Defense playing a key role in on-court success

Herald File Photos by Nic Antaya
Jasper's Quentin Harmon covers Evansville Harrison's D.J. Mitchell closely during the Wildcats 73-60 season opening victory against the Warriors. The famous saying 'Defense wins championships' isn't just reserved for football – area boys basketball teams continue to preach the importance of pressuring opponents and making sure the opposing team isn't able to get any easy shots.


Fans all over the world tune in to watch basketball for the athletes’ creative and artistic interpretations when it comes to moving the ball across the floor and weaving around the halfcourt in search of that perfect look to put the rock through the rack.

However, it is just as important for a team to combine their efforts on the defensive end of the floor and become a five-man phalanx that can lock down the paint and secure the perimeter against opposing offenses.

“We feel that championships are won on the defensive side of the ball,” said Heritage Hills boys basketball coach Nate Hawkins. “It’s one of the things we believe needs 100 percent buy-in.”

While your run-of-the-mill defensive plays, outside of fastbreak steals or swats into the stands, might not fill as many spots in a typical top ten highlight reel, all of the area coaches believe that a heavy focus on the defensive end of the floor can only work in their team’s favor if they hope to have a meaningful season playing ball.

Everyone has their list of goals and objectives they believe their teams must be able to accomplish on defense in order to win on a consistent basis. It requires both an individual commitment and a team effort to keep the court covered effectively.

“Number one is being able to contain the basketball, we have to be able to guard the ball,” said Jasper boys coach John Goebel. “If you allow your man to dribble past you, then everyone else has to help and we have to rotate. The proper defensive rotation is the key to being able to defend, not just being concerned about your man. It’s a team defensive effort.”

“What we want to accomplish on defense is (to) maintain ball pressure,” said Terry Friedman, who’s Northeast Dubois teams pride themselves on their hard-nosed defensive performance, which they call the Jeep Edge. “In our defensive gaps, we work really hard on making sure our players in our help-side defensive positioning are in the right positions.”

While individual nuances and tweaks for a team’s defense will depend on the the players that come out for a team, most of the defensive systems that are implemented across the area are based on a man-to-man foundation — everyone lines up, calls out their assignment, and makes it their mission to make their opponent’s night as tough as possible.

“We wanted to incorporate a tough, disciplined scheme creating a team defense that keeps the ball out of the middle as much as possible,” said newly minted Forest Park boys coach David Welp. “Forcing teams to take bad, contested shots is our main objective.”

But that’s not to say that the teams are shy about throwing in some zone defense to confuse and throw off opponents.

Zone sometimes gets a bad rap as a defense for teams that lack the size or speed to use an effective man-to-man system, but the coaches think that some zone schemes can be sprinkled in effectively to throw off a team’s timing or accomplish something different on the floor that the typical man isn’t addressing.

Heritage Hills' Blake Sisley prepares to block a shot by North Harrison's Langdon Hatton during the Patriots earlier 71-43 victory over the Cougars. While Patriots head coach Nate Hawkins admits that today's athletes are more athletic and able to cover more ground, the same defensive principles exist today that took place when he was playing high school basketball.

“We like to do it just to mix it up a little bit and keep the other team off their rhythm,” said Hawkins. “I see it as the possibility of throwing another wrinkle into the system. If a team gets comfortable with you playing man, throw in a few possessions of zone just to mix it up. Keep them off balance as much as you can.”

“A zone defense can be extremely effective, especially when I have players that have a very long reach and can get deflections because of their size,” said Friedman. “If a zone is employed effectively it can be just as good as a man-to-man (scheme).”

But scheming and scouting for a game is only one part of the equation. Teams can be as good as they want when it comes to guarding their man or forcing bad shots, but if they do everything right and fail to collect those defensive rebounds to end an opponent's possession then ultimately the job is only half done. Denying those extra shot opportunities is the ultimate signature of an effective defense.

“The two most important statistics we look at in our ability to win are turnovers and rebounding,” said Goebel. “It’s one of our top (statistics) in the importance of winning. You have to be able to rebound and not give up second chance buckets. Rebounding is a priority in our program.”

The final key for a strong defense lies in the space between the players’ ears.

Players have to step onto the floor with an intent and mindset geared toward getting in their stance and harassing their man for the long haul in a game. Of course size and natural athletic ability are pluses when it comes to playing defense, but all of those things are wasted if a kid is unwilling to put in the effort necessary to secure the floor.

“Players have to buy-in to wanting to help the team succeed,” said Welp. “(They) have to want to do the little things: take charges, deny passes, and be pests.”

“I think a defensive-minded player has a really good approach to the game. They stay focused on what they need to do on the defensive end and can allow the offense to just happen,” said Friedman. “If you have an athletically gifted young man, he has the innate ability to be a good defender. But sometimes getting that out of them isn’t as easy, you have to work with them and get them to buy-in to what they can do defensively.”

Much has been made about the future of basketball and what it will look like as players continue developing more skills and adding to their toolbox. But the fundamentals of defense have remained constant, and no matter how the game evolves team success will always be predicated on their ability to lock in and get those key defensive stops when they matter the most.

“I don’t think the base fundamentals of defense are ever going to change,” said Goebel. “You still have to be able to guard the ball, help, and rotate.”

“Some of the things I’m addressing with our players about defense, most of them are fundamental skills that have been taught even when I played,” said Hawkins. “The kids are more athletic and able to cover more ground, but a lot of the concepts as far as defensive principles go have all been the same.”

More on