The Defense Under Lorenzo Romar


Most people have felt since the beginning that the defensive schemes under Lorenzo Romar have been the real strength of his teams. Sure, they give up a lot of points. But, that has been primarily a product of the quick tempo of the team on offense and the sheer number of possessions each team gets in a game. This active and aggressive man-to-man defense has been the scourge against teams who are less athletic and do not have the depth that the Huskies have had traditionally. It wears teams out, allows for the offense to get out into transition after rebounds or turnovers, and definitely has been part of the identity of these Romar teams.

But, there does appear to have been a slow decline in the effectiveness of this defense in the last couple of years. Teams are beginning to figure out how to beat this man-to-man defense. One strategy opposing teams employ is an active offense where players are moving around, coming off screens, and allowing isolation to develop. By spreading themselves out and allowing isolation, they can get the matchups on offense that are most advantageous.

Since the current Husky squad has shown itself to be a bit slow in lateral movement, teams have been taking advantage of that. Opposing players are beating our players off the dribble (especially Gaddy and Ross) and inside players use good footwork to simply slip by Aziz or Gant for easy buckets underneath. Nate Wolters at South Dakota State, Deonte Burton at Nevada, and Orlando Johnson at UC Santa Barbara are just three of the point guards that have killed Gaddy and Wroten off the dribble to get to the hoop, drive-and-dish, or step back to drop a three pointer. Even previously reliable CJ Wilcox is getting beat on defense.

For instance, an opposing point guard will make a quick move to the basket from the top of the key leaving Abdul Gaddy in his wake. Since the other defensive players are spread out away from the ball as they cover their men in this quasi-isolation play, their ability to rotate into the middle to stop the driving player is compromised. But, even when they are able to pick up the driving guard, they have left their man open so the guard can drop it off for a wide open 3-pointer, nice mid-range jumper, or inside take to the basket.  In otherwords, teams are doing to the Huskies what I wish the Huskies could do on offense themselves.

Last year, when Romar realized that teams were coming up with ways to take advantage of the weaknesses of a man-to-man defense, he began to slowly implement a zone. Zone defenses are particularly effective against teams who have a slashing point guard who is able to get into the paint or a dominant big man who can post up and embarrass defenders inside. But, where the zones have weaknesses are against good 3-point shooting teams.

An offense that is good at the inside-out game can dish it to a perimeter players when the zone collapses on a slashing player or big man. Unfortunately, this is what I was hoping Aziz would be able to do when he came to Washington at the same times teams were figuring out that implementing a zone defense was effective at slowing our offense. All Aziz needs to do is catch the ball inside and then pass out to an open Wilcox or Ross for an open shot. However, Aziz (like MBA before him) seems incapable of passing out once the ball goes inside (if he can hold onto the initial pass)…But, I digress.

Against a team like Nevada, where Deonte Burton was absolutely abusing the Husky defense, a good defense to implement would be the box-and-1. You put your best guard defender on their player. But, everyone else holds their ground. You dare the team to go away from their hot hand and have someone else try to beat you. Sure, you may give up open 3-point shots, but it isn’t their best shooter taking those shots and people are in a position to get those long rebounds.

As a high school basketball coach, the box-and-1 was a very effective tool to neutralize our opponents best player (especially if it was a guard). There were even times I went with the triangle-and-2 when a team had two dangerous players, but not much else in the way of scoring threats.

This was essentially the strategy Romar went with late in the Pac-10 championship game against California in 2010 when he put Elston Turner on Jerome Randle. I think Romar needs to understand that there are times when you have to put more of a focus on one or two players and let the other role players be the ones who have to beat you. Just letting everyone run around man-to-man won’t be effective when one or two of your players are being abused.

But, against South Dakota State, a box-and-1 would not have been effective since the Jackrabbits were hitting so many 3-point shots. The man-to-man was the right defense to implement in that situation. But, unfortunately no one could seem to stop Nate Wolters, and everyone else was a step too slow to get out and properly contest the long distance shots.

But, if there was one thing I would like to see the Huskies implement on defense that I never see, it would be an effective 3/4 court trap. With their size and athleticism, it would seem they would have a huge advantage in their ability to press in the backcourt. For years, I’ve seen Romar do a sort of fake trap where several players start out in the backcourt and then after one pass everyone just runs back except one guard. You need to be committed to this for it to be effective.

A few years ago Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Salmon wrote an article stating that if teams implemented the full-court trap all game long, it would result in a net +10 points over the course of a game. They used actual statistical analysis to back this up. Their theory is that you really could use your entire bench, if the 11th and 12th men realized that their main focus was defense, giving you the depth you need to implement it over long periods of time. You could rotate these guys in almost like hockey shifts.

After reading that, I decided to implement a backcourt trap-dependent defense with my high school team. It was very effective in most games. We were usually overmatched in terms of size and depth, but there were some games where we would have easily been blown out that we kept close and we won some games I didn’t expect to. When teams broke the trap, we backed up into a 2-3 zone or box-and-1. We also implemented an alternate version of the half court trap where everyone started out in the 2-3 zone and then as soon as the point guard crossed the half-court line, 4 players rushed quickly out of the key to trap their two guards and small forward against the halfcourt and sidelines.

Sure, some teams are good at breaking the press and it won’t work in every game. It isn’t necessarily something you do for an entire game. But it could be effective for 5 minute segments 3-4 times per game. But, if there was ever a roster designed to implement it effectively over an extended period of time it is these Huskies. Since every guard is 6’3″ or taller and they have tall 6’9″ forwards who are lanky and fast, they have almost the perfect roster for it.

Tell me that Desmond Simmons, Martin Bruenig, and Darnell Gant would not be an effective wall for a double team along with 6’6″ Ross, 6’5″ Wilcox, and 6’5″ Wroten. Why Romar refuses ever to implement the press with his traditional roster full of depth, speed, and long arms is beyond me.

I’d love to see it come in early in the 1st half and in the middle of the 2nd half. The choas it would be bring would be worth several turnovers almost immediately. I’ve been wanting Romar to implement some sort of serious press for years, but apparently it is against his philosophy.