Athletic big men changing the way college teams play defense

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              Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens (11) blocks a shot by Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman during the first half in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Michigan State thought it had a mismatch. Thanks to a switch by Texas Tech’s defense, Xavier Tillman was being guarded by a smaller player in the post.

The Spartans worked the ball around, got it into Tillman and the 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward tried to bull his way to the basket.

Swat!

Swinging in from the weak side of the defense, Texas Tech’s Tariq Owens swooped in, reached out his long right arm and sent the shot back where it came from.

Advantage: Red Raiders.

“They switch everything, so now you think, ‘we have an advantage down low because they’ve got big on little,’ but you really don’t because they’ve got Owens coming from the weak side sitting on that,” Sacramento State coach Brian Katz said on Sunday. “The post guy is fixated on the little guy because he’s going one on one, but he’s really not.”

Basketball big men have gone through a metamorphasis in recent years.

The plodding, paint-filling big has become nearly extinct, replaced by long, athletic players who can shoot, dribble and beat defenders off the bounce. The new-era big man has opened up the game, making it more high scoring and free flowing.

They’re also changing the way teams play defense.

An athletic big man allows teams to switch on every screen without creating massive mismatches, and to have a rim protector who doesn’t have to be camped under the basket to block shots.

Kentucky was one of the first switch-everything teams in 2011-12, Anthony Davis and his fellow long, long-limbed teammates giving teams fits on their way to the national championship.

Texas Tech has taken a nearly identical approach, with the 6-10 Owens playing a similar defensive role as Davis and a host of comparably sized players harassing opponents all the way into the national title game Monday night against Virginia.

The Cavaliers, annually one of the nation’s best defensive teams, have an equally-disruptive big man in 6-9 Mamadi Diakite, who has the athleticism to switch on the perimeter and soar in for blocks.

“When you can play good defense, but you have some length or shot blocking behind it, it just adds another element to being harder to score against,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.

These athletic shot blockers also can cause an offensive killer: hesitation.

Traditionally, a mismatch in the post would lead to a quick move by the bigger player or a kickout when a double team comes.

Now, knowing an athletic shot blocker is lurking on the weak side, there’s a pause as the post player sorts out what to do. The hesitation leads to offensive stagnancy and allows the defense to ramp up the pressure.

Even if the post player takes advantage of the mismatch and scores at the rim a couple of times, coaches no longer overreact and change the way they play defense.

“When you switch out hard and take away the 3 and they score inside, well, it’s only a 2. It’s not a 3,” Katz said. “Four years ago I wouldn’t have said that. Used to be, when you’re coaching and a guy scores down low, there was a tendency to react to that. Now you kind of go, eh, it’s just a 2, no big deal.”

The changes in defensive approaches have altered what programs look for on the recruiting trail.

“We recruit to shot-blocking. That’s not normal. Not everyone does that,” said Russ Turner, who led UC Irvine to a first-round win over Kansas State in this year’s NCAA Tournament. “We don’t draw charges, we block shots. Not that you have to do one or the other, but we put more emphasis on blocking shots. It’s just another way to look at it.”

In a copycat world of college basketball, the success of teams like Virginia and Texas Tech will certainly lead to more coaches looking at it that way.