SPORTS COLUMN: Basketball has changed, but defense still wins
The Courier Herald, "Slices of Sports" – January 16, 2021
At times, I can be a bit of a curmudgeon.
Though I fully appreciate the way things in sports used to be, I mostly have the patience to put up with changing times and new ways of doing things, no matter how inferior to days gone by. But every now and then, I just feel the need to stand up and shake my fist at the kids playing their version of basketball on the court in my figurative front lawn.
It's good to go on a nice rant once in a while, and I've got a bone to pick with some of today's coaches and players who are doing a disservice to basketball by all but ignoring one of the game's core tenets: defense. And it's gone on long enough.
I'm feeling just a bit grouchy as I write this column on a Thursday morning, after spending a little more than an hour of the prior Wednesday night (a bad decision, in hindsight) attempting to watch and enjoy Georgia's home basketball game against Auburn.
The rivalry, this year, has regressed to its usual place as a matchup of SEC bottom-dwellers, with both entering the game winless in the conference. The Dawgs, who breezed through a light schedule over the first half with a 7-0 record, have taken their usual January nosedive, dropping their first three in SEC play. Auburn, two years off a Final Four berth, has also fallen a good way from where it was, entering the game at .500 overall and sitting next-to-last to Georgia in the standings.
The visiting Tigers ultimately broke their conference drought, getting a first win out of five in a 95-77 boat race that, like many Georgia games I've already seen this year, was tough to watch.
It's honestly no wonder the Dawgs are where they are, with their grating style of basketball that was put on full display Wednesday night. Georgia put a good number of points on the board, which is nothing to sneeze at, considering several teams of years past who on most nights were doing well to break 50. But, as the point total on the other side of the scoreboard would suggest, it didn't do much else.
Calling this game sloppy does an injustice to sloppy games. There were a combined 37 turnovers – at times more per possession than I've seen in JV games – to go along with questionable shot selection and hardly any defensive effort by either team.
It went a bit both ways, but on the whole, Georgia was the team that appeared, at most spots, ill-prepared and overall disinterested. And that was true particularly on the defensive end, where the players in red and black seemed lost for most of the night.
When perimeter shooters weren't being left inexplicably wide open, the lane was. Getting to the basket for an uncontested layup was as easy for Auburn's guards as beating the man in front of them, since Georgia players less than 10 feet away from the play couldn't be troubled to step in and help on the drive.
On several shots, you could see them simply turning their heads to admire the finish as those ball-handlers waltzed to the hole for an easy bucket. What secondary defenders did make an effort to assist seemed far more concerned with setting up to draw a charge than getting hands in the air to contest the shot.
I've asked myself this question a number of times over the years, but Wednesday night seemed like a fresh reality check: Is this what the game of basketball is inevitably turning into?
The theme is by no means isolated to Georgia. Today's game, at all levels, is becoming dominated by a style of play that I'm sure has James Naismith and John Wooden rolling over in their graves enough times that their casket-makers might have been wise to install a spin cycle setting. Never mind the 6-foot-7 big man spotting up for threes instead of posting up or guards ignoring a clear path to the basket to pull up for a 20-foot shot in the break, thanks to an AAU-driven mentality that prioritizes offense and nothing else.
Even the high school game has in many places been taken over by teams that enter games with guns blazing, but allowing as many points as they score in an 80-77 win. To be fair, these teams that love to get out and run wouldn't put up such sky-high point totals if they didn't press and force turnovers. But it seems far too many teams lose interest in D'ing up once the ball gets past half court.
Third-year Georgia head coach Tom Crean is perhaps the poster child for this underwhelming trend that has the Dawgs on pace to finish among the worst two teams in the SEC for a third-straight season, after conference finishes of four games below .500 in 2020 and seven deep in 2019. And it's not hard to figure out why.
Crean, twice a Big 10 regular season champ and coach of the year selection in his previous job at Indiana, has a proven track record as a solid coach. He's won far more games than he's lost and taken his share of teams to the NCAA Tournament, but with an overwhelmingly aggressive philosophy that tramples any pretense of defending underfoot in a stampede toward transition scoring.
