Inside The Game: How The Eagles Stretched Louisville’s Zone

“They do things offensively that great teams don’t do. They isolate you well, they know where to go and who to go at, they move the basketball great, they slip screens. They are a nightmare to guard.”

– Rick Pitino, Louisville Head Coach

With Aaron Brown raining 3-pointers from all over the court, Patrick Heckmann battling Montrezl Harrell on the interior, and Olivier Hanlan slithering through the Louisville defense all night, Conte Forum was pulsating with energy Wednesday night. Facing the formidable Louisville Cardinals, replete with their full-court press and hulking interior presence, the Eagles spent the vast majority of the night getting the looks they wanted, closing the gap to 62-61 with five minutes remaining before succumbing to the nation’s No. 10 team, 81-72.

Most impressively, BC played perhaps its worst defensive game of the season, allowing the Cardinals to shoot a ridiculous 58 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc. Despite the uncharacteristic defensive lapse, the Cardinals could not silence the veteran Eagles. Driven by Christian’s floor-spacing game plan, the offensive versatility of BC’s frontcourt, and superb ball control against the press, the team traded blows with Louisville until the final whistle.

Beating Louisville’s Matchup Zone

Once again, BC found ways to fight through a highly-regarded defense drawn up by an outstanding tactical coach. A week ago against University of Virginia, BC exploited Tony Bennett’s pack line. Against Louisville, BC found ways to manufacture open looks against Pitino’s trademark matchup zone. Ranking seventh nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (88.7) per kenpom.com, and 18th in points allowed per game (57.8), Louisville qualifies as a powerhouse defense.

At the half court, the team executes a matchup zone. The defense begins possessions in a traditional 2-3 alignment, with two guards at the top and three frontcourt players manning the backline. When the offense initiates its actions, the defense becomes more complicated. Certain actions, such as pick-and-rolls and movement of players along the perimeter, call for man-to-man switches. If the ball enters the low post, the offensive player is momentarily trapped, forcing a kick out and ball rotation. The switching negates simple zone offensive tactics. Yet, as with any complex switching scheme, it requires precise rotations and communication by the defensive players. Slight breakdowns can result in open 3-pointers for the offense. In addition, rapid ball movement can lead to open shots before the correct rotations can arrive.

BC exploited this slight weakness to the extreme.

On the season, the Eagles average 19 of their 52 field goal attempts from downtown, 36 percent of their total. Against Louisville, that number increased to 29 of 61 shots, 48 percent of their total. Christian designed a masterful game plan, praised by the legendary Pitino, initiating defensive switches and cycling the ball to open shooters. Despite nailing only nine of those threes, most of the looks were not heavily contested. Manufacturing space for his shooters, Christian successfully extended the matchup zone.

Heckmann and Magarity Serve as Christian’s Finest Chess Pieces

Christian’s game plan would never have been possible were it not for the versatility of Heckmann and Will Magarity. As a natural small forward masquerading as an undersized stretch-four, Heckmann and his unique skill set wreaks havoc on opposing game plans. By drawing big men from the paint out to the arc, he puts the ball on the floor, driving past defenders’ panicked closeouts to the rim and making passes to teammates, or shooting over the incoming closeouts. Even against a superb athlete such as Harrell, the German senior managed to drill an open three and drive to the rim several times—earning five free throws in a two-minute stretch midway through the second half. He also got into the center of Louisville’s zone numerous times, making passes to teammates cutting backdoor. Playing bigger than his size, Heckmann helped BC negate Louisville’s overwhelming size advantage down low, finishing with 14 points, five rebounds, and five assists.

The bigger surprise tonight was undoubtedly Magarity. After earning a starter’s role after his strong performance against Georgia Tech, the sophomore finished with nine points. Like Heckmann, however, his numbers understate his importance to the game plan. Magarity stretches the zone, opening driving lanes for Heckmann, Hanlan, and Brown.

His presence gives the team a full lineup of players whose 3-point shot merits a closeout. Magarity possesses a unique ability to open the zone offense in ways that Dennis Clifford (who is largely bound to the paint) cannot. In fact, the primary reason for the bevy of BC’s open looks from deep might well have been Magarity. Not many centers have that type of range and not many centers on defense are comfortable abandoning the interior to cover such a threat. The presence of an extra shooter on the court made Louisville work on the defensive end, a credit to Christian’s innovative game plan.

Repress the Press

What makes Louisville one of the country’s most unique defenses, beyond the matchup zone, is its full court press. After made baskets, the opposing inbounder is heavily pressured and the other four offensive players are tightly guarded. Ball handlers are trapped in the backcourt, with the Cardinals often forcing opposing big men to handle the ball in order to break the press. On the year, they rank fifth nationally with 9.4 steals per game, as this strategy forces teams into poor decisions on the fly.

The Cardinals live off these live-ball turnovers, scoring 23 percent of their total points off them. When turnovers are not forced, the defense often manages to force bad shots anyway. With the opposing ball handler streaking down the court at full speed to avoid the press, he often has reached a tempo at which he can no longer be efficient with the ball. Wild layups and ill-advised pull-up threes result from the handlers’ desires to quickly get the ball out of their hands.

The Eagles did remarkably well against the press. On many of those possessions, Heckmann inbounded the ball. His calm, collected passing against Pitino’s chaotic scheme proved crucial. If Hanlan and Brown, the primary ball handlers, were covered, he would feed Magarity in the center of the court. The sophomore center would then be tasked with finding a guard to bring the ball into the frontcourt. Once they had broken the press, the Eagles also did a remarkable job limiting poor, rushed shots.

Hanlan came to get the ball, slowed the tempo, and initiated the offensive set. For the game, the team had just seven turnovers, with just four of them being live-ball steals by Louisville. The Cardinals scored just eight points off of turnovers, 9.9 percent of their total points. In addition, the team’s ball movement was spectacular.

The team picked up 17 assists against the aforementioned seven turnovers. That would translate to a 2.43 assist to turnover ratio, a number that, over a full season, would easily top Notre Dame’s mark as the best in the country (1.71) and a rate far superior to the team’s mediocre mark on the year (0.96). Olivier Hanlan spearheaded the ball movement, offsetting a poor shooting night with nine assists to just two turnovers, showcasing yet again that he possesses the passing acumen necessary for the NBA.

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor