vs. Syracuse 1/7/2023

A much-needed conference win against a solid opponent, historically giving CTB the most wins in program history! What a legend and how humble he was in accepting the accomplishment was a great example to the team and something for the supporters of the program to be proud. I’ll be going back to the likes and dislikes format for this one. Always interesting to see what seems actually relevant and replicable when playing against a zone. It has a tendency to either be a “get right” game, where players find opportunities and confidence shooting from outside, or a confidence shaker, if we miss open looks. Fortunately, this game was the former, and hopefully seeing the ball go through the hoop for some of our guys will be a confidence builder for the next part of the schedule.

I’m actually going to avoid doing much analysis of their big second half comeback which might seem odd, but I don’t think there was actually a ton to take from it. Offensively, we did similar things we’d been doing all game. We didn’t have any trouble creating open looks, we just missed them. We probably rushed a few jumpers at the high post that were open but we didn’t need to take as early as we did. We drew a decent amount of fouls, some inexplicably called on the floor. We didn’t really struggle breaking the press, had one turnover that led to a three, but otherwise broke it and got back into the offense or, later on, drew fouls. On defense, we didn’t seem overwhelmed or start having many more breakdowns than we did in the first half, they just started making a LOT of contested shots. Sure, a good number of them were over Kihei which I’ve harped on in the past, but there were a lot over Beekman and some over McKneely and Franklin as well. Much of their offense during that stretch came down to pulling up off of the dribble and hitting a difficult jump shot over a quality contest. Sure, I’d love for us not to have gone AS cold during that stretch. I think we could have used that time to get Dunn in the game to attempt to bother more shots (although I’m sure there were concerns about playing him against the zone). But, really, there isn’t a ton I would have had us do differently other than shot making. As ever, Reece proved to be our most clutch player down that stretch, hitting a key three-pointer, free-throw jumper, and plenty of free throws to stave away the eventual comeback. There was more to take away from earlier in the game, particularly on defense, so let’s get into it:

Like: Zone Busters Franklin and McKneely

Because of the nature of the zone defense, both got to play together more often, and Franklin’s game leading 34 minutes played was the first time all season against conference or major competition that neither Clark nor Beekman were the team’s leading minutes getters. Franklin started the game off on fire and IMK carried through the middle stages, both hitting 4 in the game.

The first shot of the game was from deep and after some pretty harmless looking passing back and forth across the top of the zone:

This is just being ready to shoot when you have the slightest of space and being hungry to do so.

Just a couple of plays later, they then dial this one up where Kihei has it in the high post (more on this in the next section), Kadin screens the wing defender, and Franklin drifts down into the corner for the open look:

At first, I thought this was called after he made the first, but then I noticed Kadin’s hand signal to Armaan prior to setting the screen, so more likely I think it was just part of their general package to beat the zone that they got into on the fly. Good heads up play and communication from both and also from Kihei to correctly see it develop.

He hit another along the way and, by this point, was confident enough and in rhythm enough that later in the game he made this one look effortless off of the bounce late in the shot clock:

That shot is crazy and one that currently is only in his repertoire on the roster and only when he’s feeling it. This is why it’s so important to keep him with volume as the season progresses. Saturday helped the snowball continue to grow as it rolls down the hill.

Meanwhile, Isaac McKneely was actively hunting his shot as well in this one. CTB mentioned in the postgame press conference that he told him to take the parking break off. And you could see the difference where he wasn’t just waiting for a wide open shot to be created for him.

This, his first make of the game, was similar to Franklin’s first in that there wasn’t a ton of space and Syracuse got a good contest on it, but because he was so ready and willing to get into his shot, he didn’t need much!

