Will PC Ever Play Good Defense Again?

Brendon Desrochers —  November 7th, 2012 1:45 PM —  Comments
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PC’s defense has been down. Can it get back up?

No Providence team has finished in the top half in the Big East in defensive efficiency since Marcus Douthit graduated. The best defensive team that PC has had since then was the 2006-07 season, when PC finished 10th in the Big East. That was Herbert Hill’s senior season, the one in which he was probably the Big East’s best player and finished 30th in the nation in shot-block rate.

There’s a common thread there — when PC has a top shot-blocker, it’s had at least a decent defense, and, in the case of the Douthit Friars, a great defense. When PC has not had a shot-blocker and imposing size on the frontline, it’s been torched. This is a run of bad defenses that has lasted eight seasons and is now on its third coach. We cannot blame Cooley much for the defense of last season, but it’s not as if this is all coaching. Defensive talent — size, speed, acumen — is as important to good team defense as offensive talent — quickness, shooting, seeing the floor — is to good team offense, and the Friars have simply not had many players with strong defensive skills.

Getting bigger — namely taller — is one of the measurable and simplest ways for a team to improve defensively. That size still has to possess athleticism, but all else being equal, height is the most critical physical factor in playing good defense. To wit, the only players at least 6-foot-10 to play for Providence since Douthit graduated are Ray Hall and Randall Hanke. (Hill was listed at 6-10 but was closer to 6-8 per NBA scouting measurements. Also, why does the second sentence of Ryan Gomes’ Wikipedia profile read: “Gomes was named an All-American power forward at Providence College, where he also played with Herbert Hill in the Big East Conference”? Random.)

Tallest players in most-common PC lineups by year
Season Primary 5 Height Primary 4 Height
2011-12 Kadeem Batts* 6-9 LaDontae Henton 6-6
2010-11 Kadeem Batts 6-8 Marshon Brooks 6-5
2009-10 Bilal Dixon 6-8 Jamine Peterson 6-6
2008-09 Jonathan Kale 6-8 Geoff McDermott 6-8
2007-08 Geoff McDermott 6 8 Weyinmi Efejuku** 6 5
2006-07 Herbert Hill 6-10 Jonathan Kale 6-8

* Dixon technically played more minutes, but Batts played more minutes per game.

** Efejuku was the Friars’ second tallest player among the five players who played the most (Jeff Xavier, Dwain Williams and Brian McKenzie were the shorter ones). One of Kale, Peterson, Charles Burch or Alex Kellogg (all between 6-6 and 6-8) was likely actually the second tallest player on the floor most of the time.

Aside from Hall and Hanke — defensive stiffs, really — PC has primarily been playing 6-8 and 6-9 (listed) players at the 4 and 5 positions and even 6-5 Marshon Brooks at the 4 two seasons ago. It’s no wonder that PC finished 15th in field-goal defense, 15th in blocked shots and 15th in defensive rebounding that season (2010-11). Last year and three seasons ago, 6-6 players spent the most time at power forward (Henton as a freshman and Greedy Peterson in 2009-10). The Peterson team finished last in field-goal defense, 2-point defense and defensive rebounding and 11th in blocks. Even by just playing a 6-8 player there, like PC did with Geoff McDermott (he happened to also be a good defensive player) in 2008-09, PC at least didn’t finish at the bottom of the conference (14th in field-goal defense, 14th in defensive rebounding, 11th in 2-point defense and eighth in blocks). It’s an oversimplification, but it’s mostly true that the difference between playing a 6-8 (listed) player at power forward and a 6-6 or 6-5 player is the difference between being abysmal on defense and being simply below average. It’s been true, at least, for Providence.

I ran some correlations to see how team defensive efficiency related to various other measures last year. Only field-goal defense and (barely) defensive rebounding were better correlated to good defense than height.

Correlation of Adj DefEff to other measures in 2012-13
Statistic Correlation
eFG 0.77
Def Reb 0.43
Height 0.41
TO Forced 0.25
FT Allowed 0.23
Pace -0.15
Bench -0.18

It’s no surprise that field-goal defense, defensive rebounding and height are way above the other measures in this list. They are also related to each other. Therefore the best way for PC to get better at defense is to get taller. To some extent, Cooley can choose to play a taller team — more Henton at the 3 — but he has to weigh the pros and cons of how that might affect the offense and whether there is a center on the roster who could be a difference-maker defensively (unlikely). Having Johnson and Batts available make it more possible for Cooley to go bigger — we’ll find out how much he actually does that.

The related question is how some small teams are able to defend well. Do they somehow overcome their lack of height by acting like taller teams (defend 2-pointers and defensive rebound) or do they take a different approach?

Five major-conference teams (including three from the Big East) were in the top 50 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency but not in the top 200 in average height.

National ranks in major defensive categories, height and bench minutes:

National ranks in major defensive categories, height and bench minutes
Team AdjDE eFG TO Def Reb FTR Avg Hgt Bench
Louisville 1 4 36 230 129 221 340
Marquette 14 30 28 296 48 223 231
Cincinnati 24 46 99 263 9 208 288
Texas 44 79 176 247 271 206 149
Southern California 47 157 9 298 100 255 203
Average Rank 26 63 70 267 111 223 242

The interesting thing is that all five teams were poor on the defensive glass, though none were as bad as Providence. Four of the five forced a significant amount of turnovers (all but Texas). Despite their lack of height (and how height related closely with field-goal defense) four of the five (all but USC) held opponents below 47 percent in eFG. One good piece of news for Providence is that these teams didn’t use depth to come at opponents in waves and make up for lack of size. Only Texas played its bench more than an average team, and Louisville — the best defensive team in America — played its bench less than all but one major-conference team (Michigan).

Here’s a look at how each team was good defensively.

