It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Panthers (12-13, 2-10), losers of eight straight, are struggling to find their footing. Even during their 2-2 start there were signs that Pitt would eventually come back to earth, although not everyone saw them hitting the ground this hard. If you asked someone a month ago what might lead to a potential losing streak, they likely would have told you their zone offense.
But here’s an actual secret for you: Teams have figured out how to contain the Panthers with their man-to-man defense, specifically freshman guard Xavier Johnson. My previous article on how teams were defending Johnson was based on the non-conference portion of the schedule. There simply wasn’t a lot of valuable tape out outside of the games against the Iowa Hawkeyes and the West Virginia Mountaineers.
That’s changed. Let’s take a look at this defensive evolution.
Coming out of non-conference play, teams had more or less abandoned having Johnson’s defender go under screens. One, his defender seldom got back in position to curtail dribble penetration, and two, Johnson was shooting 42.5% (20-47) on three-pointers and showed a willingness to shoot them.
Instead, during the first few ACC games, teams consistently sent Johnson’s defender over screens and tried to hedge with the big involved in the action. The hedge seldom worked as intended. The timing just wasn’t there for teams: Too early and aggressive Johnson essentially blew by statues as they got caught fighting perpetual motion. Too late and it gave Johnson space to square-up and attack a slow-footed big.
Even if Johnson didn’t split the defense, hedges inconsistently forced him to move laterally for more than a dribble. As a result, finding the rolling screen setter wasn’t an issue and Johnson was usually still able to get going downhill. Although, junior forward Kene Chukwuka and sophomore forward Terrell Brown were and are hardly locks to convert a layup.
The best teams were able to do with the hedge was force him into a mid-range shot of sorts, but those were few and far between. I’d almost label them as accidental good fortune, especially the floater against the North Carolina Tar Heels, as that isn’t a bad attempt despite the low amount Johnson had taken.
Okay, so the help was late by Garrison Brooks of North Carolina, but they stumbled onto something in the second half. The Florida State Seminoles built on that with their big straight-up playing Johnson coming off the screen with his defender arriving moments after with trailing help. The big shaded back into the paint to take away the roll man, and Pitt ended up with a problem on their hands.
Notice that most of the successful clips from the Panthers perspective were all early in the game, while all the successful defensive clips were in the second half (Louisville Cardinals actually got worse)? Well, by the time the Duke Blue Devils came to town, teams were done experimenting and just went with a version of the Florida State formula from the start.
Duke also gave Johnson his first taste of ICE defense on the screen-and-roll at the collegiate level. They basically didn’t let Johnson even attempt to use the screen by having his defender step over, while the big straight-up played the drive and invited a mid-range shot. The Blue Devils didn’t need to sag freshman sensation Zion Williamson off of Johnson for obvious reasons. The second clip was also against the zone, and Pitt hadn’t had much success in their screen-and-roll game against it anyway.
Side Note: This defense was popular in the NBA around 6-7 years ago as teams didn’t want explosive point guards to use screens while also inviting mid-range shots (thanks advanced analytics). Coincidentally, that gave rise to the stretch-4, as uncontested three-pointers were are very available shot against that defense.
The Panthers don’t have a stretch-4; Chukwuka and Brown are currently shooting 21.8% (7-32) on three-pointers for the season.
Teams around the middle of the pack or lower in the conference this month haven’t consistently been as disciplined in their approach. One adjustment Johnson made was to not attack the big and instead take a dribble back to create some space and find the rolling screen setter under the basket.
Still, teams were more than willing to play the percentages on whether or not the rolling player would convert the layup. Brown continues to struggle in this area, although his hands have improved from earlier in the year.
There also wasn’t a guarantee that the rolling screen setter will be available for a pass, especially if Johnson’s defender slides back in front of him and gets his hands up, eliminating the over-the-top pass.
To be clear, I am not saying teams won’t continue to play zone against Pitt for extended stretches. That’s a proven and vetted defensive strategy. With that said, no current conference opponent plays a zone defense virtually 100% of the time. The good teams can use it effectively when needed, and the bad teams at least practice it. But for the entire month of February, teams have effectively used their man-to-man defense against the Panthers. If they don’t have to go out of their comfort zone, they aren’t going to.
This could and might become an entire article, but the regression of freshman guard Trey McGowens has a lot to do with that as well.