In defense of great defense

Salisbury Coach Andrew Sachs on his team's suffocating defense: "“We go for 40 deflections a game. It's been done. We want 40."
Photo by Larry Radloff,

Hands up. Keep your feet. Stay between your man and the basket. Hustle. Such basic fundamentals of defense are easy to recognize, and they serve players of all ages and levels well.  

Those, however, are individual skills. Basketball is a team game, and it takes more than the efforts of five individuals to make a great defensive team. Several teams in the Mid-Atlantic region have found the right formula, and three of them entered this week among the nation’s top 10 in scoring defense. It should be no surprise that all three – Christopher Newport, Johns Hopkins and Salisbury – are at or near the top their respective leagues.

CNU leads Salisbury by one game in the Capital Athletic Conference, and the two rivals have split their two meetings in a pair of low-scoring contests: Salisbury beat CNU 59-58 in the first; the Captains paid the Gulls back last week with a 55-53 win. The two teams are just as stingy against most of their opponents as they are against one another. CNU is second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 56.8 points per game, which trails only St. Norbert at 55.6. Salisbury is ninth, allowing 62.8 points per game.

  DE-FENSE: Fewest points allowed per game

 1. St. Norbert -- 55.6
 2. Christopher Newport -- 56.8
 3. Wittenberg -- 60.4
 4. New Jersey City University -- 61.0
 5. Guilford -- 61.3
 6. Johns Hopkins -- 61.8
 7. MIT -- 62.2
 7. Randolph-Macon -- 62.2
 9. Salisbury -- 62.8
 10. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps -- 63.3

  Statistics maintained by NCAA 

They do it in ways you might expect: getting steals, blocking shots and holding down opponents’ shooting percentages. There are, however, statistics that don’t appear in traditional box scores that the coaches of the CAC front-runners emphasize.

“I think (shooting percentage) is one of our metrics,” said CNU head coach John Krikorian, “but in and of itself, it’s not everything. It leaves out steals. It leaves out rebounding. We look at points per possession. That takes into account a whole lot more. It takes into account the number of possessions. You can play a game in the 80s and 90s and have a very good defense.”

What makes this year’s Captains so good at defense, Krikorian said, is experience.

“It really starts with our four seniors,” he said. “We play predominately man-to-man defense. We have a culture that is dependent on guys doing their jobs. When you have four seniors who have made the commitment to do that have that physical and mental toughness that only seniors have, they make up for each other’s mistakes in a way that only guys who’ve played together for four years can do.

“We have to guard some really good offenses in our league. When someone beats a guard off the dribble, somebody has to make the decision to step in there and maybe take a charge or stop the penetration.”

Krikorian’s defense employs a lot of switching, as does that of his rival, Salisbury. The Gulls do it, however, as part of their quest to reach their own hidden statistical measure: deflections. Salisbury head coach Andrew Sachs worked under Ralph Willard at Holy Cross and picked up Willard’s emphasis on pressure defense that creates deflected passes.

“We go for 40 deflections a game,” Sachs said. “You look at Louisville (where Willard has coached most recently). It’s been done. We want 40. When we’re in the 20s, we have issues. You look at our four losses, we were way down.”

How does Salisbury get what averages out to one deflection per minute?

“Ball pressure,” Sachs said. “Being in the passing lane. Double-teams in the post. And switching. We do a lot of switching, anyway. We switch to take teams out of what they want to do. You look at the (Oklahoma City) Thunder, North Carolina. They do a lot of switching.”

And why go for deflections?

“It leads to steals, but it’s also a barometer of how hard we’re playing,” Sachs said. “Do you block out correctly? Do you close out correctly? Do you contest shots correctly?”

Senior Gordon Jeter said he was taken aback when Sachs, who is in his second year at the Salisbury helm, introduced the 40-deflection rule, but has come to enjoy it.

“It definitely works, and it definitely makes defense more fun per se,” Jeter said. “It’s one of those little goals you don’t think about. It really felt challenging at first. It’s one per minute – really, every possession there should be a deflection. But it gives us something to look forward to.”

The Gulls got 10 steals in a non-conference win over Johns Hopkins in November, holding the Blue Jays to 49 points, which is 21 points under JHU’s average for this season. The Jays, however, can be equally stingy, holding opponents to 61.8 points per game. They had their defensive tour de force in the second half of Saturday’s win over Ursinus. They trailed by as many as 13 in the first half, but held the Bears to 20 points in the second to win, 74-71 and tie Swarthmore for first place in the Centennial.

Coach Bill Nelson has delegated responsibility for defense to assistant coaches, first Bob McCone and, since McCone retired, to Jeff Eakins, who coached in the NBA’s D-League. Defense, however, is close to Nelson’s heart.

“I’m a defensive guy,” Nelson said. “It’s the only way I was able to play in college. I really like watching Virginia, Wisconsin – teams that play good defense without slowing the ball down.”

Eakins introduced Nelson to a style he calls “anticipate and suffocate,” which, he said, aims to “push people into our own teammates and get turnovers. When it doesn’t work it looks awful.”

Such as the first half of the Ursinus game, when the Bears scored 51.

“So much for defense,” Nelson quipped. “At halftime we made adjustments. In the first half we played toe-to-toe, instead of pushing their team in the direction of a man, into a trap.”

One thing everyone seems to agree on, however, is that defense is about effort.

“Those who really want to be good at it can do it,” said Krikorian. “I don’t think there’s any magic to it. It really is just guys who are committed to it. We’ve been fortunate to have some real high-caliber kids who put winning before individual accolades. I just think there’s a pride that’s developed (at CNU) over the last seven years that they take stopping the other team very personally.”

Phil Soto-Ortiz

Phil Soto-Ortiz has been a play-by-play sportscaster for basketball, football and lacrosse at Franklin & Marshall College since 2010, and has also called games at Division II St. Anselm College in New Hampshire and at high schools around Connecticut. He writes the annual Centennial College football preview for's Kickoff publication and has covered sports for the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News and several dailies and weeklies in Fairfield County, Connecticut. He graduated from Syracuse University, where he called the play-by-play of the women?s basketball team's games, including their last win over the UConn Huskies.
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