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The Pick And Roll Defense is as Bad as You Feared

Marquette Men's Basketball

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

It doesn’t take a stathead to know Marquette doesn’t have a great defense. Heck, it barely takes more than watching one half most games. But for those with even a cursory knowledge of the stats can tell you Marquette is one of the worst defenses of top-100 teams, according to KenPom (134 overall, 4th worst of top-100 teams). The fact the Marquette’s defense is bad is not debatable. That is a given.

The question of why it’s so bad takes a bit more more effort to dissect. Back in November, I wrote a post in disgust after watching Michigan torch the MU pick and roll defense for bucket after bucket. But that was earlier in the season, I’m sure it’s gotten better as time went on and players matured, right? 

Negative. With the added bonus of having Synergy data at our disposal, we can not only track the exact numbers, but we can put them in better perspective. 

It turns out Marquette’s general pick and roll defense is in the bottom 1% of all Division I teams, giving up 1.027 Points Per Possession (PPP) and ranking 347th out of 351 teams. Read that sentence once more and realize the only teams MU is better than are Miss. Valley State, Chicago State, Pepperdine and Idaho Sate. Oy.

Not only does it get abused, it gets abused often. 17% of Marquette’s defensive possessions were in P&R, the 8th most in the country. 

I’m pretty sure that’s enough for a full, depressing post, but wait, there’s more. I decided to break down every P&R scenario from Marquette’s most recent game against Xavier to see what we might be able to discern is still affecting the squad and if Heldt’s emergence had helped stem the tide at all.

(I should probably also inform you that Xavier is a pretty poor P&R team offensively who didn’t use it often, scoring only .644 PPP, and that’s including Sumner, who was Xavier’s best P&R decision maker, who lost for the season a month ago. Hold tight.)

For the game, there were 21 possessions Synergy classified as P&R defense (meaning the change in possession (make, miss, foul, TO) happened within one or two plays after the P&R occured). On those possessions, Xavier scored 32 points, which translates to an unfathomably poor 1.52 PPP for the game. For comparison, the worst team in DI only gives up 1.11 PPP in these settings. Of those 21 possession,  5 resulted in a turnover, 3 resulted in a missed shot, and 13 resulted in points. So breaking it down once more, Xavier scored 32 points on 13 scoring possessions. I told you it was bad.

After looking at each possession, though, we have to make a few tweaks, as two of the possessions can’t really be identified as P&R defense. The screen happened early in the possession and the defense had already recovered to its base formation, so you can’t really blame P&R for that. And seeing as 5 points were scored on those 2 possessions, we will adjust the overall stats to be 27 points on 19 possessions and a still awful 1.42 PPP.

 OK, I think it’s been established that the P&R defense is bad. Now I want to look at why. 

My hypothesis in November was that it was due to the aggressive use of the big man (Fischer then) to double on the ball handler, leaving the roller uncovered and hoping to force a turnover or praying the rotations got over in time for the ensuing chaos. I’m still sticking by that theory, but with caveats. 

When doubling the ball handler, MU gave up 19 points in 13 possessions, forcing 3 turnovers and 2 missed shots. A PPP of 1.46 is bad to begin with, but worse than the average allowed for the game on P&R, so we can clearly state that doubling, at least against Xavier, did not help one bit.

Let’s organize the types of mistakes to make it easier to see some trends.

Slow rotation

This is the worst type of breakdown and the one that’s easiest to spot from the couch. No one covers the roller, the defenders on the ball can’t delay recognition so one easy pass equals one easy bucket. In this case, Howard sticks much to close to his man, and  never realizes he was supposed to help down low.

Overrotation

In this case, Duane does recognize the roller and moves in position to prevent an entry pass or at least present a barrier upon reception. However, Bernard sees Duane overcommited and finds a wide open Macura, who buries the 3. 

Slow Reaction

For this, the big (Fisch) gets caught off balance, not realizing Gaston was going to slip the screen instead of holding it. Fischer can’t react in time, is slow to cover, and gets beat for an easy deuce.

Poor Contain

This is less of a breakdown than poor perimeter defense. Howard gets beat off the dribble going away from the screen and forces Chetham to scramble, fouling the shooter in the process. 

And sometimes, good offense just beats decent defense. Two of Xavier’s possessions can be classified that way, where Marquette did what it was supposed to by all accounts, but Xavier made some smart, quick passes and sank tough shots. From my count 4 points came from slow/no rotations, 2 from slow big reactions, 6 from over rotation, 2 from poor contain and 5 from good offense. 

So I bet you’re asking yourself why does Marquette keep doubling in these situations. The answer? The alternative isn’t much better when Fischer or Heldt are involved. Towards the end of the game, MU did in fact choose to stop doubling up high and instead sag on the ball handler to force him into a pull up. Xavier scored 7 points in 3 possessions.

Obviously that’s a small sample size to make a comparison, but the personnel just isn’t there.  

What all these words and pictures are meant to show is that Marquette’s P&R defense is a legitimate issue that is not as simple to solve with personnel moves such as playing Heldt over Fischer. Breakdowns happen in the collective, and they do so often.

(With that being said, here is the breakdown of points allowed on P&R, not to say it is their fault, but they were the ones helping on the screen.
Fischer: 16 pts, 9 poss, 1.77 PPP
Heldt: 11 pts, 9 poss, 1.22 PPP
Cheatham: 0 pts, 1 poss) 

It’s a bit late in the year to change schemes, so what you see is what you’re going to get. For Marquette to win it will have to do so with the offense.  

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