Terance Mann stamped his foot in disgust, and Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton — only a step away — just shrugged his shoulders.
The Seminoles wing sailed past Andrew Lawrence a hair too late, practically landing in his teammates’ laps as a 3-pointer splashed down and archrival Miami cut into FSU’s lead. The junior followed all the rules, too. When Bruce Brown Jr. turned the corner at the top of the key, he cheated in — part of a four-man swarm to the ball. And when Brown kicked to JaQuan Newton, Mann tried to scramble and recover to his Lawrence in the left corner.
Ebuka Izundu, though, all of 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds, was a jersey barrier.
So Mann took flight, flailing his right arm and hoped his gangly limb was enough of a distraction.
Lawrence’s 3-ball was one of 17 for the Hurricanes back on a Jan. 27, a day where the U shot 50 percent from behind the arc but still lost 103-94 in overtime. The Seminoles escaped, but Miami’s long-distance strafing ushered in an 11-game span where FSU — a program whose defensive identity is to be oppressive as the local humidity — couldn’t slow opponent’s bombing campaigns.
Over the last seven weeks, FSU is allowing opponents to shoot 45.4 percent from the 3-point arc, including four games where it ticked north of 50 percent. Last week, the Seminoles bombed out of the second round of the ACC tournament against Louisville, which connected on 10 of 16 shots from deep — a third loss in four games by more than 13 points.
On paper, they possess the size (No. 12, per KenPom) and athleticism to make life insufferable, but poor rotations, a lack of effort fighting through screens and shoddy closeouts could send the ninth-seeded ’Noles home against No. 8-seed Missouri after tonight’s first-round meeting in the NCAA tournament. As for the Tigers, who have connected on 39 percent of their 3-pointers, a discombobulated perimeter defense more than suits its taste.
First, let’s quantify the scope of the problem.
Until Miami’s visit to Tallahassee, the metrics hinted Hamilton owned another defense that would finish in the top 30 for adjusted efficiency. While 3-point shooting is prone to fits of randomness and variability, FSU was letting opponents shoot just 30.5 percent. When you paired that with its traditionally stingy work inside the arc and a balanced offensive blend among Mann, Braian Angola and Phil Cofer, the Seminoles — who were then sitting at 15-5 overall and 4-4 in the ACC — had the ingredients to make an insurgent push up the standings.
Instead, this transpired.
The Noles’ woeful perimeter defense has become a pandemic.
What’s flummoxing is just how sound Hamilton’s personnel are in almost any other facet defensively. CJ Walker can smother drivers out of high pick-and-rolls. Mann’s athleticism and foot speed allow him to corral drivers who attack closeouts and contest shots at the rim. And Angola can ignite transition by forcing turnovers.
Trent Forrest is a subpar defender, but he’s a maestro (1.211 points per possession) at leading the break in a way that CJ Walker is not. And in a lineup that lacks reliable perimeter shooters, you’ll accept M.J. Walker and his defensive lapses because he can knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers (1.105 PPP) or drive to his left to throw on the brakes to get into a mid-range pull-up.
Typically, you could quarantine Forrest and Walker in reserve roles as part of the nine-man rotation Hamilton uses — depth that allows the Seminoles to push the pace and apply unrelenting pressure as teams trudge through their offense. But so far, Hamilton’s been unable to conjure up a combination that works.
Florida State — 3-Point Defense
Nor are the Seminoles’ issues confined to a certain action. And when you consider the bulk of opponent’s 3-point shots come off spot-ups, the Noles are probably allowing closer to 47.8-percent shooting from distance — big problem given the fact Mizzou ranks No. 30 for efficiency (1.06 points per possession) on those offensive sets.
Florida State — 3-Point Defense — Play Type
Instead, Hamilton’s faith in his approach, which has delivered a measure of consistent success at what is otherwise a football school, may be facing a stress test. From 2009 until 2012, its articles helped the Seminoles to top-10 finishes in adjusted efficiency. Players were given precepts to live by for every situation and drilled to be a phalanx of limbs that met you at the rim with a nasty attitude.
But what if the system itself is part of the problem?
Unchain the dog
Throughout his career, Hamilton’s preached a pure gospel of defense as the sport’s ultimate leveling tool.
