Tubby ball 11-26

‘U’ Coach wants to see solid man-to-man defense

By Myron P. Medcalf

McClatchy news service

One of the trademarks of Tubby Smith’s coaching is his ball-line defense, which as junior college transfer Paul Carter is learning is not always easy to grasp.

"For me, it’s been very challenging," Carter said. "(Smith) gets on me about it in practice. I’ve kind of played a similar style before, but not the way coach wants. But I’m learning every day, and I’m trying."


The principles of Smith’s preferred version of man-to-man defense seem simple enough: Play the ball, not the man.

That means denying passes and preventing teams from getting easy inside shots.

There’s also an emphasis on trapping ball handlers.

The downside: The defense is susceptible to skip passes and perimeter shots, as well as to dribble penetration when a defender overcommits.

It all gets complicated when players have to factor in all of the rotations — some of it based on line positioning — and the constant pressure necessary to execute it well, Carter said.

"When you’re in the right spot, it’s easy," Carter said. "When you’re in the wrong spot, everything goes wrong."

In Smith’s system, there are two perpendicular lines: the ball line, which runs across the court and lines up wherever the ball is, and the midline, an imaginary line from one basket to the other.

The two lines help determine the positioning of defenders.


J.D. Barnett, who taught Smith about the ball-line defense when he played for Barnett at High Point (N.C.), can explain the philosophy in layman’s terms.

"The ball line is supposed to have good ball pressure [and] be strong from the inside out," said Barnett, who learned the defensive scheme from former Gophers assistant Ron Ecker, when Ecker was the head coach at Winona State and Barnett was a player there.

"Players, sometimes they get more concerned about guarding a man than guarding the ball," Barnett said. "It is a man-to-man defense, and you are constantly guarding the ball."

With five new, athletic players, it’s expected the Gophers (4-0) will rely heavily on their defense this season.

They face Eastern Washington tonight, a team with some of the components that have given the Gophers problems this season: a couple of big bodies and perimeter scoring threats.

Through four games, the Gophers defense has shown strengths and weaknesses. Entering Tuesday, the Gophers led the Big Ten in steals (9.75 per game) and were second in blocked shots (6.50).

But they also had the conference’s eighth-ranked scoring defense (58.8 points per game).

In their games against Bowling Green and Georgia State, the Gophers had to hold off second-half runs spurred by easy layups and open shots.


Smith said he had concerns about the way his team allowed opponents to penetrate at will, a violation of Rule No. 4 of the ball-line defense: "Do not allow penetrating passes or dribble penetration."

Smith said the Gophers improved at Colorado State on Saturday — the Rams made 40.7 percent of their shot attempts in the second half — with the way they handled the Rams guards, although he acknowledged that Colorado State’s top guard, Marcus Walker, was hampered by injury (he played despite getting bruised after being hit by a car the night before the game).

"This group is getting better," Smith said. "We’re getting better at it.

"We’ve made a few strides, but we’re far from where we need to be."

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