In the locker room at halftime of Hickory’s first game in the movie Hoosiers, a frustrated team and a frustrated coach aired grievances.
Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman): I want you to close down those passing lanes. Your defense is awful!
Rade: What about our offense? We can’t win unless we score–
Both Coach Dale and Rade were correct. If you can’t defend, you have a very slim chance of winning games. But, as the Cincinnati Bearcats have found out, if you can’t score the basketball, you’ll have a very tough time advancing deep in the NCAA Tournament.
Saying that your team needs to be better at scoring points is not a new concept. After all, the team who scores the most points always wins. Of course, another way to look at it is that the team who allows the least points always wins.
So, what’s more important? Defense or offense?
Let’s take a look at the Cincinnati Bearcats under head coach Mick Cronin. When Cronin took the job, he knew he needed to instill a culture built upon defense and rebounding. “You need to be able to win when shots aren’t going in,” Cronin’s mantra became. Most coaches operate with this principle. Control what we can control, as the saying goes. Shots don’t always fall, you can’t control that, but you can control how hard you prepare and play; you can control your defense and your rebounding effort.
But can you control shots falling? That’s the question. What’s the answer?
Looking at statistics doesn’t always tell the story, but in some cases, it’s as clear as a stripper’s heels. I’m a big proponent of Ken Pomeroy’s calculations for Adjusted Offense and Adjusted Defense (available at www.KenPom.com). These ratings take a slew of factors into consideration, such as who you play, how many points you score and allow per possession, and more. Now, as Pomeroy’s ratings will show, Cronin has built a consistently stingy defensive program at the University of Cincinnati over his eight years at his alma mater. In Cronin’s first season, the Bearcats ranked 124 in Adjusted Defense and won just two Big East games. In 2008, that ranking leapt up to 56th, and the team grabbed eight Big East victories. After a setback in 2009 (ranked 85th), the ‘Cats improved to 47th in 2010 and have ranked inside the Top 25 the past four seasons (leading to four consecutive NCAA Tournament bids).
UC head coach Mick Cronin and fifth-year senior Sean Kilpatrick
Cronin has accomplished what he set out to do. UC is perennially one of the best defensive teams in the nation. And it’s led to success. Four straight tournament appearances is nothing to sneeze at. It’s not many schools who can boast that achievement.
The Bearcats have won three tournament games and lost four. Let’s take a look at the Adjusted Offense ratings for each of the past four seasons:
2011 – 53rd (Beat 11 Missouri, Lost to 3 UConn)
2012 – 61st (Beat 11 Texas, Beat 3 Florida State, Lost to 2 Ohio State)
2013 – 126th (Lost to 7 Creighton)
2014 – 117th (Lost to 12 Harvard)
As you can see, the teams that could score had success.
Now, when we take a look at the past two seasons (in which UC ranked 14th and 9th in Adjusted Defense), we all wonder the same thing: Why does this team have so much trouble scoring? And that brings us to…
The Great Cincinnati Bearcats Basketball Debate: Is it the offensive scheme or is it the players?
Team Swanedigidy will be arguing that it’s the offensive scheme. Opening statement:
The Bearcats stand around too much on offense. Too much passivity and lack of aggression. Most of the times a player catches the ball, he’s far away from the basket…and he’s required to either beat his man off the dribble or take a long jumpshot. Otherwise, he passes the ball to a teammate further away from the basket and then we begin the process again. Sometimes, a player beats his man off the dribble and either scores, gets fouled or creates a shot for a teammate. And sometimes the ball is entered into the post for a back-to-the-basket opportunity–usually with the intent of scoring/getting fouled. Too many times, though, we see a player get the ball too far away from the basket and that player is asked to make a play he may not be able to make.
Team Steinberg & Bergstein will be arguing that the players can’t execute or finish often enough. Opening statement:
While I can’t refute Team Swanedigidy’s opening remarks, I can point to the fact that the players simply struggle with the most basic element of playing basketball…putting the basketball through that tin cylinder and nylon net. Throughout the course of most UC games, Bearcat players get the ball in positions to step into a jump shot (either wide open or pretty open) or in positions to dunk the basketball or lay the basketball off the backboard. And, the majority of the time, the Bearcat players fail to get the ball into and through the basket. Case in point, the loss to Harvard on Thursday–both Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles failed to score from less than two feet away from the basket in the latter stages of that game…and UC ended up losing by four points. Scheme or no scheme, if you can’t put the ball in the basket, your point total won’t be very high.
Team Swanedigidy’s First Rebuttal:
Yes, I concede that you’ve got to be able to make lay-ups and close-in shots; and you’ve got to finish stronger at the rim and at least TRY to dunk the ball when you’re down there. And you should be able to knock down an open 15-footer once in a while if you’re a freakin’ college basketball player. All of that goes without saying. But when you watch this team try to operate in the halfcourt, you just see too much action going away from the basket. The focus needs to be on getting as close to the basket as possible as many times as possible. And how do you do that? Either you attack the rim more aggressively from the outside–or by pushing the ball up the court aggressively even after the other team makes a basket–or you get the ball in the post and work inside-out more often.
