North Carolina State forward C.J. Leslie did a fair amount of damage in the first half of Virginia’s 61-60 win over the Wolfpack on Saturday. By halftime, he’d tallied 13 points on 4-of-9 shooting and three offensive rebounds.
Leslie also did his part to get Virginia’s big men into early foul trouble. He drew freshman forward Darion Atkins’s first two fouls, as well as sophomore forward Akil Mitchell’s second. All of those fouls occurred within the first 10 minutes of the game.
The second half, however, was a different story as it pertained to the Cavaliers’ defensive strategy against Leslie. In the first half, Virginia mostly tried to defend Leslie – who is both tall (6 feet 8) and extremely athletic at 209 pounds – one-on-one.
The Cavaliers scrapped that approach in the second half in favor of trying to trap Leslie in the post with multiple defenders, and the move paid off. Leslie made 1 of 2 shots attempts and tallied four points and no offensive rebounds after the break.
Leslie “kind of had his way with us in the first half, and some of it might have come off offensive rebounds and that sort of thing,” sophomore guard Joe Harris said. “But the trap did its job there in the second half.”
The point of the post trap is to isolate a particular offensive player on one side of the block in a position in which a shot would be heavily contested by multiple defenders and a pass would not be sharp enough to cause rotational issues while Virginia’s defenders recovered.
Ideally, the keyed offensive player will have little room to operate and try to get rid of the ball quickly.
Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott said the Cavaliers mostly implemented the post trap during points in the second half Saturday in which they had four guards on the floor and the 6-6 Harris was defending Leslie. Virginia also utilized the post trap on N.C. State forward Richard Howell (6-8, 250 pounds) even when the Cavaliers had two forwards in the game.
On the instances in which Harris was defending Leslie in the post, Scott often would abandon his man and come across the lane to help obstruct Leslie’s view of and ability to get closer to the basket. Also, the Virginia guard nearest to Harris sank down to further pester Leslie.
Meantime, the Cavaliers guard nearest to the opposing player Scott originally was defending dropped to temporarily guard said player, while the Virginia guard at the top of the key monitored the perimeter from near the free throw line.
While the Cavaliers were in these respective positions, there was an open spot on the wing opposite from Leslie. Scott said Virginia had to cede that area – one to which a direct pass from Leslie would be extremely difficult given the flurry of defenders around him – in order to properly execute the post trap.
Now, there was a chance Leslie would have passed the ball to the N.C. State guard nearest him on the perimeter, and that guard would have tried to swing the ball to his teammate in the open spot. But the Cavaliers were banking on their ability to sprint back to their original defensive positions – to close the gap in their coverage – before the ball could get to that spot. For the most part, they did so effectively.
N.C. State certainly will not be the last team with superior collective height that Virginia faces this season, and at least as long as 7-foot senior center Assane Sene is out with an ankle injury, the Cavaliers will at times utilize a four-guard lineup. And that means the post trap will be a useful defensive tool in the coming weeks.
“We’re small, and our [post players] got in foul trouble,” Scott said late Saturday night. The post trap “was definitely key.”