Slight shades of Ty Jerome against Duke on this next one, only with someone believable to fake the pass to. This one caught my eye that something was really different this game in what he was trying to do. It’s a savvy move to use the ball fake to shift the zone but one that requires a green light and, again, a confidence and desire to let it fly:

My favorite part about that one is that Beekman isn’t always in the corner throughout the possession so it’s showing us that IMK is doing a good job diagnosing how the play is unfolding, what his options are, and has the creativity on the fly to realize that he could use Reece’s presence in the corner to free himself up on the ball fake.

Last one I’ll show of his is in transition. This one’s a much more wide-open look, but it’s notable because he’s filling to space in transition, it’s not a full on fast break, it’s a secondary one, and we’ve been seemingly much more willing to run and push tempo this year than I can remember us being in years past.

This is a good look and a quality shot, but it’s notable that the team clearly views it as such as well, and isn’t prioritizing slowing things down and resetting the offense on a possession like this where we don’t have a numbers advantage, just a spacing one.

They both hit more than I featured and weren’t the only to capitalize on the zone. Both Beekman and BVP got two each, which was especially good to see for BVP who has been cold of late, but it was clearly different with these two in how they were hunting their looks and how they were played to do so.

Like: Kihei in The High Post

CTB made an adjustment a few years back, I believe it started with Ty Jerome, where he started putting his point guards in the high post to be a shooter/passer against the Syracuse zone. The philosophy was designed to exploit that soft area of the 2-3 zone by using a player with superior shooting and passing skills as opposed to a power forward. We used a variety of players in this one from Kihei and Reece to Gardner and BVP, but we were at our best when Clark filled the spot. It might be surprising with him in among the trees, but let’s take a look…

The primary benefit of Clark getting the ball in here is that his vision and ability to deliver accurate balls can create opportunity out of tight windows inside. We already saw him find Armaan open on the wing, here is a tight bounce pass into Jayden who misses the shot but creates enough attention that Kadin is there to clean it up.

My favorite thing about this play is that Syracuse isn’t really in bad position. They could be a little more alert, but their wing is having to split his time between Gardner and being able to extend to the three-point line and the center is having to still keep an eye on Gardner while being able to contest what Kihei is doing. Being able to have your best passer here makes all the difference.

Another very similar look later in the game right here. Note when Franklin has the ball the zone is so far extended that there are four Orange players around the perimeter with just the center in the paint. BVP and Gardner are block extended or lower and Gardner is down in the opposite short corner. When Clark catches the ball, both wings look to retreat but Gardner does a good job of moving up to present a clean angle, Clark finds him immediately, and they get the and-1.

Some of this was sloppy execution on the Orange end. #0 Chris Bell doesn’t need to be extended as far as he is as long as he is, but this is often something Syracuse does with their zone when their opponent has been hitting a lot of outside shots. Slipping the ball into Kihei there allowed us to punish.

Another variation on this where BVP’s shooting ability allows him to drift through the zone to the top of the three-point line. Now you still have a traditional three guard situation but with Clark as the high post and Kadin lurking on the baseline. Watch how Syracuse’s two wings have the job of stopping the pass to the wing and then sinking back into the lane while one of the top guards comes over. This has the effect of doubling the wing/making the entry pass to the high-post difficult at times but, once again, leaves very little help on the back side once the ball gets in there. Here we just patiently move the ball around until Franklin gets a good angle into Clark, #14 Jesse Edwards doesn’t even spend much time focused on Clark. He steps up once when the pass comes in but is immediately looking for Shedrick but just isn’t quick enough to recover.

Good example of Kihei’s passing and quick decision making and also how punishing those Shed finishes are inside. The offside wing tries to come over to help but there’s just no chance he can get high enough to bother anything.

Another wrinkle here with BVP on the floor as he basically switches out with Kihei, replacing him at the top of the three-point line as Clark slides into the high post. This action as Reece moves to the corner puts pressure on both their guard and forward to react to both, and BVP’s height makes the open look more comfortable to launch.