Team Steinberg & Bergstein’s Response:
You make a couple of good points. If the goal is to score, the idea should be to create as many high percentage opportunities as possible. By pushing the ball up the floor with a purpose on every single possession, you’re exploring the possibility of a mismatch to exploit when the defense hasn’t had time to set up…and if you do this 20 times in a game, and it works 5 or 6 times, you may be able to get 7-10 extra points out of it that likely wouldn’t have been scored in a halfcourt setting. As for the increase in post touches, that’s also a neat concept. You could post up your best passers and free throw shooters, as well as whoever has a size mismatch on offense (Shaq Thomas), and then work inside-out. You can invert your offense. Then, when a guy like Caupain (a strong, skilled point guard that can pass and make free throws) catches the ball about 6-8 feet from the hoop, he can either make a move or kick the ball out for a step-in 3 or find a cutter for an attempt at the rim. This way, he isn’t asked to beat his man off the dribble as much…especially when he’s up against a smaller, quicker defender.
Right. Remember, the goal is to get the ball as close to the basket as possible as many times as possible. If you shoot more lay-ups and free throws than jump shots, chances are, you’ll score more.
Team Steinberg & Bergstein:
Emphasis on “chances are.” We’ve seen a slew of missed free throws and soft finishes at the rim. And that goes back to the players. If you’re a guy with a really high vertical leap, and you get the ball near the basket, and you flip up a shot off one foot, or you fade away, or you double clutch, then the failure is on you. If I’m the coach, and my guy can’t at least get fouled on a shot right at the rim, then what else can I do?
You can emphasize offense more. You routinely yank guys out of the game for blowing a defensive assignment. But what about yanking a guy for failing to finish strong? Why not cut a guy’s minutes until he shows that he’ll go in there hard and try to rip the rim off? It’s okay to preach defense, and hold your players accountable on that end–and it’s worked…worked very well–but you’ve got to bring that same intensity to every single offensive possession as well. You can call a play, or run an offense, or set up your scheme any way you want…but sometimes, offense is about imposing your will. Your players should be of the mentality that, “I’m not gonna settle for this jumper. I’m going right AT you, sucka. You’re gonna have to foul me to stop me.” And, when the rim is within reach, “I’m gonna gather myself and then use 100% of my strength and athleticism and make you a f***in’ poster, boy.”
Team Steinberg & Bergstein:
I can’t argue with you there. And it looks like you’re arguing my side for me–so thanks for that. But I also think the point guard position has been the problem. In 2011 and ’12, Cashmere Wright was a dual threat point guard. He wasn’t necessarily a true point guard–even though he developed into an effective one–but he was a threat and he had a pretty good idea of how to run the show. In 2013, Cash got hurt and became one-dimensional and it threw everything off. This season, Ge’Lawn Guyn was not effective. Freshman Troy Caupain showed flashes, but he wasn’t ready to take over the position. Sean Kilpatrick did a pretty good job running the show, scoring and creating for others at times, but you can’t play two positions at once. Had SK and the seniors had a good lead guard this season, scoring points would have been a whole lot easier. My Uncle Attles, a former JCC national champion point guard, points directly to this issue when asked about UC’s offensive struggles. “You need a good point guard,” Attles told me. “Someone that can break the defense down, get to the basket, hit an open shot, and get the ball to the right guys at the right time.”
It’s too hard to run an offense without a point guard because when your goal is to “become a better passing team,” you forget that even if you pass the ball well, you’ll end up with the wrong guys taking shots. As the saying goes, “Sometimes, when you’re open, you’re open for a reason. Because you can’t shoot.” The effective point guard not only can score and break his man down off the dribble, but he also understands time and score, and he understands his personnel, and he makes sure to get the ball to the right guys in the right situations…otherwise he’s confident enough to take it himself.
Well, we debated, but at the end of the day, we agreed on quite a bit. We need a better approach to offense. We need more emphasis on offense. We’ve got to be more aggressive, both at pushing the ball and attacking the rim. We need to work inside-out more. And we need a true point guard to run the show. We know Ge’Lawn Guyn is not that guy. We don’t know yet whether or not Troy Caupain is that guy. But, in order for the offense to run more smoothly in 2014-15, we’ll either need Troy to be that guy, or we’ll need Mick and his staff to find a true point guard to fill one of the two remaining open scholarships. One of those graduate transfers like a DeAndre Kane of Iowa State maybe?
Bottom line: Ranking 117th and 126th in Adjusted Offense won’t get it done. My research of past NCAA Tournaments showed that the teams with explosive/efficient offenses are the teams who go deep, granted that the defense is up to snuff. We know UC’s defense will be up to snuff year in and year out. Now we just need to shift the focus to the offensive side of the ball…and the Bearcats will be unstoppable.
Despite Everything I Just Said: This was an incredible season. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first saw this team play back in November. A bunch of question marks loomed. I felt like UC would be a bubble team. But, thanks to the sheer will, grit and heart of the seniors, the Bearcats went from unranked to the Top 10, from fringe tourney team to a 5-seed. Kilpatrick surpassed the 2,000 point mark and became the school’s second all-time leading scorer. Sure, we would have loved to see UC beat Harvard and make a run, but we all received enjoyment from this season…and we all appreciate the blood, sweat and tears the seniors (Kilpatrick, Jackson and Rubles) shed while leading this team to unexpected heights. We’ll miss those fellas dearly, and we wish them all the best.
Thanks for reading. Relax, reflect, rejoice and then get ready for Opening Day!