The first and guiding commandment is simple: thou shalt stop the ball. It’s a system predicated on extending ball pressure, aggressively fronting posts and positioning bodies to shrink gaps and swallow up drivers with the temerity to attack. And when you look at Hamilton’s roster in the flesh, you can see why he’s assertive. He stocks his program with big, long and hyper-athletic wings, promising them an aggressive style intent on assaulting the rim on fastbreaks
Next, imagine sketching an equilateral triangle, its point starting at the top of the key and its sides running to the short corners. This is the “red zone” for FSU and a no-go area for their opponents.
Let’s side aside for a moment and note that this is a more aggressive version of Virginia’s now-fabled Pack Line. Sure, Tony Bennett’s system takes a different tack to positioning, but both systems intend to funnel a dribbler toward the middle of the floor and a platoon of help defenders.
Credit Hamilton, though, for trying a bit of differentiation via branding and dubbing his system the Junkyard Dog. “If you hear some trouble around the fence, all the dogs run there to protect it,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2011. “We don’t want you coming in and stealing parts off of our cars.”
It means no straight-line passes. Want to enter the ball from the wing to the block? You’re free to try, but it’ll be a lob pass or a bounce pass — both which become a 50-50 ball with FSU’s length. On the ball, you give your man an arm’s length of space. Off the ball, your comrades are on the line, up the line and have their “ass to the ball,” according to Hamilton’s rules.
On rotations, you sprint. Closeouts are done with your butt low and hands high, simultaneously halting the drive and obscuring vision. And when you look at how FSU positions itself, overloads are common. If the ball is above the foul line, defenders straddle the lane line with their backs to the other corner. Should it swing below the line, defenders slide to the middle of the lane -- straddling the Rose Line running from rim to rim, with their back to the baseline.
All of this is based on the idea that an FSU defender should be early to help and early to recover. If it looks like the Seminoles are sharks attacking chum in the water, it’s because the earlier you stop penetration, the easier it should be to more time you buy to recover to your man on the outside. You should also use your butt to cheat in, which keeps your torso big and hands above your waist to deflect obscure vision and deflect kick outs.
When you read over notes from coaching clinics, it’s readily apparent Hamilton wants his players to position with their bodies and keep their hands free:
- Curls: One-step hedge, putting a forearm in the screener’s back and use your body to stop the curl, keep an arm in the passing lane and stop the slip
- Penetration: Use your body to stop the dribbler, hands high to block vision
- Screens: Get your body parallel to the sideline to make for a smaller, initiate contact first with the screener and fight like hell to get through
- Stunt-and-Recover: Bluff a wing dribbler by taking a half step in, but keep your butt to the ball, look over their shoulder and be ready to sprint to recover
- Contests: Get lift off, raise your arms and make a maximum effort
As you’ll see, FSU logged quite a few flight plans recently.
The Tape Doesn’t Lie
Evaluating defense on numbers alone strips out context. Tape restores it. Did you turn the ballhandler? Were help defenders in their proper stations? Did trot on a closeout? Or take short, choppy steps and keep your hands above your waist? FSU tracks these metrics on its bench, and it understands that a player can meet the standard Hamilton sets and still see a shot fall.
But when you call up film of Florida State, you can see breakdowns aren’t the byproduct of shooters rising and firing in a phone booth.
Let’s take a look at a possession from the Noles’ victory against Miami.
The Hurricanes call a simple Horns set — two bigs stationed at the elbows and shooters low in the corners — and initiate the possession by showing a simple ball screen.
The problems start as soon as Dewan Huell steps up to set the screen. Forrest doesn’t get hit, but immediately falls into a trail position as Lykes reaches the elbow. Under FSU’s rules, surrounding defenders pinch in, including Cofer, whose supposed to be attached to Bruce Brown in the left corner. Normally, Cofer should stunt-and-recover, taking a half step in to feint giving help. Instead, he commits.
So, FSU has four bodies around the ball, none of which get their hands up to obstruct Brown’s line of sight. And by the time Lykes has kicked the ball out, it’s too late for Cofer to recover.
In the four FSU games I watched, Miami, Pittsburgh, N.C. State and Louisville all exploited FSU’s tendency to over-rotate or overload one side of the floor. Ideally, a rotation leaves a defender one pass away and able to make a controlled close out and contest. Frequently, though, Seminoles wings wind up two-passes away and in a dead run.
