Ask the members of the Maryland men’s basketball team about the genesis of its defensive improvements and the answers vary, from buying into Coach Mark Turgeon’s system to heightened communication among the players. But there’s one common denominator, an off-the-court aspect that always gets mentioned: film review.
Today’s print advance explored the Terps’ defensive strides, but let’s dig a little deeper. Most of Maryland’s players have, at some point or another through just seven games this season, credited extensive film sessions with improvements, personal or otherwise. Each assistant holds one-on-one meetings with players at a specific position to break down individual film, while the team regularly gathers to watch tape, generally beginning to break down the upcoming opponent one or two days in advance and reviewing the morning of before the shootaround.
Point guard Pe’Shon Howard, for instance, has credited watching tape of Turgeon’s Texas A&M teams with helping him understand the secondary break. Nick Faust watched himself display an awkward shooting form last season before fixing it over the summer. And because so much of defense involves uncovering an opponent’s tendencies, breaking down film can provide a crucial advantage.
“Watching other guards, you can see so much,” guard Seth Allen said. “You can see whether they go right, go left, whether they reject ball screens or how they come off picks, where they like to score, what they’re capable of doing the ball in their hands, off the ball, so much.”
Noticing the small things makes the biggest difference, Dez Wells says. How does a certain player jab? Does he always spin toward the middle after posting up on the right block? Can he cross over to his opposite hand or pull up for a jumper while moving toward his strong side?
“Just scouting. Really paying attention to the scouting report, reading it over and over,” Wells said. “The small things. Offense is built on habits. Just trying to catch him on his habits and execute guarding him during the game.”
Wells says that whatever tendencies he doesn’t pick up from film review he can mostly glean before the first media timeout, just by feel. Because Charles Mitchell comes off the bench, he spends the game’s first few minutes watching like a hawk, leaning over from the sidelines, studying an opposing post player.
It’s taken the freshman some time to adjust to the college game’s speed, but having simply played power forward for so long, he’s seen all the moves and shots possible. It’s just a matter of figuring out who does what at a given time.
“It just takes me a couple plays to watch what they’re doing,” Mitchell said. “If someone bodies me up, I know which way they’re going to turn, or if they’ll make a counter move. I always try to watch how people play.”
The best defenders are active but not reactive. They dictate an opponent’s path, forcing him right or left at will rather than playing back on the heels and responding to a given move. After a few possessions, Wells said, the player he’s guarding should always wonder where Wells is on the floor. Lock-down defense means being disruptive, upsetting the game plan and dislodging the opponent from his comfort zone.
“In basketball it’s a game of habits, just getting the habits down, seeing what they like to do, what they aren’t comfortable doing, forcing them to be uncomfortable,” said Wells, who mentioned LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as more current defensive role models after saying he’s studied YouTube videos of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. “Keeping someone under their scoring average is the best thing I can do. If I feel like I’ve done that, then I think I’ve done a really good job.”
Still, there’s the matter of forcing turnovers. The Terps rank 319th nationally in steals and 324th in turnovers caused, “not where it needs to be,” according to Turgeon. He still has faith in perimeter disruptors like Nick Faust, Wells and Allen, but the focus has been about guarding the system, not deflecting passes or picking pockets. The overarching goal, Allen said, is to get three stops in a row, regardless of steals or turnovers. A defensive rebound turned into a fast break works just as well.
“We all talk as one, all five of us, then we try to play defense for the whole 35 seconds,” Mitchell said. “Our offense gets going when we run the floor, just wear them down defensively. We still accomplish a lot, wear them down, make them run through the whole shot clock.”