in the top 20 in rebounding (5.9 rebounds a game), free-throw percentage (79.4 percent) and minutes played (32.4 minutes a game).

Maverick Morgan, too, has been a bright spot. He's shooting 60 percent from the floor, good for fourth in the Big Ten, and is averaging 13 points a game over the last 10 games.

But where has everyone else gone? After a stellar non-conference season, Tracy Abrams' production has fallen off a cliff, and he's just 1-for-21 from 3-point range against Big Ten competition. Jalen Coleman-Lands hasn't been very reliable, averaging almost two points fewer per game and shooting almost five percent lower from 3-point range than he did during his freshman season a year ago. Mike Thorne Jr. was supposed to be the team's starting center, but he's not even averaging 15 minutes a game. Second-year guys like D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan have barely seen the floor. Michael Finke has had good games and quiet games. This veteran team is more and more reliant on freshmen Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols for sparks that only rarely come.

The biggest issue has been the defense, with the team allowing opponents to shoot 44.5 percent from the field. That number has been significantly worse in conference play, up to 50.8 percent. Saturday was better, Michigan shooting only 45.1 percent and only 40 percent in the second half, when its lead grew largest. But the Wolverines, also a poor defensive team, clamped down on the Illini, who only shot 45.8 percent and more importantly turned the ball over a whopping 17 times, leading to 22 points for the home team.

With consistently subpar defense and inconsistent offense — a win over the same Michigan team just 10 days earlier saw Illinois drop 85 points on red-hot 64.2-percent shooting; where was that Saturday? — has been a recipe for disaster.

Coming into the conference season, it seemed Illinois was a prime contender for a spot in the Big Dance's field of 68. After all, only one disastrous week prevented the non-conference season from being a success. The Illini scored wins over name-brand opponents North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri, with that nightmarish week featuring losses to West Virginia and Florida State, the current Nos. 7 and 10 teams in the country.

But despite the high rankings of the Mountaineers and Seminoles, that resume has weakened. North Carolina State is just 2-5 in ACC play, and Missouri has just five wins this season, a nasty record that includes 10 straight losses. BYU and VCU aren't at the top of their respective mid-major conference standings.

That has made Illinois' conference showing all the worse as the tournament hopes flicker. The two wins have come at home against Ohio State and Michigan teams that stumbled out of the gates themselves. The losses, as chronicled above, have been convincing to say the least, and the one that came at the State Farm Center, against Maryland, featured an ugly second-half collapse after Illinois went to the locker room with a lead.

With typical bottom-feeders like Penn State and Nebraska improving their play this season, there aren't many noticeably winnable games remaining on Illinois' schedule, with just the season-finale at Rutgers looking like a surefire win, though the Scarlet Knights are no longer winless in Big Ten play after beating the Huskers on Saturday. What it means is a gauntlet the rest of the way for the Illini. There are plenty of home games, but does the venue matter when the Illini are playing like this and their opponents are of a significantly higher caliber?

Groce's seat is undeniably warm, and the heat could crank up if the campaign progresses as it has played out to this point. Would a fourth straight season without an NCAA tournament invite mean Groce's tenure would be over in Champaign? That's difficult to say, as Groce has secured one of the best recruiting classes in the country for next season. Illinois' best recruiting work in years would be in real danger if he's axed before his Class of 2017 arrives on campus.

But the on-court results are starting to get predictable, and not in the way games were predictable back during Illinois' glory days a decade ago. 

How about this: Last week's 23-point shellacking at Purdue was the 12th loss by 20 or more points of the Groce Era, which is in its fifth season. Bruce Weber, who coached the Illini for nine seasons, had three such losses during the course of his entire tenure. Prior to Weber, it was Bill Self, who had one such loss in his three seasons. Prior to Self, it was Lon Kruger, who had four such losses in his four seasons.

You have to go all the way back to 1980 to find the last time Illinois missed the NCAA tournament in four straight years.

Right now, the future is a mystery. What we do know is that the present is not going well.

Deerfield defensive end Josh Maize pledges to Miami of Ohio

Deerfield defensive end Josh Maize pledges to Miami of Ohio

Deerfield three star ranked defensive end Josh Maize (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) gave Miami of Ohio and head coach Chuck Martin his verbal commitment on Sunday morning. Maize was making a weekend official visit to the Oxford, Ohio based campus and left for the airport verbally committed to the Redhawks.

"I'm about to board my flight but I wanted to let you know that I'm committed to Miami (OH)," Maize said. "It's a great fit for me and I knew that I found the right place for myself so I committed.

"Miami of Ohio is just a great fit socially as well as academically. They also have amazing facilities plus the last two guys that plays my position for them (rush end/outside linebacker) one is in the NFL and the other one is about to get a shot to play in the league. The Miami coaches will be able to develop me into that type of player for them."

Maize had 13 scholarship offers and also made official visits to Wyoming and UConn before giving Miami of Ohio his verbal commitment.