Why does hoops defense get a bad rap?

IN FOOTBALL, DEFENSE is exalted. The hard hitting safety, the sack hungry linebacker, the d-lineman who refuses to be blocked. And the coordinator or head coach who so successfully schemes to shut down a potent offense is hailed as brilliant -- a genius, even. But in basketball, great defense has opposing head coaches complaining and articles being written about "winning ugly." Surely, they jest.

This week, with Washington State gearing up to play No. 1 seeded North Carolina (4:27 pm PT on Thursday), one of the hotter topics has been about coaching and defense. Specifically, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams and his previously declared disdain for the defense perfected by Dick Bennett.

CRIMSON COMMENTARY

To understand the context, you have to go back to 2000. Wisconsin played Michigan State in the Final Four. The Spartans won, 53-41, but the story at the break was Michigan State led at halftime, 19-17.

A full seven months later, the next season in fact, Williams' Kansas Jayhawks beat UCLA, 99-98 and after the game, Williams used the occasion to mock the Wisconsin style.

"Are you going to tell me you didn't like this more than 19-17 at halftime?" Williams said. "I'm not a nuclear physicist, but you make the choice. We're trying to make it a game of basketball skills, not a weight-room contest."

Asked about it this week, Williams praised the elder Bennett. But he didn't appreciate the question, apparently.

"Don't play games," Williams said. "The number of people who enjoy seeing 19-18 (actually 19-17) is not as many as the number of people who like to see 61-60. If you want to take a poll, you would pick 61-60. So I made a truthful statement, and Dick understood it. He knows I love the way they play defense. I will still say I like 19-18, O.K.? But I like 61-60 better."

Here's another view.

IF WILLIAMS WERE coaching at a mid-major instead of Carolina, he'd love Wisconsin's defense. It would enable him to compete against more athletic teams. And since he used the extreme example of 19-17 at the half, another poll begs. Would 'ol Roy, as he likes to call himself, rather see a Paul Westhead coached team score 119 points and surrender 130?

I'll take instead a steal or three by Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low. A block by Robbie Cowgill, an immovable object in Aron Baynes. An in your face swat by Ivory Clark and a dive after a loose ball by Taylor Rochestie. I'll take any and all of those over a run and gun, please put me on Sportscenter fast break dunk and I'll do so any day of the week and twice on Selection Sunday.

Make no mistake about it, Dick Bennett is a basketball genius. His pack defense is one other coaches with more athletic talent have found difficult to overcome and his teams execute at a level other coaches pine for -- and that's where the real truth lies here.

IT ALSO COULD be telling that in 1998-99, the season before Wisconsin's Final Four, Sports Illustrated asked 115 coaches if they could go to only one coach's clinic, who's would it be?

Dick Bennett tied for third with Bobby Knight, behind Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Majerus. Roy Williams didn't make the top five. That fifth slot went to Bill Carmody of Princeton.

North Carolina circa 2007-08 is an outstanding basketball team. Hardly anyone is picking Washington State to pull the upset -- and probably with good reason. The Tar Heels are wickedly fast and their athleticism is off the charts. Many have said this one could be over early -- Carolina is just that good.

But the real kicker is that the better athletes you have, the better the pack defense can become. And the better the athletes, the more they can also run on offense -- not a lot, they still have to get back on transition D -- but enough to make a difference.

What happens if Tony Bennett continues to get better and better athletes -- and he took a good-sized step up this last recruiting class...what happens if they have the same kind of character and "buy in" the same way as have Weaver, Low, Cowgill, Baynes, Rochestie, Daven Harmeling and others have?

That notion probably doesn't sit well with the basketball schools who have their pick of the most athletic players coming out of high school: Great athletes and they'd still play that kind of stifling defense? Game on. So perhaps instead of Williams complaining about other schools who dare to play a style different than what gives him the best chance to win, maybe he should do something else.

Scheme better. Exercise the coaching muscle between the ears. Win by being smarter. If he's a great coach, shouldn't he be able to outscheme the other guy's best?

AND IF THAT doesn't work, Mr. Williams is certainly welcome to take heed of his own advice.

Just last month, Duke's Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils don't discuss injuries "unlike other schools". Although Coach K never mentioned the Tar Heels, Williams felt the statement was directed at North Carolina, which was coming off an inordinate number of injuries and ailments the prior two weeks, and he took considerable umbrage to it.

Williams blasted away on his weekly radio show, saying others should "coach their own damn team, I'll coach my team."

Damn right! But shouldn't that also go both ways, coach?

And Roy? Don't forget to coach your own damn team about defense. I'm just saying.


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