Louisville: The Cardinals’ most common lineup saw a 6-6 player at power forward (Chane Behanan) and a 6-4 guy at small forward (Kyle Kuric). Importantly, though, 6-10 Gorgui Dieng was their center and was one of the best defensive players in the nation. Louisville also played a high-pressure defense that allowed it to force a lot of steals and contest at the 3-point line. Russ Smith was the second best thief in the country (by rate) and Peyton Siva wasn’t bad either.

Marquette: For years, Friars fans have called upon Providence to defy its size like Marquette seems to every year. Marquette’s most common lineup last year saw 6-7 Jamil Wilson at the 5 and 6-6 Jae Crowder at the 4. Led by Crowder, the Golden Eagles were second in the Big East at forcing turnovers, and, despite having no great shot-blocker (Wilson was decent and Crowder was OK — though neither of them had better block rates than Kofane or Dixon), MU was able to finish middle-of-the-pack in the Big East in eFG and 2-point defense.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ defense was only eighth in the Big East in conference play but was stout enough to rank 24th in the nation and help get Cincy to the Big East Tournament final and the second week of the NCAA Tournament. Their most common lineup saw only one player — 6-9 Yancy Gates — listed taller than 6-4. UC did get help from Justin Jackson off the bench, as he was one of the Big East’s best defenders last season. As you’d expect, a team this short was not good at 2-point defense (11th in the Big East) or defensive rebounding (10th), but it was good enough in all other areas to be a strong defense. Cincinnati also helped itself by not sending opponents to the line. Only eight teams in the nation gave their opponents fewer free throws than Mick Cronin’s team.

Texas: It’s strange to see the Longhorns on this list, as they tend to have a squad full of size and brawn. This team, though, most often played four players 6-4 or shorter plus 6-10 center Clint Chapman. It’s a lineup that looked similar to Louisville’s, and Chapman indeed was an excellent shot-blocker, though Texas didn’t force turnovers like Louisville. What Texas did best was defend 2-pointers, thanks to Chapman and a pair of 6-7 bench players who got plenty of run.

Southern Cal: The Trojans, the only team on this list that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament played small but was still awful on offense, finishing last in the Pac-12 and 326th in the nation, the worst mark of any major-conference team. Defensively, USC was one of the best teams in America at forcing turnovers and was also terrific at defending the 3-pointer. Despite starting a 7-footer (James Blasczyk), USC gets on this list with a lineup that also included a 5-7, 6-2, 6-5 and 6-6 player. It had to gall Kevin O’Neill that, on a team with so little size, Blasczyk played like a complete stiff, finishing fifth on the team in defensive rebounding rate and third in block rate.

That exercise gave us some blueprints. Which one makes the most sense for PC? I’d eliminate Texas and Louisville because they had one very good (and at least 6-10) shot-blocker, which the Friars don’t have. I’d also eliminate USC, just because that team was so weird and bad, and Marquette, which was built around one of the most dynamic players in the country, Crowder. That leaves Cincinnati as the best model for how PC can be decent at defense this year.

The Bearcats forced turnovers, didn’t send opponents to the line and stayed afloat on field-goal defense. We saw Providence improve in both eFG and defensive rebounding last year but, it seems, at the expense of forcing turnovers. Perhaps with the addition of some longer players at guard and on the wing (namely Kris Dunn and Josh Fortune), Providence can start to force more turnovers. Also, added depth — the potential for a true 8-man rotation — makes committing fouls not so penal, since someone can actually come in to replace a Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton or Henton. None of those three (or Coleman) averaged more than 2.5 fouls committed per 40 minutes, and they were playing nearly 40 minutes almost every game.

If you squint, you could see Batts and Johnson combining to form something approximating the 6-9 Gates and Kofane being something like Jackson. The other thing that Cincy had was guards who played big. Six-foot-3 Jaquon Parker was about as good a rebounder (by rate) as Henton last year, and both 6-4 Sean Kilpatrick and 6-foot Cashmere Wright were in the double-digits in defensive rebounding percentage. Does PC have the pieces to duplicate that? Coleman could play big and get on the glass like a Kilpatrick, but he’s gone. Cotton was basically invisible on the glass, but Council has a body that could rebound as well as Wright, and Dunn and Fortune could add that kind of length to help PC get out of the bottom three of the Big East in defensive rebounding for the first time since Herbert Hill graduated.

Cincinnati was 10th in the Big East in 2-point defense, sixth in 3-point defense and 11th in defensive rebounding. Those aren’t great figures, but when you’re forcing turnovers and not giving the opposition free points at the line, they’re good enough to have a competent defense. PC was 15th, 12th and 13th in those three areas (along with dead last in forcing turnovers).

Perhaps Cooley can get these Friars to defend like Cincy did. UC had the No. 5 offense in the Big East last year and the No. 8 defense (in conference play) and that was good enough — with some breaks — for four postseason wins. Providence was sixth and 16th. How much of the gap PC makes up between last place and league average on defense will determine whether this team is looking at another 4-5 win conference season or whether 7-9 wins and a postseason berth are something that’s possible before the reinforcements can get on the floor next season. Otherwise, it’s wait until Carson Desrosiers — 32nd in the nation in block rate last season at Wake Forest — is eligible next fall to see if PC can finally stop being embarrassingly bad on defense.

Brendon Desrochers is a contributor to FriarBlog.com and ScoutFriars.com. If you have any questions, thoughts or column ideas for him, please follow him and contact him via Twitter @UltimateCrans.

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  1. Joe says:

    more size = less room

    less room = lower% shots

    1. friarblog says:

      How did we not win the national championship with Ray Hall??

      1. UltimateCranston says:

        Hopefully Carson Desrosiers can be the answer starting next year. In the interim, I’m looking for incremental improvements across the board.