Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pressing Matters

When Malcolm Gladwell published his think-piece last year in the New Yorker about how underdogs are best-served by utilizing the full-court press, basketball novices might have been hypnotized into wondering why teams just don’t press all the time.

It is certainly an interesting theory, and Gladwell did his due diligence by speaking to the capo di tutti capi of full-court defense, Rick Pitino. Of course, Rick The Ruler’s teams have rarely been cast in the underdog role since Billy Donovan was running the point for Pitino at Providence in the 1980s. Pitino’s full-court defense mostly relied on superior and better-conditioned athletes breaking the will of weaker ones.

The perfect storm of Pitino’s pressure system probably came when he was coaching Kentucky in the second half against Louisiana State at Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Feb. 15, 1994 — a Fat Tuesday that bore witness to what the Bluegrass faithful christened “The Mardi Gras Miracle.”

LSU coach Dale Brown didn’t have the star power that Shaquille O’Neal, Stanley Roberts and Chris Jackson brought to his teams at the beginning of the decade. In the 1993-’94 season, the Tigers were a middle-of-the-pack SEC team struggling to get an at-large NCAA berth. However, LSU always came to play against Kentucky, which had lost in its previous four trips to Baton Rouge, La.

The Wildcats seemed destined for another loss after a first half in which LSU rode the hot hands of Clarence Ceaser and Ronnie Henderson for a 48-32 lead. Henderson, a highly recruited freshman shooting guard, had 22 points and sank six of seven three-pointers in the first 20 minutes. The Tigers then ripped off an 18-0 run at the start of the second half. At the 15:34 mark, Henderson and Ceaser had a combined 51 points as LSU opened up a 68-37 lead.

Pitino’s emphasis on pressure and three-point bombing makes his teams well suited to big comebacks, but 31 points seemed out of the realm of possibility. The fact that the Wildcats were playing on the road made the defeat even more of a certainty.

The biggest selling points of full-court press are physically and mentally exhausting the opponents, thus creating turnovers. Pitino is known for his grueling practices, specifically designed to make sure his players don’t tire first in a game.

In the final 15 minutes, the pace started getting to LSU. Suddenly, the shots that had been falling for the Tigers were bouncing off the rim. Henderson missed four of his six three-point attempts in the second half. Turnovers also became a factor, with Kentucky getting six steals and LSU coughing up the ball 10 times after halftime.

The cold shooting for LSU extended to the free-throw line. The Tigers shot 13 of 24 in the final 12 minutes and 24 for 37 overall. That fell right into the hands of Pitino as he employed a desperation strategy of fouling on defense and hoisting threes on offense.

It’s hard to believe that rallying from a 31-point deficit can seem methodical, but that is what Pitino’s troops did. The Tigers tightened with the pressure, but Kentucky never seemed frantic in its comeback.

With LSU missing from the line, the Wildcats’ three-pointers ate up large chunks of the lead. After a 3-for-14 showing from behind the arc in the opening half, Kentucky found the range to shoot 12 of 23 in the second half — including nine in the final 10 minutes.

The 31-point lead for LSU crumbled. Kentucky’s Jeff Brassow hit one of his four three-pointers to cut the deficit to 79-69 with 7:38 remaining. Just under a minute later, Walter McCarty had a steal and a dunk that brought Kentucky to within eight points. McCarty hit the three-pointer that gave the Wildcats the lead at 96-95 with 19 seconds remaining. A missed shot and a turnover in the waning seconds sealed the loss for LSU, and Kentucky got out of town with a 99-95 victory.

Proponents of the press might point to this game as case study of the system’s effectiveness. The results are undeniable, but even Pitino would admit that it is an extreme example. It would be difficult for any team to extend that 15-minute stretch to 40 minutes. LSU could have benefited from the steady hand of a competent point guard. The reality is that the press, like most things, should be enjoyed in moderation.

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