When shooting well from outside, this play is a great example of why BVP can be so valuable against a zone. Since they’re playing a set space, you can force guard contests on him as opposed to lengthier ones. Back to Kihei, one of the areas we’ve sometimes struggled against the zone is because of the length of the zone making open outside looks for him less available. Kicking him inside adds the threat we’ve shown and keeps your lengthier shooters on the perimeter to elevate over contests.

One adjustment Syracuse did make during their run is the held their center back not having him run up to contest the high post as aggressively, opening up the back end. This created a ton of wide-open midrange jumpers in that space, and here Kihei took advantage:

Notice this time, Edwards just stays back and Clark confidently knocks down the shot. Reece hit one from pretty much the same spot much later in the game in a clutch moment. There were many other times, though, during their run, where this shot was available and we took it almost immediately. Clark missed one, Gardner and BVP missed a couple. Any of these guys can and should be able to hit this shot, but it’s one that we could get at almost any time so we didn’t need to rush it early in the shot clock. I expect this to be a shot we’ll have to hit a lot when we play them in the Carrier Dome, so I hope these guys practice it quite a bit before that game.

Either way, great work this game by Kihei and CTB to do the unconventional thing and turn what’s often one of our vulnerabilities against the zone into a strength by pulling him inside.

A Discussion On Defensive Adjustments

I’ve mentioned the past few games the struggle that the team has had defensively when Kadin Shedrick has been off of the floor and Francisco Caffaro has been unavailable. Caffaro was able to give 5 minutes in this one and looked in pain but also was effective at clearing the glass and presenting with size. Unlike the previous games where he sat in crucial moments, Shedrick WAS in foul trouble in this one, as will sometimes be the case, and it’s clear that we spent a lot of time working since the Pitt game on some defensive adjustments to hopefully help in those circumstances. During this game, I would say it’s definitely a work in progress, but you could see the real benefits and I hope we continue to calibrate in this direction. Firstly, let’s just baseline a few things that they had when Kadin was on the court.

His shot blocking and activity was very good in this one, logging 4 blocks and 3 steals. Most of the blocks were impactful and visible, especially the swat of Girard at the end of the game, but here are two that really highlighted his ability to erase an opportunity.

This pass comes out of an aggressive double team (more on this to come) cross-court to a wide-open Judah Mintz (#3). Shedrick is able to cover a lot of ground to be in position to challenge this shot, bites on the pump fake, but goes straight up AND has a quick enough second jump to reject the shot anyway.

This next one was my favorite defensive play of the day. Shedrick starts out with a hard hedge to keep the Orange ball handler from gaining access to the middle of the floor. I’m going to talk in a bit about some of their hedge adjustments in this one from the Pitt game, but Shedrick clearly still had the green light to go hard at times. Reece is there to deter the pass to Shedrick’s man and then he recovers, and Gardner does a good job of getting big to also deny a pass from his man to the cutter. Now watch Gardner hedge. He sets up in a much more off position when his man goes to set the ball screen on Franklin. If you pause this clip at 5 seconds you’ll see a very clear philosophical shift in our hedging this game from the Pittsburgh game. If you’ll remember, in that one, I highlighted how our consistent hard hedges on ball screens, especially BVP’s, were punished by the screener rolling to the hoop, our lack or recovery ability/quickness/length, and struggles with the backside defense, (especially when that player was Clark). I’ll talk about some of these adjustments, which I think are good but we’re still often feeling out. Gardner here is flatter. He’s not looking to disrupt the dribble or immediately be in the space of the ball handler, he’s just presenting to eliminate the driving lane while Franklin recovers. The problem is that he lingers there too long after the screen is completed and his man slips toward the hoop. It’s not a quick action, it actually takes Syracuse a second to realize the opening is there, but Gardner still can’t recover in time. At 7 second into this clip when #1 Maliq Brown catches the pass, Edwards has Shedrick on his back and is trying to seal him off to create the open baseline drive. The positioning is all around ideal for Brown to explode to the hoop and finish and that’s exactly what he tries to do…

but Shedrick works his way around Edwards and meets the ball at the rim, erasing the mistake and the opportunity. This is exactly what we mean by “rim protection,” negating a quality opportunity that would otherwise likely be a conversion with a less capable player on the court. Shedrick’s the only one on the roster who could make this play here, and it makes up for a lot of mistakes.