The Hoosiers, in his nine seasons at the helm, consistently fell in the bottom half of the conference – if not last outright – in both points allowed and average turnovers.
The pattern has continued since his arrival in Athens in 2018. Georgia currently paces the SEC in points allowed, at 74 per game, and turnovers, at a rate of 18.1. And the Dawgs finished next-to-last and last in both conference columns during the previous two respective seasons.
My sincere hope is that Crean ultimately gets the ship righted and Georgia finds a way to pull out of its current downward trajectory. But if you're looking to pick yourself up off the floor of the conference, this doesn't seem like how you do it.
In general, you don't win the Super Bowl throwing the ball 50 times a game with a noodle-arm quarterback, just like a team with a back averaging well above seven yards per carry should probably think about running the ball on a majority of snaps. (Come to think of it, that sounds awful similar to the recent woes of another UGA team).
The good news, this season, is that Georgia is among one of the top offenses in the SEC: Fifth in field goal percentage and third in average scoring. If the Dawgs gave the slightest thought to how they might keep the other team off the scoreboard, they might just win some ballgames.
After all, defense accounts for half of the time you spend on the court. And those who neglect that portion of the game, and can't make up for it with prolific shooting, seem to lose more often than not.
I, for one, can't help but admire a team that puts the time and work into being great on the defensive end.
For all its other shortfalls in Wednesday's matchup, Auburn did manage to protect the rim, with an unthinkable seven blocked shots in the first half and 14 total that probably had a good bit to do with the outcome. The essence of defense is making the easy stuff not-so-easy, and forcing your opponent into settling for low-percentage shots, which the Tigers did beautifully.
High school teams who emphasize defense and limit opposing possessions by cutting down on turnovers are also the ones who are playing the best ball in our county and area as we check in midseason.
I'm sure most would agree that the local squads who've had the most success to date are Dublin's boys and girls, and it's not a coincidence that both appreciate the importance of all-around good D, and not just a blitz-happy full-court press.
Both have also been blessed with at least one lengthy defender – Zion Davis for the boys and Terianna Wilburn for the girls – who spends a majority of possessions parked directly in front of the rim taking aim at layups and point-blank jumpers.
Not far behind the Irish are the East Laurens Lady Falcons, who have moved into a share of first in region 2-AA with three straight wins to open the month. Though they're a team that runs a bit smaller in personnel, they're equally as dogged on D, and have won all but two this year by running teams off their preferred shooting spots and forcing turnovers.
Trinity Christian's varsity teams had a hard time with rival John Milledge this regular season, getting swept by the Trojans in their home-and-home for the first time in years. JMA's unbeaten boys, currently ranked No. 1 in class AAA, showed why in two rather lopsided wins over the Crusaders in which their in-your-face defense all but suffocated the usually-confident Trinity attack.
The Trojans, who allow just 44 points per game, busted their behinds on defense for four quarters, and it took its toll. No pass went unchallenged, no fast-break unchased and no shot uncontested as they held Trinity to under 40 and won by double digits in both games, just last weekend in Milledgeville and here in Dublin back in December.
JMA's girls, by the same token, have played an equally stingy brand of D that's helped them twice get the better of the Lady Crusaders, and earned them a second-overall ranking in the state. Trinity, scoring 51 per game but allowing 47, ran into AAA's No. 1 team in Westfield just after falling in a heartbreaker to JMA on Tuesday night. The Lady Trojans, scoring 50 and allowing 33, they almost beat. The even more senior-laden and athletic Hornets put up 45 per game and hold opponents to just 26. Trinity, to its credit, is the only team to break 40 on them. And they've done it twice, despite coming up short in both meetings.
Some teams will make it seem that way, but defense is not a lost art, even in today's wide-open, fast-paced game.
And the ones headed toward the top as region, and conference play unfolds are still the ones who are finding ways to both put the ball in their own basket, and keep the other team from putting it in theirs. One doesn't have to come at the expense of the other.
It'd be nice if Tom Crean got the memo.