Does scouting have a downside in the tournament?
PHILADELPHIA — Every March, coaches of mid- and low-majors are faced with a decision. Do they dramatically alter their gameplan to attack their opponents’ weakness or not? The perils are both psychological and practical. Getting away from their bread and butter, what got them to the tournament, sends the signal that the coaching staff doesn’t believe their team can beat an opponent without gimmicks. Not only that, but dramatically changing a team’s style can be difficult in the few days after Selection Sunday, particularly as the team loses practice time to travel.
As a player at the University of Pennsylvania, I saw this strategy of changing “what we do” blow up in our faces. In 2005, as a 13-seed, we played Boston College. The gameplan was simple; we wanted to play zone and force them to hit threes, as the Eagles ranked at the bottom of Division I in made three-pointers. But we had only lightly used our zone all year. They hit seven of their first 10 threes, and CBS was switching to closer games before we knew what hit us.
A year later, as a 15 seed against a Texas team led by Lamarcus Aldridge, we saw firsthand how a high seed ignored its opponent to focus on its own system and execution. In the press conference before the game, the Texas players couldn’t name a single member of our team, and Rick Barnes’ descriptions were so inaccurate that we passed them around the table at our pre-game meal the next day and laughed. The irony was that we too had eschewed adjustments and stuck to our own strengths, playing a pesky man-to-man defense that had helped us dominate the Ivy League rather than the zone that convention wisdom said could keep us close against a more talented opponent. The result was a 23-22 lead at halftime, before future Cleveland Cavalier Daniel “Boobie” Gibson took over and we wilted in the second half.
A pair of teams traveling to Philadelphia face this dilemma. The first is Creighton, who will be subject to Cincinnati’s suffocating defense. In the Big East tournament, Georgetown attacked the Bearcats’ overplay defense by using Princeton sets with backdoor cuts. Creighton could attempt to mimic this success by using star forward Doug McDermott as a distributer from the elbow or as a floor spacer to facilitate backdoors. But doing so has risk, as it means moving him out of some of his favorite scoring areas and using him as a decoy.
The second is Florida Gulf Coast, who has the opposite dilemma in its matchup with Georgetown. Georgetown may not run a pure Princeton offense, (the Hoyas don’t run the clock down each possession and depend heavily on traditional pick and rolls) but they use the same spacing and cuts in their half court offense that made the Princeton offense famous. At Penn, we put in a different defensive system to contain these Princeton sets. We refused to overplay at all, choosing to always stay in a direct line between the offensive player and the basket; basketball heresy among defensive purists, but an effective strategy against backdoor cuts. But if Florida Gulf Coast makes the same adjustment, they will be letting Otto Porter catch the ball where and when he wants it. That allows Georgetown to run its offense through its best player. The safer play would be to deny Porter the ball all over the court, and live with the occasional backdoor cut. But will Florida Gulf Coast get cute?
The same question can be asked whenever an underdog floats out a new zone, a box-and-one, or a revamped offense. Is the path to an upset paved by adjustments? Is it worth it to radically alter a team in order to flummox a more talented opponent? Or is it a better strategy to double-down on your strengths and focus on what’s brought you to the tournament? That’s the call that keeps coaches up as they approach their first-round match ups. Sometimes over-adjusting is a bad thing.
@SteveDanley is a former Penn basketball player and Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford. He will be an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers-Camden University this fall.