Bill Carmody’s Defensive Genius

Written February 1st, 2011 by Eric

Better know your spot on defense, or Carmody's gonna let you know about it.

With the Buckeyes sitting at 22-0 and looking variably unstoppable and completely beatable from game to game, it brings a puzzle to mind: How is it that some of the best defensive minds in college basketball have yet to figure out a way to stop this offense?

Ohio State is playing with a number of freshman (though extraordinarily good ones) and using a fairly basic offensive play set.   Those are two traits that should be easily exploitable, and yet very good defensive teams have looked completely lost. Poor Matt Painter didn’t even come close, and he has to be one of the best young guns in the college basketball coaching scene.

But then, suddenly, Bill Carmody’s squad nearly caught the Buckeyes off-guard.  What was the difference between the Purdue game and the Northwestern game?  Did the Buckeyes simply shoot poorly? Partly.  Was there a difference between how Penn State defended the Bucks and how Purdue went about it? Actually, no.  Let’s sort out what these teams are doing to try to combat the Buckeyes, and what has worked so far.

First, it’s helpful to understand a little about the Buckeye offense.  Functionally, the Bucks work their best magic with a 4 guard, 1 center lineup. If you’ve seen an OSU game this season then you know that the Buckeyes are best with Aaron Craft (1), Jon Diebler (2), William Buford (3), David Lighty (4) and Jared Sullinger (5) on the floor (keep in mind that the numbers for the three experienced players are approximations at best).

This is a rather unusual set for a “big conference team” who can usually recruit and put a more balanced lineup on the floor.  The Buckeyes, however, make this strategy work magic for them.  Read on to see how.

Let us presume that we are a coach preparing to defend a team that likes to run 4 guards and a center, and that the center is the team’s best player.  Let’s also presume that this team is not Ohio State for the moment.  Is there a traditional method of defending such an offense?  As a matter of fact, there are several.  The easiest to comprehend will use a man defense.

Usually a 4 guard, 1 center team will lineup with their center posting up on one of the two “blocks” with the other four players spaced out evenly around the three point arc.  When running a man defense, the situation will look like the following graphic.  The “1″ man (the traditional point guard) has the ball.

In this illustration, the offense has spread the court on the perimeter, maximizing the spacing of the defense. They have also placed their center in position to receive a pass from 1 or 4.  The center will switch sides if the ball swings to 2 or 3, allowing him to remain in a position to catch an entry pass at all times.

Given that we know the opponent’s center is the best player on the team, we’re going to want to avoid going one-on-one against him as much as possible.  So, what should we do?

The answer depends a lot on what the team has on the outside, but the best option is as follows: We want to keep the guards covered as much as possible, but when the ball enters to the 5 man, we want to bring help to the paint.  Ostensibly, we’ll double team the center whenever he has the ball.  The usual way to do this is to bring the closest available help.  Let’s say that our opponent has decided to run a play, passing the ball to 4 before sending the ball to 5.  Our response would be to bring 1′s defender into the paint to help defend 5.

That looks like this:

We could also bring 2 or 3′s defender down, but they have further to run, slowing our ability to get the extra defender into position in time.

At this point, 5 has a few reasonable options: He can pass back to 4 and reset the offense; he can pass to 1 who can try the open shot, drive the lane or reset; or he can try to force his way through the double team to the basket.

The best option would be to pass to 1 since it will take time for the defender to get back into position to guard 1.  That gives 1 time to shoot… if he’s able, which is not always true for average point guards.  He can also drive to the basket, which usually turns out to be the better option.

Running the same play on the opposite side of the basket with player 2 – usually your best shooter – is a better offensive play. The only option for defenses is to rotate their defenders over to help defend the easy outlet pass for three.

A number of teams in the Big Ten have tried to defend the Buckeyes in precisely this way – bringing a helper down to cover Sullinger in the paint while leaving a man open. This is ultimately what has gotten teams like Purdue in trouble.

There are two big problems that have caused this strategy to fail miserably:

  1. Sullinger has demonstrated a remarkable ability to pass out of the double team – an unusual trait for a big-man.
  2. Every single one of Ohio State’s guards is a good shooter that you have to worry about leaving open.

