When Dino Gaudio became the coach at Wake Forest in 2008, he sought a defensive identity for his team. Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey, then a Wake Forest assistant, remembers the Demon Deacons coaching staff consulting with a number of defensive coaching gurus throughout the country, before settling on the pack line defense.
Upon becoming a head coach, Kelsey stuck with the pack line, saying on Wednesday, “I believe in it.” The scheme is generally a conservative defense that crowds the paint and tries to gum up the opposition’s offense, but doesn’t stretch beyond the 3-point arc. It isn’t a defense known for producing turnovers, though Winthrop is doing its best this season to belie that assumption. The Eagles’ steal and blocked shot numbers are way up from Kelsey’s previous two years.
“I really think it comes from activity,” he said. “I tell our guys that when we’re playing defense the way we’re supposed to play, it’s almost like there is six and a half men on the floor because we’re two places at once with your activity and the floor looks what we call sticky. I think that activity is the way we’re getting a lot of steals.”
The Eagles (8-9, 3-3 Big South) hit the road after Wednesday’s practice to take on Liberty on Thursday in Lynchburg, Va. The Flames (6-13, 0-6) have plunged from the heights of their surprise NCAA tournament bid in 2013, losing their first six Big South games this season. Turnovers have been the blood-sucking tick that Dale Layer’s team can’t flick loose, and its offensive efficiency ranks 350th in NCAA (out of 351 teams), according to KenPom.com.
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Liberty junior point guard Joe Retic struggled through the first 12 games before injuring his foot in a loss to UNC Asheville on Jan. 8. The situation worsened without him; the Flames have given the ball away 55 times in the three games since Retic’s mishap. With its point guard sidelined, Liberty was left with four freshmen in the backcourt.
“It’s difficult, but, hey, it’s life,” Layer told the Lynchburg News-Advance after Retic’s injury. “You’ve got to battle adversity. There are guys who want to play more minutes, and they’ve got to step up and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Liberty’s struggles equal opportunity for Kelsey’s squad. When Winthrop turns over its Big South opponent on 20 percent of their possessions or more, it’s 3-0; when the Eagles don’t, they are 0-3. Only three teams in the country turn the ball over on a higher percentage of possessions than Liberty (26 percent), making the Flames an opponent that could entice Winthrop to stretch its defensive activity beyond the 3-point arc in search of extra possessions and easy buckets. But don’t count on it.
“We don’t shoot gaps, we’re not a denial team,” said sophomore wing Josh Davenport, who is one of Winthrop’s leading basketball thieves in about 16 minutes of playing time per game.
That’s an advantage of playing one defense consistently: everyone – players and coaches – knows what happened when something goes wrong. After an 85-77 home loss to Radford last Saturday, in which the Eagles allowed a season-high of nearly 1.3 points per possession, Winthrop’s coaches didn’t have to spend hours searching for answers because of their familiarity with the pack line. Fans and media could be critical of that approach, but the goal is for the expertise in one defensive system to pay off during the conference tournament in March.
The increased steals have been an unexpected positive. They derive from “ball pressure, deflections, stuff like that,” said Davenport. The jump in blocked shots has been a more obvious boost, though, and one the coaching staff was hoping for with 6-foot-8 freshman Duby Okeke coming off a redshirt season.
From 2002 to 2010, Winthrop finished in the top-100 in blocked shot percentage each season. The high came when Gregg Marshall’s 2003 team – featuring shot swatters like Craig Bradshaw, Billy Houston and Tyrone Walker – finished 10th in the country in that stat, the percentage of the opponent’s shots that the defense blocks.
This year’s bunch isn’t up to that level, but Okeke and 6-foot-7 true freshman Xavier Cooks have added rim protection to a Winthrop lineup that lacked those qualities the last few years. Okeke and Cooks have both blocked 29 shots in 17 games and are tied for third-best in the Big South in that category.
“There’s more length than last year,” said Davenport. “Duby pretty much cleans up the mess. He’s a clean up guy.”
Okeke and Cooks are a luxury many teams in the Big South don’t have, and they’re both freshmen. But if Winthrop is crowding the floor defensively, minding its defensive gaps and closing out on shooters with raised arms, it shouldn’t need shot-blocking rim-sweepers. If Winthrop fulfills its “do what we do” philosophy that Kelsey espouses endlessly, it should be able to make Liberty do what it’s been doing lately: turn the ball over en route to a defeat.