What Florida’s Full Court Pressing Defense Could Look Like

    With a pressing defense being promised by Mike White expectations are high that Florida won’t be an easy team to play against. Pressing is about making opponents uncomfortable, ideally forcing a turnover but if nothing else bleeding time of the shot clock while the opposition used more energy than normal simply to get the ball over center court.

    White’s Louisiana Tech teams were known for pressing and that likely gives us the best example of what we should expect when the Gators pick up 94 feet this season. While White was in Ruston for four seasons, I mostly looked at his final two years as that was when he was able to get in his guys that he recruited to his system. That should give the best possible demonstrations of the press which should give us an indication of what to expect for the Gators.

    Let’s start with the numbers. In four seasons Louisiana Tech was really successful, posting better numbers when pressing then when not. Here were their points per possession allowed when pressing, as well as their percentage of defensive possessions played in the press in brackets.

    2012: 0.76 (18.1%)
    2013: 0.69 (26.4%)
    2014: 0.71 (29.9%)
    2015: 0.71 (29%)

    As you can see, there was a lot of consistency with their press effectiveness as those points per possession numbers each year are fantastic. It’s also worth noting that those percentages don’t tell the whole story of how much Louisiana Tech pressed. For starters, on most missed shots it’s tough to press, so many of those possessions they weren’t able to pick up full court. As well, any time there was a foul or out of bounds when the Bulldogs were defending in the halfcourt and there was a baseline or sideline out of bounds they obviously don’t have the opportunity to full court press because, well, the full court isn’t in play. For that reason there was probably only a total of 50% or so of total possessions where it was possible to play a press so as you can see, they pressed on a majority of those opportunities.

    The press most used by Louisiana Tech is what is commonly known in coaching circles as the run and jump press. Oftentimes this starts with a player guarding the inbounder, ideally trying to influence a wide pass to one of the corners. The corner is a bad spot to be for a ball handler as both the sideline and endline become second and third defenders and gives a great opportunity for a trap. Once the ball is inbounded, the player guarding the inbounder runs to doublet team the player who caught the ball. If the ball gets reversed a second trap can occur on the opposite side of the floor, though often a reverse will trigger each defensive player returning to their checks and simply sticking tight to them and playing prototypical full court man-to-man pressure.

    A goal of this style of press is to force long passes. When pressing, defenders always have a particular place to be and when the ball is passed everyone’s job is to move during the flight of the ball. The more a pass is lobbed, the more time there is for the defense to recover. Additionally, these lobbed passes can turn into interceptions. Here are a few clips of the press working to perfection.

    In these clips you will also see a bit more of a conservative zone press at times, something that could very well be the more effective press at the SEC level. Often the Bulldogs went out in a 2-2-1 three-quarter court press, using their length to once again force long passes. The 2-2-1 also allowed for traps on the sideline, but that wasn’t the only time they were looking for steals.

    In the 2-2-1 alignment Coach White loved collapsing on the middle of the floor when passes were funneled there in the press.

    Let’s talk about breaking a press for a second. Obviously, teams are going to want to inbound the rock to their best ball handler. While he’s got the ball in his hands, usually the second and third best ball handlers go wide to either sideline as options to have the ball swung to. When those options are taken away, it’s usually the job of the power forward to sprint back to the ball down the middle of the floor as a release valve when the rest of the press isn’t working. Louisiana Tech loved denying the sideline passes to quality ball handlers and instead allowing the ball to go to the middle where they could converge from multiple angles. Because the primary, secondary, and tertiary ball handlers are along the outside, the player getting the pass in the middle of the floor is usually a frontcourt player who wants no part of handling the ball against a press. As well, when the ball is passed to the middle of the floor that means Louisiana Tech could swarm him from multiple angles. Watch White’s Bulldogs generate a bunch of turnovers this way.

    Whenever a team plays a press there is always the fear of allowing easy buckets. Whether it’s a talented ball handler knifing through the pressure or a pinpoint hail mary pass making it over the top of the defense, presses can be vulnerable to allowing easy points.

    Here is what was potentially the most interesting part of White’s Louisiana Tech defenses.

    They hardly allowed easy points while pressing.