Purdue discovered the second point quickly as the Bucks shot 6-9 from beyond the arc in the first half with four different shooters getting in on the action.  While that many threes could be considered a live-by-the-three-die-by-the-three option, it clearly killed the Boilermakers early and completely forced them out of their gameplan.

So what did Bill Carmody do that was so different and ultimately so effective?  As a matter of fact, he did nothing drastically different from the basic strategy we just discussed.  What he did do was get much more creative about which player to bring the double team from.

When Ohio State entered the ball into the post, Northwestern would wait momentarily, allowing Sullinger to believe he faced a one-on-one in the paint.  Once he had committed to a course of action, the Wildcats would bring the man directly behind Sullinger to double team him.

This strategy worked remarkably well and took Sullinger out of the game early on. By choosing the player behind Sullinger, the Wildcats made it impossible for Jared to find the open man on the perimeter.

This strategy resulted in a season low 8 three point attempts by the Buckeyes, a full 10 shots under their average. They also made a season low 2 three pointers, 5 under their average.  Taking away a major part of the OSU offense and essentially eliminating 4 of the 5 players on the court was a big victory for Bill Carmody.

The Buckeyes did adjust to the strategy eventually, but it was tough for them to open up a lead against the suddenly confident Wildcats.  Of course, when they finally did, a critical mistake leading to a 7 point “possession”* allowed the Wildcats to close the gap and make it a game.

It will be interesting to see if any other teams attempt to adopt Carmody’s approach to the problem of defending Sullinger.  It has been apparent that the Buckeyes have been learning how to deal with different defensive looks by repetition.  Having seen a particular strategy once, it’s more difficult for that plan to work again in the future.

In the coming weeks, I’ll look closely at a number of other defenses the Buckeyes have encountered during the season.  We’ll also take a look at several of the offensive strategies Ohio State has employed to make life miserable for opposing coaches.

* I have seen the 7 point series called a “possession” by several people, including Matta.  This is actually a misnomer as a possession officially ends with either a turnover, a defensive rebound or a made basket.  If a foul is committed with a made basket, that counts towards that possession, but the subsequent play is a new possession by itself, not a continuation of the previous possession.  This is entirely a semantic point, but one that is important in the analysis of basketball statistics.


  1. Craig56No Gravatar
    February 1st, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    That analysis was helpful. The philosophy plus the seven-point-swing led to a perfect storm of sorts. I hope Ohio State figures something out, since Wisconsin will do this twice and Wisconsin has more talent.

    Northwestern’s emphasis on holding the ball helps, and also their willingness to put up crazy shots with one second left on the clock, which leads to more long rebounds. Crazy shots = Crazy rebounds.


    EricNo Gravatar
    February 1st, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Completely agreed Craig.

    I did note late in the article that the Buckeyes have done a very good job of “learning from their mistakes” as it were. Every time we see a new defensive strategy, the next time we see it we’re much better able to adjust to it on the fly. Wisconsin may try it, but it might not be as effective as when Carmody tried to employ it.

    Of course, Bo Ryan will have a better stable of players to try it with, and will likely have come up with his own unique idea for attacking the defense.

    You’re also dead on with the offensive side of the strategy. The Princeton offense that the Wildcats favor generally calls for holding the ball for the best shot possible (something Wisconsin also likes to do). That strategy ultimately limited OSU’s possessions, and amplified our rebounding struggles. Every rebound you miss in a game with fewer possessions hurts more than they would in an average game.


  2. Lurking_MichaelNo Gravatar
    February 1st, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Sorry, this response is going to read like a book:

    Although I agree with the basic premise that Carmody’s double-team defender confused Sully in the first half and made it hard to find the open man, I would not say the Northwestern defense was particularly effective (given the OSU field goal percentage, lack of turnovers, and relatively low number of empty OSU possessions). What the Wildcats did very well is to stay on the perimeter shooters, particularly Diebler, and perhaps played Craft tougher than we’ve seen. The low number of possessions and lack of 3-point attempts kept the score low and allowed them to hang around. The 3s that OSU attempted were generally forced, accounting for the low percentage from beyond the arc.

