COLUMBIA — Last season, South Carolina played a 2-3 matchup zone defense that did not consistently test the Gamecocks’ ability to play the type of aggressive, man-to-man defense they are using this season.
South Carolina vs. LSU WHEN: 8 p.m. WHERE: Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge, La. TV: ESPN3.com RADIO: RECORDS: USC 10-5 (0-2 SEC); LSU 9-4 (0-2) NOTES: USC has lost to Mississippi State by two points and Auburn by three. LSU has lost to Auburn by five and Florida by 22. The Tigers are in their first year under coach Johnny Jones, who spent the previous 11 seasons at North Texas.
But to describe new coach Frank Martin’s defensive approach as a system that favors one-on-one matchups is not entirely accurate.
Yes, Martin wants the USC guard defending the opponent’s ballhandler to give him little space. Point guard Bruce Ellington now has that defensive role, and Martin implores Ellington to always make the opposing point guard uncomfortable, forcing him back toward the midcourt line, where passes to the wings or post are longer and riskier.
While that seems like a quintessential one-on-one matchup, its effectiveness hinges in large part on USC’s other perimeter defenders. Instead of staying close to their men, Martin wants the defenders to slide away a bit and fill the gaps in the defense where the ballhandler could pass or drive. Ellington must trust that his fellow guards will provide adequate help if he gets beat.
But those guards also have to recover in time, to sprint back to their men, because they are playing away from them. Everything on the perimeter works in concert. Similarly, if perimeter defense is lackluster, as it was in Saturday’s 74-71 loss to Auburn, that will create too many easy opportunities in the post, where the Gamecocks rely on undersized wing players.
The Gamecocks are steadily learning Martin’s concepts of aggressive man-to-man defense, played in a team-oriented style. Sometimes they look good, as they did in last Wednesday’s 56-54 loss at Mississippi State, which shot 38.8 percent. Sometimes they look messy, as they did against Auburn, which shot 58.5 percent.
“The hardest part about (learning Martin’s defense) is the way in which we deny — try to be in line between the man and the ball(handler),” said guard Eric Smith. “The main objective is to shrink gaps and to shrink the court. A lot of coaches teach (to) deny (the gaps), but you’re closer to your man. But in our system, you’re well away from your man while denying.”
Entering tonight’s game at LSU, the Gamecocks (10-5, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) are one of the league’s least effective defensive teams. As of Tuesday, they ranked last in the SEC in points allowed per game (68.5) and field goal percentage defense (44.2).
But Martin said he was pleased with USC’s defense before the Auburn game, and he understands the defensive transformation process will not happen immediately.
“It’s hard to play that way,” he said. “At the end of the day, basketball is a game of spacing. Defensively, you’re protecting the paint. That’s it. You don’t want the ball in the paint. There’s different ways of doing that. You can play a 2-3 zone and pack it in. You can play a soft man-to-man. I don’t like that. It’s not who I am. I like aggressive, get after people.”
A mitigating factor lately for USC is that the Mississippi State game was Ellington’s first since Dec. 19 against Appalachian State. He missed two-plus weeks of practice because of football.
“Bruce has to understand the consistency that you have to guard the basketball with,” Martin said. “As good a player as I think he can be, it’s brand new to him. He doesn’t understand it yet.”
Moreover, starting wing player Michael Carrera was sidelined with a hip injury from the Appalachian State to Mississippi State games. So he missed significant practice time, too, and practice is paramount for this style of team defense, Martin said.