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."

Miguel Gonzalez can't stop two-out rallies as White Sox fall to Oakland

Miguel Gonzalez can't stop two-out rallies as White Sox fall to Oakland

GLENDALE, Ariz. — His split-fingered fastball could use a little work, but Miguel Gonzalez is ready for the regular season.

The White Sox pitcher allowed four earned runs, all with two outs, in his penultimate Cactus League start on Wednesday. Gonzalez also gave up nine hits as the White Sox lost to the Oakland A’s 5-3 at Camelback Ranch.

"I'm pretty excited for (the regular season)," Gonzalez said. "We all know that spring can be a little long sometimes. But we are here, we are here to work and keep doing what we are doing. We are going to be OK."

Gonzalez allowed two runs each in the first and second innings. Both rallies came with two outs and were a bit of a surprise to the right-hander, who left after 4 1/3 innings. Gonzalez wonders if his split-fingered fastball might not be as sharp as normal because of the dry desert air in Arizona that affects many pitchers.

"It wasn't there today," Gonzalez said. "Not quite as good as I thought it would be. Bullpen I felt really good. Falling behind hitters first two innings. That doesn't really help you, especially a team like this that's very aggressive.

"I'm working on (the splitter). It's fine. I mean it's a little different then it is in Florida. It's not as humid. But you can't think that way. You have to go out there and keep working."

[WHITE SOX TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Melky Cabrera went 1-for-3 with two RBIs for the White Sox. Yolmer Sanchez tripled and homered in the loss. Former White Sox farmhand Frankie Montas struck out four over two scoreless innings to earn the save for Oakland.

The White Sox sent four more players to minor league camp before the game, including reliever Tommy Kahnle. The team sent five players to the minors on Tuesday, including pitcher Carson Fulmer. While Fulmer would love to start the season in the majors, he said it won't hinder him from taking advantage of his time at Triple-A Charlotte.

"Obviously last year getting a taste, it's that dream you've had since you were a kid," Fulmer said. "You want more of it. It's not an addiction in a way. But once you get a taste of it you want more of it. All of us young guys are trying to get back to where we've been. I think time will tell, but I think we'll get a chance here soon and get a chance to create something special."

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks go for season sweep vs. Stars tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks go for season sweep vs. Stars tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Dallas Stars tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Patrick Sharp returns to Chicago.

For the first time this season, Sharp will lace up the skates in the building and city he spent 10 seasons and won three Stanley Cups. He missed the first three meetings of the year due to a concussion, but played in the fourth on Feb. 4 that turned out to be a 5-3 loss for Dallas. The former Blackhawks winger revealed last month that he's been dealing with an undisclosed injury for quite a while that has worsened over time, and will eventually need season-ending surgery, which will likely come when the Stars are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

2. Johnny Oduya faces former team.

Sharp won't be the only one facing his former club tonight. Oduya will face off against the Stars for the first time since being re-acquired by the Blackhawks on Feb. 28 from Dallas, where he spent the last year and a half after signing a two-year contract in the summer of 2015. He was a key part of the team's blue line that won their first division title since 2005-06 last year.

3. Jamie Benn scoring drought.

After scoring 12 goals in his previous 16 games, including three in two games to start March, Benn hasn't scored in six straight, his second-longest drought of the season; his first stretched to nine games from Oct. 20-Nov. 10. It's been a tough season in Dallas, and Benn only recently started looking like the player that finished last season ranked third with 41 goals and second with 89 points. But he's still one of the best players in the league, so don't think a down year makes him any less dangerous on the ice.  

4. Ryan Hartman with a hot stick.

Hartman had been quiet for a little bit, failing to find the back of the net in nine consecutive games. He's been lights out in the last three, where he registered a season-high six shots on goal and scored the game-winning overtime goal in Toronto, and scored two more in Tuesday's 5-4 overtime loss to Vancouver. He's now up to 18 goals on the season, which ranks fifth among all rookies, and all but one have come at even strength. Two more would put him at 20 goals, and would make him the seventh Blackhawks player this season to reach that total.

5. Another successful night coming for the power play?

The Blackhawks took advantage of their six power-play opportunities on Tuesday against Vancouver by cashing in on two of those. They were only 1-for-13 (7.7 percent) in their previous seven games. They're welcoming a Stars team that ranks dead last in the penalty kill department with a 74.0 percentage, and the Blackhawks will look to build off last game's success and keep it rolling.

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