Let’s look at a couple more examples, starting with a dribble handoff out of a weave action.
When Huell makes the exchange to Brown on the wing, every FSU defender is on the ball side of the floor. Notice how three ’Canes are on the left wing, too. When Brown makes the turn, it against activates the rapid response mechanism built into Hamilton’s defense. And while it heads off the penetration, Mann is two passes away, the result of being one step too far inside the lane.
When Mann tries to recover on the ball reversal, Miami’s Izundu just gets in the way, giving Lawrence an easy spot-up 3-pointer.
Next, look at this play, which unfolded a minute later.
Again, FSU’s adhering to the rules. On a baseline drive, the defender closest to the ball races to cut off the dribbler, while the next man sinks to be level with the ball. Watch: C.J. Walker bolts to head off Lonnie Walker Jr. as does the Noles’ post. Cool. If Lonnie Walker III wants to hoist up a contested baseline jumper, that’s a shot Hamilton can accept.
Until Angola abandons Lawrence on the wing to give help that’s not needed, landing about the time his man is catching and launching. Because every defender sank to be even with the ball, Mann again takes off for a futile attempt to make Lawrence uncomfortable.
Three weeks later, against a Pitt squad, which finished 0-19 in the ACC, FSU’s poor perimeter defense allowed the Panthers to stalk the Seminoles for 30 minutes. And at times, FSU simply forgot its scouting report, leaving Parker Stewart — a 39-percent 3-point shooter — alone or drifting too far in to recover quickly.
During its road trip to N.C. State, the Seminoles, who are normally at ease getting up and down, struggled to matchup or account for Wolfpack shooters in transition. In the clip below, Forrest lets himself get screened and exerts little effort to fight over the top and contest Allerik Freeman’s 3-pointer -- an action that Kassius Robertson and Jeremiah Tilmon could easily mimic this evening.
And nine minutes into the second half, we see again how easily you can exploit Florida State’s tendency to overload one side of the floor. Freeman’s penetration sucks five defenders to the paint, while his flip pass to Markell Johnson puts Angola in a frantic close out. No one, though, accounted for Sam Hunt.
Look at how post Mfiondu Kabengele races into the picture, while Forrest darts from the from baseline. Hunt’s already at the apex of his shot of those Noles are jumping to contest his jumper.
And just for fun, another set where FSU rallies to the ball and leaves a stationary shooter alone in the corner. For all of M.J. Walker’s flailing, Hunt drilled his fourth 3-pointer of the second half of the Wolfpack’s 92-72 win, an outing where they shot 13 of 22 from the 3-point line.
Will Mizzou take advantage?
All week, we’re remained fixated on how Mizzou will cope with the absence of Jordan Barnett, who’s suspended for this one. When MU flipped on its own film in the wake of a 62-60 loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament, it saw a team struggling to find its rhythm as it reintegrated Michael Porter Jr. into the rotation
For the Georgia game, [Missouri coach Cuonzo] Martin planned to make Porter more of a spot-up perimeter shooter and didn’t envision him initiating the offense or doing much dribbling on the arc. On a couple of plays, the Tigers ran a series of double screens for Porter near the free throw line that freed him for open 3-point shots. Twice Robertson found him for open looks under the basket. Jordan Geist and Porter ran a few two-man pick-and-pops at the top of the key that created open jumpers.
How Martin deploys Porter Jr. remains unclear and dependent on how much additional rust MPJ knocked off over the past week. Its personnel, though, are well-equipped to capitalize on FSU’s issues. Robertson can spot-up on the wing, or quickly into his shot on high ball-screens and handoffs. Jontay Porter can pull bigs away from the rim and punish defenses on pick-and-pops and roll-and-replace actions. Meanwhile, Porter’s also an obvious perimeter threat.
What remains to be seen: Can they find a way to leverage and overload FSU on one side of the floor? When healthy, MPJ would be an ideal candidate to move the defense off the bounce. But has he rounded back into form? Robertson has shown an improved knack for driving the ball, but he’s not a natural distributor. And while Jontay Porter thrives passing from the block and mid-post, FSU’s defense is geared toward overrunning those spots.
If Martin and his staff can gin up some solutions, they can bury FSU in a long-distance barrage.