Tim Welsh has now completed nine years as the coach of the Providence College Friars. If there has been a constant theme during his nine years at PC, its been late season fades and lack of postseason tournament success.
The numbers are both stark and disturbing. PC under Welsh is 1-8 in Big East Tournaments, 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament, and 2-3 in the NIT after this season's loss to Bradley in the opening round. In addition, the Friars have suffered a number of disheartening losses in early March prior to the start of the Big East Tournament. These are the facts that have created an uproar among Friar fans who crave postseason success and focus on the month of March as though the entire basketball season is played in that month.
So… what is the problem? Why do Tim Welsh teams seem to fade down the stretch and have little postseason success to talk about?
The answer is not a mystery. In fact, there are a number of reasons, but the big one… the monster under the bed… is obvious. And the monster's name is: Defense.
When Tim Welsh took the Providence job, his teams played mostly man to man defense, and his early teams were spearheaded by one of the toughest on the ball defenders to ever come down the pike – John Linehan. Linehan was a ball hawk who disrupted other team's offenses almost singlehandedly, and Welsh rarely had to resort to other defenses while Linehan was on the team.
After Linehan graduated in 2002, the Friars continued to play man to man defense, but with less success. In fact, Welsh switched to a 2-3 zone at halftime against St. John's in February of 2003, and the switch sparked a run through the remainder of the regular season, and gave Welsh his only postseason success in the Big East Tournament and the NIT.
That team was made for the 2-3 zone, with athletic, long defenders like Rob Sanders and Rome Augustin on the wings and a shotblocker named Marcus Douthit in the middle. Led by All-American forward Ryan Gomes, PC stayed with the zone throughout the 2003-04 season and rode it to a #12 national ranking, before Pittsburgh and Boston College smashed through the zone in March, and the Friars continued to stumble in the Big East Tournament and NCAAs.
Since the end of the 2004 season, the Friars have been a bad defensive team. For the most part, PC has stuck with the 2-3 zone, playing a soft, passive zone that allows opponents to get the ball to the foul line easily, and from there, the baseline, or back out to the perimeter for open threes. At times, PC has played a 3-2 zone or a 1-3-1, but there has been little trapping or pressing, and when the Friars have gone to man to man, too often PC is caught back on their heels and opponents are able to take the ball by them or free up for open shots. Lastly, there have been recognition problems and insistence in staying in one defense for overly long periods of time.
Why is this a problem in March? It's actually a problem throughout the season, but it becomes far more evident in March.
Games are played with much more intensity in March. Teams ratchet up the defensive pressure in March as they play for their seasons, and while Providence might sneak by with soft defense in December or January or early February, there is no way to mask defensive defiencies in late February or March. Defense is what wins in March, and in postseason tournaments. Defense wins championships.
Which brings up the final question: What to do about it?
Certainly there are personnel issues at work here. To press effectively, you need a deep bench because players tend to wear down more rapidly. Playing man to man also is more tiring, makes players more prone to foul trouble, and also requires a deeper bench. That is a luxury that PC hasn't had in recent years. In addition, the Friars have two short guards out on the perimeter in Sharaud Curry and Dwain Williams, making PC an easy target in their zone for taller wings to shoot over, which is the way West Virginia attacked the defense. But John Linehan was short, and that was never a detriment to his defense.
PC needs to become a more aggressive defensive team; one that exerts pressure on other teams and exerts its will on other teams. In short, PC needs to scrap the zone as its primary weapon of choice on defense and make a commitment to playing tough, aggressive, on the ball man to man defense, utilizing presses and traps. Show different looks on the traps and presses, switch up defenses on consecutive trips down the floor. Keep the opponents guessing. That needs to become a Friar trademark.
Can the coaching staff teach effective defense? That is an open question at this point. Certainly, the staff has not done a good job teaching defense over the past three years when PC has ranked near the bottom in the Big East in defense. Either that, or the players aren't buying in, but this seems to be a good group of kids who are eager to learn and have the ability to play effective defense. So, what to do?
In the summer of 2005, Penn State's football team, once a perennial power, was coming off its third losing season in the last four years. Joe Paterno realized that his defense had played pretty well, but the offense was overmatched and struggled to score. In one game, Penn State had lost to Iowa by a 6-4 score… the defense had played exceptionally well, and the game was there for the taking, but the offense couldn't score, and Penn State's only points came from two safetys.
Paterno also knew that he had a very athletic senior quarterback by the name of Michael Robinson, who had a cannon of an arm but could also beat you with his legs. In short, Robinson was a poor man's version of Texas' star quarterback Vince Young.
So, Paterno sent his offensive coordinator Galen Hall, and the entire set of offensive coaches, to Austin, Texas, where they would meet with the University of Texas coaching staff. For two weeks, Penn State's assistants picked the brains of Texas' assistants, watched film together, studied plays, talked strategy… and then the Penn State assistants returned home and installed Texas' "Vince Young" offense for Michael Robinson to run.
The result was a resounding success. Robinson had a superb season, finally comfortable in the offense and Penn State rolled to an 11-1 record and the #3 final ranking. Following the season, with Robinson graduating, Paterno knew that he had a more traditional, pocket-passer waiting in the wings, and he sent his assistants to Indianapolis, where they studied and implemented the Colts' "Peyton Manning" offense for his new quarterback, resulting in a 9-4 season and a bowl win over Tennessee.
The time has come for PC's staff to do something similar. Just as Tim Welsh has exorted his players to get better during the off-season, the coaching staff must get better, too. Learning is a process that never stops – even for those at the top of their profession – and the staff should make use of its many contacts and off-season time by learning new methods and ways of teaching defense.
In the past, coaches like Jim Boeheim have been a mentor, but this staff needs to forget about the 2-3 zone, except as a change of pace defense… PC will probably never have the athletes to play the zone the way Boeheim's teams do. Make a commitment to man-to-man, go outside of the league, and spend time with other staffs that are known for their commitment to defense and their ability to teach defense. Bring their ideas and methods back to Providence, and implement new ways of teaching and new ways of playing attacking man to man defense. A fresh approach and different methodology in the form of improved teaching can only help.
Do these things to improve the defense and the wins in March will surely come.
Coming next: Demystifying the motion offense
Defensive Woes Sabotage The Month Of March
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