    No, seriously, I mean hardly.

    When I do consulting for basketball teams there is a term I use called “critical error” to describe a breakdown that allows an easy bucket (stolen from the soccer analytics world who use the term to describe an error so egregious it solely allows for a goal). Obviously when pressing, you want your number of critical errors to be far less than your amount of turnovers generated, or tough shots forced.

    I watched every pressing possession that Louisiana Tech had in White’s last two seasons there. 1357 possessions.

    In those two years, I counted a total of 17 “critical errors” where a colossal failure occurred that allowed an easy layup or completely uncontested three. Yes, there were times where they got scrambled and allowed quality shots but they were at least somewhat contested. Truthfully, I went into research for this feature expecting to see regular breakdowns that allowed layups, something I would need to chart and figure out an equation to find out if pressing was really worth it based off these colossal errors that would occur from time to time. But nope.

    I was in awe. One critical error every 80 possessions or so. Or, less than one every two games. This really speaks to just how good these Louisiana Tech teams were at pressing, and it speaks to Coach White and his staff for coaching this style of defense that seldom collapsed.

    Here are a couple of the breakdowns I found for a few examples of what can go wrong.

    Teams that had success against the press often weren’t looking for the home run pass over the top to beat it, they moved the ball slowly and methodically, waiting for the doubles to come before intentionally moving the ball schematically to work it to open shooters. This would be one of my concerns when it comes to Florida pressing in the SEC. There are so many good coaches in the league and so many experienced ball handlers that they’ll be comfortable moving slowly and methodically, waiting for the traps from the Gators to come, and then having a plan of attack to use a couple of passes to get a wide open shot.

    Pressing is all about speeding up your opponents and making them make errors. Look at some of the clips from earlier in the videos shared. You can see the terror in the eyes of some of the ball handlers and you can see utter discomfort in their body language. You can tell they wanted the ball out of their hands like it was a live grenade, something that often forced them into bad decisions with the ball. Will that happen with SEC guards? Maybe some, but largely not.

    Here’s another thing, something you’ll notice in the clips shared. Louisiana Tech was blessed with two point guards absolutely perfect for the press in Kenneth “Speedy” Smith and Raheem Appleby (brother of Tyree Appleby). Smith was 6’3”, while Appleby was 6’4”. Smith was one of the fastest players in the country (thus the nickname) and Appleby was incredibly athletic. An example of that:

    And, both players were also really long.

    Without exaggeration, in probably 95% of games they played under White Smith and Appleby were:

    Longer than their opponent.

    Faster than their opponent.

    More athletic than their opponent.

    In the 5% of games they weren’t they probably checked two of those three boxes.

    Now, let’s think of Florida’s point guards in Tre Mann, Tyree Appleby, and Ques Glover.

    In most SEC matchups Mann will be longer, he’ll be nearly as fast, and more athletic than most opponents. Appleby and Glover will likely be faster in some of the matchups, but will almost never be longer or that much more athletic. Additionally, even though those players will check some of those boxes the margin won’t be as large as it was for Speedy Smith and Raheem Appleby against Conference USA competition.

    There is definitely still some reason for skepticism when it comes to Florida as a heavy pressing team but a look back at Louisiana Tech’s press gives a good example of what it could look like. “Controlled chaos” is a term that has been used to describe Louisiana Tech’s press defense and is one that has come up in Florida’s practices. That led me to think the Louisiana Tech press was going to be hectic, scrappy, and confusing for opponents but much to my surprise (pleasantly, I might add), it wasn’t. It was methodical, it was cerebral, and most of all, it was measured. On the spectrum of control to chaos it was far more on the side of control, and that gives some hope that it will work at the SEC.

    We have seen a number of attempts to bring a pressing style of defense from the mid major to high major ranks fail, most notably Will Wade at LSU and Shaka Smart at Texas, both of whom came from the famous VCU press. The thing with that style of press was that it was far more chaos than it was control. Trying to bring that chaos to the high major level against elite guards simply wasn’t going to work. However, could White’s much more controlled contain-the-ball style of press work? We’ll have to see, though watching his Louisiana Tech teams demonstrate it was awfully impressive.

    Eric Fawcett
    Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.