Last primary Shedrick clip just to illustrate the whole thing working together. His length on a double team forcing a deflection and a steal, keeping a ball alive with his length on the offensive glass, and then capitalizing on a great/alert play from Kihei on the glass.

Okay, so establishing context again, that’s what Kadin’s bringing to the table when he’s in the game and when he’s out we’re dealing with this kind of stuff that’s just too easy. This clip (cut off as the dunk is happening, sorry about that… spoiler: it went in) just shows the effortless interior passing and inability on our end to bother the end result. Gardner shows a flatter hedge against a ball handler. The danger of that adjustment is that sometimes they keep their dribble and continue pressing the advantage, which they do. Gardner still has to stick off of his man who gets the return pass. Clark shows briefly but isn’t able to do anything to make the situation uncomfortable, forcing BVP to step up, allowing an easy pass to BVP’s man who is unbothered by a recovering Gardner. Just no disruption or length to bother any of this. Far too easy.

Watch this possession again at first BVP just fakes a hedge on Beekman’s man. Then he gets put into a flatter hedge when helping Franklin. This time the ball handler to keeps his dribble and BVP is in the rough position of having to defend the driver and his man. Clark is the backside help and, again, severely struggles in this area and cannot affect the lob. BVP’s lack of size/athleticism also hurts here but he’s STILL able to get back into the play enough to affect the shot and force a miss… only for Gardner to fall asleep on the rebound and allow HIS man to work him away from the hoop, get the rebound, and force the foul. This is one of those situations where BVP actually did about as well as he could have here, but it was an altogether terrible defensive possession compounded by the fact that we were undersized almost across the board.

BUT, friends, I’m here to tell you that we WERE working through adjustments in this game that did make our undersized lineup more effective defensively than it’s been recently. We were still learning and feeling out some of the adjustments and we still had some possessions like the above. Again, this lineup is not ideal and it’s a real vulnerability when we HAVE to rely on it as opposed to having it as an option to mix things up. But it’s clearly been a point of emphasis across two main areas.

We’re mixing up our hedge patterns and we’re returning to doubling the post much more aggressively, even with Kadin in, but especially when he’s out.

Historically, CTB has preferred the hard hedge as we’ve seen most of this year. The design is to disrupt the ball handler from keeping his dribble or, at the very least, being able to direct his dribble toward dangerous parts of the floor (i.e. mostly the center of the court or downhill toward the basket), by taking an aggressive angle to impede his dribble path and then recovering to your man (while backside defense helps make the pass difficult). “My favorite” clip above with Shedrick featured a hard hedge from him and he’s become very good at this this year, although even he’s had vulnerabilities through it like from last week against Pitt:

The problem we ran into last week (especially with BVP’s mobility) was why were we so aggressively trying to stop the ball there, especially when the sharp angle failed. Kadin wasn’t able to take away the dribble or stop the drive, so sticking with the ball handler for so long just gave his man a clear path to the basket and both help side defenders fell asleep in the process and weren’t there to help make that pass difficult. This week, we started changing this hedge where possible, specifically with BVP and Jayden, but across all of our post players. Sometimes we’d fake the hedge and recover right away, sometimes we’d show but much flatter, sometimes we’d even occasionally play drop coverage and, yes, sometimes we’d still give a hard hedge. As I get to some of these examples, I’m going to highlight when we see different techniques. The end result was mixed. We’ve already seen a couple of clips where the ball handler kept his dribble and put the post defender to a tough decision of how to defend, which the hard hedge typically tries to eliminate; but I like the philosophy in general because the ball handler didn’t know in any given situation how we were going to play it, because it was more forgiving for BVP’s footwork/speed, and because we didn’t see nearly as many just wide open blown coverages as we saw last week.

