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The Pressing Question

As we here at RCT are still trying to figure out what went wrong on Saturday, I've been tasked with handling the issue of whether or not Kansas should have pressed earlier in the game.  It's a question that came up during the game from multiple people and outlets.  Jason Whitlock tweeted the following:

Kansas, Tweeps, what do we think of Self's refusal to press this team!

He wasn't the only one asking, two minutes before that, Nate Bukaty on twitter:

It feels like KU waited about 10 minutes too long to start pressing.

and one more from the game thread:

Why isn't Self pressing this team?

So the question was out there during the game and it was out there before the game.  We knew Northern Iowa did a few things very well.  They held on to the ball, they didn't foul a lot, they shot free throws well, and they always controlled the game with their tempo.  A lot of people felt Kansas could use their superior size, strength, and speed to push the Panthers with full-court pressure.  Lets look at some of the pro's and cons of employing a full-court press against Northern Iowa.

Reasons to Use a Press

Full court pressure serves many purposes in basketball but one of the most obvious is that it can force the opponent to move faster than they like or are used to moving.  When teams start moving faster than they can handle, they turn the ball over.  Look at Missouri, they led the Big 12 opponent turnover percentage during conference play mainly because of their speed and pressure.  For a recent and relevant example, Northern Iowa turned the ball over only four times in the entire first half against Kansas.  In the first 17 minutes of the second half, Northern Iowa turned the ball over once.  Though in the last three minutes, they turned it over three times mainly against full court pressure.  Think anything Kansas did in those first 37 minutes made them really uncomfortable?

Full court pressure carries the added benefit of speeding up the play of the game. When teams are being guarded full court, they lose the ability to walk the ball up the court on offense and pass it around the 3 point line to eat shot clock. This leads to more possessions and if you're turning your opponent over, an advantage for the pressing team.  Going into the game, Kansas was the number 1 offensive team according to Ken Pomeroy and Northern Iowa was 59th. More possessions should have favored the better offensive team.  According to Statsheet, each team had 62 possessions.  Kansas allowed Northern Iowa to control the game with their refusal to use defensive pressure.

One more reason Kansas could have pressed Northern Iowa was to exploit the physical differences between the two teams. The guards for Kansas were quicker, stronger, and bigger than Northern Iowa's. A little bit of full court pressure would have been a way for Kansas to use that to their advantage. Not only could this have helped change the tempo and turnover aspect of the game, it could have had an added benefit of wearing down Northern Iowa. All year long we talked about the depth of Kansas and how athletic some of the players were.  Run some bodies out there and get to their bench. Would anyone be scared of KU's bench against UNI's?


Reasons Not to Press

Very few teams in Division 1 basketball employ full court pressure for large amounts of time. One of the first and most obvious reasons is that being that aggressive on defense can lead to fouls. In fact, that was one answer Bill Self gave when asked why he didn't use more pressure. The early fouls in the first half knocked the defense back on its heels. Self admitted he didn't want to the additional risk of fouling and putting Northern Iowa on the free throw line. In my mind, that's a fair point. Northern Iowa is the 7th best free throw shooting team in the nation and KU had 6 fouls with 11:44 left in the first half.  Do you really want them on the line for free throws because of a foul 75 feet from the basket?

A second potential negative of full court pressure is the possibility of giving up easy baskets in transition.  Teams that can handle the ball well and pass the ball well can get a lot of lay-ups and uncontested shots.  Think back to Missouri in Lawrence this year.  Kansas turned the ball over on 31% of their possessions in that game yet still scored more points per possession against Mizzou than they did against Northern Iowa.  The same was true in Columbia.  Kansas on the other hand, held their Big 12 opponents to less than a point per possession without using full-court pressure!  If they could play that defense against the Big 12, why would they need to resort to a press against a Missouri Valley team?

Adding on, Kansas isn't a full court pressure team for multiple reasons.  They probably used more full-court pressure in the game against Northern Iowa than they did the other 35 games combined.  Those teams that press, it's who they are.  They work on it every day during practice and review it on film constantly.  It's not as easy saying "ok, we're going full-court" and then the players go out and trap, rotate, and recover properly.  If the team is still struggling to rotate properly in the half-court at times, what makes anyone think they could come close to handling the different and more difficult aspects of doing it full-court?

Finally, Kansas was the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament without using full-court pressure this year.  They came out and started slow but couldn't use the pressure because of foul trouble in the first half.  They could have tried it at the start of the second half but what happens if they give up two lay ups or dunks to start the half?  Now it looks like you panicked and still couldn't stop the Panthers.  As the number 1 team, Bill Self gave his team a chance to do what they've done all year.  He let them continue to play how they have because the track record said they would make a run and turn the game around.  Unfortunately it didn't work out that way and we're stuck with a question that really can't be answered.