'Junk' defenses can be help, hurt

Coaches have to learn to pick their spots with creative defenses, or they can get burned

Staff WriterJanuary 24, 2009 

If Boston College guard Tyrese Rice gets a hot hand today, N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe could dig into his basketball "junk" pile and pull out the old box-and-one defense.

But Lowe has used that "junk" scheme -- one defender playing man-to-man and four in a zone -- only once this season, in a nonconference game.

Trick defenses, typically most effective for short periods, can wreck rhythm and take a sharp shooter out of his game. Conversely, they create gaps in the defense and ACC caliber players generally can exploit the open spots.

The schemes, designed to cool one or two opposing players, aren't as frequently utilized these days as in the past. Lowe contends the box-and-one or triangle-and-two are higher risk now partly because of the quality shooters on most teams.

"Some years ago, a lot of teams were pretty similar,'' Lowe said. "They had a point guard who ran the show, but maybe didn't score a lot. The two [guard] could shoot and the three [small forward] was a decent shooter. The [post players] were big men.

"Today the tallest players might be 6-7 or 6-8 and all can shoot. And maybe four guys can shoot from 3-point range. We haven't used it since we started ACC play."

Lowe's former Wolfpack coach, Jim Valvano, masterfully employed junk defenses. Wake Forest's Carl Tacy and Marquette's Al McGuire were others who successfully worked the man-zone combination.

Yet the "junk" hasn't been trashed like junk mail. Wake Forest faced the box-and-one against Indiana and UNC-Wilmington and won both games. Deacons coach Dino Gaudio says "we have so many scorers it would be hard to run it against us."

This season, Loyola (Md.) might have tried the most unusual strategy of any team.

It ran the box-and-one against Davidson's Stephen Curry. It also used the triangle-and-two, guarding the Wildcats star with two defenders. Curry, averaging about 29 points per game, didn't score. But Davidson won decisively as other players generated offense.

"That was an abnormal game," Davidson assistant Matt McKillop said. "But we always prepare for [those schemes]."

Southern Cal's Tim Floyd has thrown a lot of "junk" at foes in the past. But he said he hasn't used those ploys this season or seen another Pac-10 team show them.

"If two players score 60 percent of their team's points, maybe we would use it,'' said Floyd, who is sticking mostly to man-to-man.

NBA scout George Felton, who watches about 150 college games per year, says he has seen less of it among Division I teams for the past several seasons.

But Felton remembers Valvano and called him "the master" of the junk.

Valvano, who guided State to the 1983 national championship, favored the one-three-and-a-chaser if a hot-shot opponent started lighting it up. Frequently, it changed the complexion of the game.

On one occasion, Valvano even assigned point guard Chris Corchiani to defend Georgia Tech's tall post player, Tom Hammonds. The surprise strategy kept the Yellow Jacket off balance.

"It frustrated him to a point,'' Corchiani recalled. "I always found it to be a good defense to use in certain points of a game. It's not something you see a lot of anymore. I really don't know why. Coach Valvano's [philosophy] was 'never let the best player on the opposing team beat you.' "

In 1977, McGuire's Marquette team might not have won the national championship if he hadn't switched strategy in an NCAA regional game against Wake Forest.

The Deacons led at the half. Then Marquette turned to the triangle-and-two, disrupted Wake's attack, won the game and went on to claim the title with a victory over North Carolina in the NCAA finals.

"We didn't handle it very well,'' Wake's Carl Tacy said. "I felt it cost us the game. It's the reason I started using it."

Tacy employed it judiciously and reaped some benefits. Once when trailing Virginia Tech at halftime, he installed the triangle-and-two and the Deacons claimed a comeback victory.

Sometimes, even now, a little junk could turn into a jewel.

aj.carr@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8948

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