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Early Season Ball Screen Defense

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Week one was certainly a roller coaster of emotions for the Pittsburgh Panthers (1-1, 1-0). What started off as a good feeling after their home victory against the Florida State Seminoles, was quickly replaced by a disappointing loss to the Nicholls State Colonels (1-1). Of course it’s early in the season, so there’s definitely going to be some growing pains, and that applies to every team.

In regards to this breakdown, and hopefully future breakdowns, it serves as a way to track improvements or regression, both individually and as a team. Keep in mind for this first one that we’re talking about analyzing a two game sample, and those two games are the first two games of the season.

With that said, I am going to take a look at ball screen defense, as there were a few questions about the ball screen defense that Pitt was facing after their loss to Nicholls State. That’s likely because the Panthers haven’t been very successful running ball screens to start the year, unlike the early part of last season.

To start a lot of their possessions or after a stagnant first 10 seconds or so, a Pitt front court player will set a back screen a good 5-12 feet above the three-point line in an effort to free sophomore guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens into space with plenty of runway. By setting the screen directly behind (usually), the guards can read the defense and potentially go either direction with the ball.

Johnson mixes things up by not always waiting for the screen to be set, especially if he feels the defense shows their hand too early. McGowens uses the screen more, but still lacks the handle that enables a consistent, hard first dribble towards the basket. In both cases, the screen setter is pretty much a non-option to receive a pass that far away from the basket, and the defenses they’ve faced are keen to that.

Florida State consistently defended ball screens in the first half by fighting over the screen with the help defender containing with space underneath, ignoring the roll man altogether. The Seminoles fought to force the ball handler laterally and towards the sidelines, using the sideline as a third defender

This worked quite well against McGowens as he likes to pick up his dribble as he reaches the sideline (clip 1 & clip 5 below), and doesn’t have a great feel of how to navigate into the lane without a full head of steam (clip 4). Johnson handles the pressure much better, but anytime the defense forces him to move east and west (clip 2) it’s a win. Forcing him left and into a ton of help was the next best thing, as he likes to work the ball back to his right hand (clip 3).

In the second half, FSU switched a lot of ball screens, usually allowing junior guard Rayquan Evans to defend one-on-one. Switching into a 6’4” athletic guard is a luxury that not every team has.

The Colonels took Florida State’s first half plan to another level on Saturday. They trapped early (clip 1) and used the same fight over the top and contain underneath tactic throughout the game, especially against McGowens. Against Johnson they made him operate out of a telephone booth in ball screen situations, applying as much pressure from both defenders as possible (clips 2 & 3). Johnson is very good in space and uses the law of inertia when it comes to help defenders to his advantage (clip 4) if the defense isn’t disciplined; he’s more likely to make a team pay if he sees a similar situation and defensive look (clips 3 to 4).

Of course the early season ball screen issues can’t fall squarely on shoulders of the second year backcourt. Both forwards, junior Terrell Brown and graduate transfer Eric Hamilton could be a little sharper. Still, the players with the ball in their hands can make a screener look really good or awfully bad. Between Brown and Hamilton, they’ve only committed one offensive foul on screens in two games, so I am inclined to think the decisions being made before, during and after the screens are set are more the issue.

Until those issues are worked out, I’d expect every team to keep building upon what they’re seeing on film and that will start with Andy Toole and the Robert Morris Colonials (0-2) tomorrow night.

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