We coupled this with resuming aggressive double teams of the post. This is a play that used to be much more of a staple of our Pack Line defense years ago, offering help to disrupt the post rather than so frequently defending straight up and allowing clean one-on-one post moves. It’s at its best when the players are in unison on a string and making the right reads. We didn’t always do this, on Saturday, but we also often did, and the output was disruptive as intended and also helped to keep our post players from getting as targeted with Shedrick was sitting. In general, I loved the adjustments because it pointed to an urgency around fixing the issue as well as returning to scheme utilization to assist when we’re under-talented. Let’s take a look at some of this working together:

So, this is going to be a work in progress. The play below works really well throughout the entire process, but IMK is just a LITTLE slow recognizing his rotation and it ends in a Syracuse three. Syracuse intentionally posts Edwards up on BVP due to the size advantage and Gardner immediately comes to double. IMK does a great job recognizing and being in position to deny a pass to the opposite post, and when the ball goes back out to his man, Reece alertly rotates to him and Clark rotates back over to Reece’s man, leaving IMK needing to identify and rotate back to Girard. Instead, he starts running toward his man before identifying that Reece is covering that, takes a moment to search for an identify Girard, and by the time he starts his close out, it’s just too late.

Still, sometimes you see success through failure. The strategy is good – it forced the ball out of the post without threatening BVP or Gardner. Some tighter rotations as we’re used to seeing with the Pack Line, and we’ve turned a post advantage into a contested jumper.

… Or gotten a steal! This play took me back to the days when our defense was suffocating and our rotations, more so than individual eye-hand skill, forced our turnovers. Kadin’s in the game with this one so it’s not the best example of the small ball defense, but it’s a great look at what we’re trying to accomplish. Firstly, notice that BVP still finds himself pretty wildly out of position early in the possession, but because his screen is flat as opposed to the hard hedge it’s much easier for him to recover elbow-to-elbow to his man. Secondly, he executes a good post double team with Kadin on Edwards, Franklin dives to defend the opposite post, and McKneely lurks over through the traffic to collect an intuitive steal meant for Franklin’s man. That’s what this adjustment is all about, sowing some chaos and forcing unskilled ball handlers to make reads and decisions.

Here’s another good look at it out of small ball. This time, Clark makes the rotation into the corner and Beekman doesn’t fill on Clark’s man. IMK correctly identifies his rotation out of the post and Gardner recovers to his man with good timing. The result is the ball having to be reset and Syracuse trying to beat Beekman off of the dribble after a quality “faked” hedge from BVP that causes hesitation prior to the steal. A benefit to getting this out of small ball is that the steal turns into points the other way as Gardner is quick in transition to support Beekman.

Another look at quality execution out of small ball. Jayden Gardner really makes this possession sing. Notice that when the double comes around 15 and 16 seconds into the clip Clark is the backside defender and it’s wide open, but Gardner’s aggression on the double keeps Edwards from being able to see the pass. He has to dribble back out while Gardner recovers, and this time BVP flat hedges and then double teams the ball handler in the corner with Gardner effectively taking away both the pass to Edwards AND shutting down the backside pass (Clark in better positioning this time). BVP’s active hands force the steal, but the play was caused by Gardner’s execution of the scheme covering up some potential breakdowns.

Of course, we are still adjusting to the… well, adjustments. BVP still over pursues on the hedge in this below clip on the sideline. Shedrick’s in here and you actually see him with a flatter hedge early in the possession and a quick recovery. BVP then goes to hedge with IMK on the wing, but IMK pretty easily gets through the screen and BVP gets caught out, again, slow to recover. His man just has a wide-open path to the bucket because of his positioning, which was unnecessary given IMK’s positioning. This is what they were working toward eliminating (and making progress doing so).

