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Why the Cougs struggle so much to beat those darn presses

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If you missed the post below this one, don't forget that we'll be going big tomorrow on CougCenter covering Signing Day for the Cougs. I hope we see you all there to talk about the guys who are going to get us back where we belong. Now, back to our regularly scheduled basketball post ...

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After the way the Cougs melted down in the second half against yet another pressuring, trapping defense, a number of people have openly wondered why in the heck this team seems to have such a difficult time coping with such strategies.

I like to think of the full court press as that bully on the elementary school playground -- intimidating to no end, but generally vacant of real substance against someone who is willing to stand up to it. Teams who run a press are looking for these things:

  1. Fear! Which leads to ...
  2. Turnovers! Which leads to ...
  3. Easy points! Which leads to ...
  4. Fear!!! Which leads to ...
  5. Turnovers!!! Which leads to ...
  6. Easy points!!! Which leads to ...
  7. Fear!!!!!! Which leads to ...

You get the picture.

So why doesn't everyone run a full court press? Because a full court press is just as likely to give up easy points (perhaps even more so) as it is to get them when confronted with a team that knows what it's doing, which I was reminded of as I watched UConn absolutely shred Louisville's vaunted full-court press last night. Good teams look at a press and salivate.

While there are a lot of X's and O's to beating a press, simply put, the only way to beat a press is to attack it.*

There's no doubt it definitely helps to have exceptional athletes that have the ability to move out of trapping locations before the defense can get there, but sitting back, picking up your dribble, thinking very much about where your next pass should be going ... all are death against the press, no matter how good your athletes are. And it only gets compounded when you do those things in the wrong places on the floor. (Looking at you, Klay Thompson and Marcus Capers.)

Of course, that's precisely what the Cougs seem to do when an opponent turns up the heat. And I think I know why.

Beating the press the way it has to be beaten is almost completely at odds with the Cougar philosophy of basketball. We constantly talk about the Cougars imposing their tempo on opponents, refusing steadfastly to increase the speed of the game no matter how inviting it may seem, unless the opportunity is just so golden that you can't pass it up. Patience is the order of the day, and you must, above all else, take care of the basketball.

If this team wants to win, it somehow has got to figure out a way to reconcile what it takes to beat a press with how it wants to play basketball.

Like that bully on the playground, you've got to be willing to go down swinging at a press. Your goal can't be merely to survive by getting across halfcourt; your goal has to be to put get an easy basket when they press, every ... single ... time. Your primary thought has to be making the opponent pay for having the audacity to think they can press you. Because even though you're not going to land that haymaker every time, if you're smart about it and aggressive in the right situations, you'll get a number of easy buckets or draw lots fouls from out-of-position defenders.

But it's a mindset -- you've got to have the guts to throw that punch. And while we've shown a lot of heart from time to time, we just haven't shown those guts yet this year.

I understand that we want to stay true to who we are and don't want to get reckless with the ball when attacking a trap. But there is a balance. Just because you attack a trap doesn't mean you have to take a stupid shot. You take the good shot at the rim when it's there, you pull it out when it's not and run the motion. You can do all of this while not turning the ball over repeatedly. In fact, you're less likely to turn the ball over repeatedly when you attack a press this way. 

But should it surprise us that this team hasn't shown the natural aggression necessary to fight a trap? After all, the Cougs fall woefully short in terms of another outcome that requires an aggressive mindset -- they're 335 out of 346 teams in NCAA Division I basketball in free throw rate, even after that absurd foulfest against Oregon. Where most coaches have to repeatedly preach discipline to their players, Tony Bennett is faced with the opposite problem: Getting his players to attack with purpose.

Because of that, some might argue that it's just not in the nature of these players to do what's necessary to beat a trap. I say that's bunk -- these guys just needs to have the leash taken off, as they did in the second half against Stanford. This team needs to stop playing like it's afraid of doing the wrong thing and feel like it has the go-ahead to take the game to the other team -- to look at the press as an opportunity, rather than something to be feared.

When Tony Bennett starts encouraging that kind of aggression from his team, that's when they'll start making the crisp, decisive moves that it takes to beat a press. These guys are far too smart and have far too good of basketball instincts to keep consistently getting beat by a press the way they have.

* For a detailed explanation of how to beat a press, here's a great link. If you don't have time to read all that, watch this short video. It's simple, but true.