    There was plenty of fault with an unusually stagnant offense. Diebler’s only real “effort play” (IMO) on the offensive end resulted in a 3 from the top of the circle. I thought he lacked energy on Saturday and wasn’t coming off of screens with any real juice. Buford and Lighty made very little effort to take on much less athletic defenders (but when they did, Lighty traveled twice and then got really tentative). If a team is going to crowd them to take away the 3-ball, they have to drive to create a shot (or, if doubled, dump to Sully). Do this a few times and the D loosens up enough to where the 3 opens up again. At the very least, it’s a way to pick up extra fouls and get to the line. I felt the Buckeyes lacked offensive motion and energy, but it’s understandable coming off their most intense performance of the season.

    I’d like to see more skip passes to Diebler when he’s open in the corner. I see him open quite often but sometimes Ohio State goes station-to-station with its passing and gives zones or loose man coverage time to adjust before making the next pass. Skip passing isn’t something we do often enough but I think Craft will add that to his repertoire when he gains more experience.

    I thought it was very interesting that Ohio State’s best +/- player was Dallas Lauderdale (+8) whereas its worst was Craft (-8). Thomas was absolutely lost defending that offense and was -5 in only seven minutes, and didn’t play at all in the second half.


    EricNo Gravatar
    February 1st, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    One thing I left out of the analysis, as it was going to be discussed down the line, is the advantage that we have with our shooters (generally). Teams have been forced to avoid playing help defense on the dribble drive simply because they can’t leave an open 3 point shooter to catch a pass from the lane for an easy shot.

    The end result of this is that most of our three point shooters have been tightly covered. When you then add in the fact that Carmody was careful about who was left open, you can see why our three point shooting was drastically altered. I absolutely agree with you that our three point shooting numbers were low because Northwestern used tight defense, but that’s not a surprise as *everyone* has used tight defense on our shooters all year.

    The reason we’ve been successful in shooting the three in prior games has had everything to do with what the opposing defenses have chosen to allow us to have. If you roll through the stats, you’ll notice that we’ve always had 1 guy outside of Sullinger as a second big scorer. That’s had everything to do with which player the other team has chosen to use on the double team.

    We’ve also seen the team adjust to start driving the lane later in games, which has – as you mentioned – begun to loosen the defense. We saw that against Northwestern with Diebler driving past his man off the left corner which resulted in a Sullinger rebound and layup. But that was going to be a story for a different day.

    Ultimately, this article is one aspect of a defensive set. Unlike in football where adjustments can take upwards of a quarter or a half to really make, Basketball adjustments are much quicker. Discussing it properly would take several articles.


  3. KenNo Gravatar
    February 2nd, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Nice analysis & examples (complete with visuals!), Eric. I’ve got a comment and a question.

    I think that our “wingmen”, Diebler, Buford & Lighty are at their best when they are running to the basket and working off backside screens. This really needs to be an aggressive offense.

    WWith the above example, where the #4 defender drops back to double on our #5, why wouldn’t the ball be kicked back to our #4 for jump shot or drive?


    EricNo Gravatar
    February 2nd, 2011 at 8:46 am

    The trick is in the timing, which is tough to include in the diagram.

    “When Ohio State entered the ball into the post, Northwestern would wait momentarily, allowing Sullinger to believe he faced a one-on-one in the paint. Once he had committed to a course of action, the Wildcats would bring the man directly behind Sullinger to double team him.”

    Sullinger would be engaging his man, going for the shot, or facing the basket. Essentially everything but expecting a double team. If he did notice the double team, the open guy was behind him, impossible for him to see easily, and likely impossible to see without fouling.


    EricNo Gravatar
    February 2nd, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Also, I should point out that when we did start passing it back to 4 the defender was close enough to get back on defense in case of a shot, and in proper position to stop a dribble drive to the basket. Pretty effectively hampered what our offense wanted to do.

    I definitely agree with your comment. These guys are best coming off the screen. We’re also a lot better when they drive the lane once in a while, than we are when they stand around beyond the arc. Defenses have to give room for the three if they know they can easily give up a layup by defending too tightly.


  4. Buckeye Basketball Breakdown: Collapsing the Defense « The Buckeye Battle Cry
    February 10th, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    [...] last week’s article, conveniently named something completely different, we discussed some of the defensive strategies that have been employed to stop Jared Sullinger.  [...]

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