That clip above shows the importance of detail. In the previous clip, BVP gets a good double team in the corner late in the shot clock and steals the ball. Here, it’s much earlier in the shot clock, the play is in a part of the court with much more visibility, and the on-ball defender isn’t in nearly as much need of assistance. Sussing all of these things out on the fly is a challenge and will take a little time, especially when the previous strategy of hard hedging most screens had been the norm.

This next clip features Gardner and the result is a turnover, which was caused by a bad pass but, more specifically, was probably a cause of the variance within the defensive coverage. Gardner plays drop coverage on the ball screen, really the opposite of the hard hedge. He sags back and plays on-ball defense on the ball handler until Beekman can get back into the picture. As the ball handler maintains his dribble and gets wide, this puts the backside defender, McKneely in a difficult position of having to cover Gardner’s man and his own. If you freeze 4 seconds into the clip, you see him jam the man coming down the lane, but ultimately letting him go. The ball handler just flat misses the pass to the wide-open man under the hoop.

I haven’t seen enough to have a theory on how CTB wants us to defend this yet, but someone made a mistake because the end result isn’t to allow the post defender to be wide-open by the rim. I would imagine, given our system, that Gardner probably dropped too much initially and didn’t impede the dribbler enough but, if that’s not the issue and we really are mixing in drop coverages this extreme, then the likely solution would be to have IMK stick with/go with the post player and either have Beek continue to recover to the dribbler with Gardner and IMK then looking to switch back – IMK ready to bolt out for the contest on his original man, when needed. The fact that IMK let the cutter go, makes me think this was more of a point of attack coverage scheme issue, but I can’t be sure. Maybe it was IMK misidentifying the biggest threat per scheme. I should reiterate, though, this is absolutely NOT what anyone playing against Virginia expects them to do on a ball screen, though, and the confusion caused with this ACC opponent certainly may have had a part in the bad pass. When you’re so surprised something is there, sometimes that happens.

A glimpse of us running this with Kadin on the court this time, as we weren’t just limiting the system adjustments to when he was out. They didn’t try the post here but notice BVP execute the fake hedge and hard recovery early in the possession with Franklin able to stay on his man. Good on-ball defense by Armaan and IMK throughout, and good ball denial/extension of the defense from both Reece and Kadin when IMK’s man loses his dribble. The result is a whole lot of non-threatening dribbling from the Syracuse offense and a forced jumper that misses badly.

In Conclusion

Caffaro playing was a surprise and he was pretty effective with Kadin facing foul trouble despite looking like he was hurting. Nevertheless, it’s become clear throughout this season that, through injury, foul trouble, or CTB just making the choice, that Small Ball is going to be a real and regular part of our rotations for at least 10 minutes per game or so. It’s good to see us making such significant adjustments to our defensive approach in an effort to scheme that unit (and our defense in general) into being more disruptive, creating more chaos, requiring more mental execution from our opponents. There will be some growing pains, as we saw, but the end result should make us less predictable for our opponents and should help with our general lack of size and athleticism with this lineup. Additionally, when we do have Kadin on the floor, we saw some glimpses at how these changes can still help Gardner and, especially, BVP navigate this defense and, in other instances, how it can allow Kadin the movement and freedom to create some real disruption on the defensive end. I’m going to be keeping a close eye on how these tweaks evolve over the season and with our available personnel, and am encouraged by the shift.

2 responses to “vs. Syracuse 1/7/2023”

  1. I kind of thought Brogdon started the guard in the middle against the Cuse zone. Bennett even called it Malcolm in the middle. Then I think after he graduated, in the first game, he drew up a play and said then get it to Malcolm. And Perrantes said, “You mean London.” I could be wrong but that’s the way I remember it. I don’t think we did it early on, like that big game in 2014.

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    • Might have been. I distinctly remember it being implemented for Ty against the zone after we’d been primarily using Dre there – but it could have predated that and I just don’t remember as clearly.

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