web analytics

Anatomy of a Meltdown (or…why my stomach is in knots today)

Last night we saw NC State display one of the biggest collapses in NCAA Tournament history. With a second-half lead of 16 points with 8:13 remaining, the Pack was in the driver’s seat. Over the next 3 minutes, though, St. Louis didn’t go away, instead trimming the lead to 10 by 5:00 remaining. From that point on, St. Louis applied the Jimmy V strategy of fouling and full court pressure, and the Pack didn’t respond well, making only 9 of 21 free throws from that point forward.

Everyone was to blame for the collapse. The players who made the best plays made some of the dumbest plays, too. However there were three main factors that explain this collapse:

  • Fatigue – The Wolfpack played 3 games in the ACC Tournament over 3 days, learned of their seed the following day, left at 5am to Dayton, had a walk-through, played a game the next day, traveled the next day, then played the next day. That’s 5 games in 8 days, and the team was both physically and mentally exhausted when they attained that 16-point lead.
  • Free Throws – The only shot you can practice? NCSU made 9 of 21 for that stretch (up to that point they were an acceptable 11-16). While free throws are where fatigue rears its ugly head, the players are still to blame for this one
  • Coaching – After the debacle where they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at #1 Syracuse, I though this team would have worked on attacking full court pressure. It should have been deeply engrained in these players at a young age, for heaven’s sake. It was evident, though, the team had not, which leads me to the point of this article.

fullcourtpress Attacking a good full-court press involves good spacing and decisive action. The main idea is that you want to advance the ball up the center of the court with passes, if possible. Once the ball is inbounded, you send your slow big man long for a long pass. This pulls a defender away and reduces the attack to 4-on-4. The other three players form an umbrella for the ball handler. The center of the umbrella is the preferred pass, however if he is covered, there are two other options.

As the diagram shows once the ball gets to the center of that umbrella, the weakside umbrella man sprints down the middle for the pass. The other two adjust to create a new umbrella for the new ballhandler. Once the ball beats the pressure, you advance hard down the court. In order to do this, the receiver catches the ball, he quickly pivots and looks to attack. When executed correctly, there is never a back-pass option for the receiver.

State faced 14 full-court pressure possessions. On four of them St. Louis fouled immediately. However of the remaining 10, NCSU handled only one well. Let’s look at a few of them.


With 3:43 remaining the team essentially abandons Tyler Lewis against the press, and the Pack burns a timeout to re-set.


With 3:15 remaining, State appears to be using some kind of 3-back/2-long arrangement. The ball gets to the center, but the wings don’t adjust, and TJ Warren ends up throwing a dangerous pass way down court.


With 3:00 remaining State uses the same 3+2 arrangement, and Tyler Lewis attempt to dribble around screens with his weak hand, which results in a travel (turnover). No attack of the middle was attempted.


With 2:13 remaining, State inbounds the ball to TJ Warren, but teammates stand there and don’t get open. Luckily Warren was fouled in the tie-up (he missed the first, made the second)


With 1:55 remaining, State is an an all-hands-on-deck arrangement, inviting a 5th defender to the party, and clogging the floor. TJ Warren is dribbling with his weak hand, and the other three men back don’t move to the middle. Instead Warren is left to dribble toward us, and doesn’t give an outlet pass to a streaking Cat Barber (in the bottom of the screen).


Hallelujah! With 1.36 remaining, the Pack finds correct spacing, and gets the ball to the power position at the middle of the umbrella, a McDonald’s All-American point guard. What does he do? Immediately passes the ball back where the defense can still be a factor. Even Dan Bonner asks,”Why did he pass the ball back ? Remember: Pivot, then attack!


With 1:07 they inbound it to Warren at the sideline who doesn’t immediately attack. Instead, he waits and invites the double-team. He then commits to jumping into the air and is lucky enough to find Raulston Turner in the power position. Turner then travels (not called) and returns the ball to the streaking Warren who is off to the races. The dangerous pass to Turner could have been avoided if the team adjusted after Warren got the ball. Perhaps an even better move for Turner was to pivot and get the ball to the opposite side where Cat Barber was streaking unguarded. The whole point of this is to attack so hard that the pressing team cannot catch up and foul you, but keeping the ball along that right sideline lets the defense off a bit. It’s not a bad play by Turner, but not one that breaks the game wide open.


With 0:49 remaining, State inbounds to the sideline! This time, however, Barber immediately dribbles to the power position where he is fouled. Two teammates stand passively in their positions and watch 4 defenders collapse on Barber. (Barber makes one, misses the second)


With 0:36 remaining, State still opts for all 5 guys back, allowing that 5th defender and removing all gaps for beating St. Louis’ pressure. Here they have inbounded the ball to Warren who doesn’t pivot. Instead he passes the ball back to Freeman in a position under the basket! Shame! Freeman has only one option since nobody has filled the most important position on the court, the center spot. Luckily he has a reverse pass over to Lee at the near sideline, which he lollipops. Lee immediately dribbles in place, and allows the defense to attack him. With no power position in place still , he loops a Hail Mary to Warren at midcourt at the far sideline. This pass is in the air a long time, making it easier to steal, and allows the defense to approach Warren and foul him.

Of course, the most popular way to beat a fouling full-court pressure is to make your free throws. However the better way is to flex your muscles and get some easy fast break points, demoralizing the opponent (see Houston’s performance in the Kemper Arena in the Regional Finals in 1983). The offense has to be in position, however, to attack the press, and that is what the coaches of these players have failed to engrain during practices. I coached 11 years at the little league level, and we had 11 and 12 year olds attacking the middle just as I prescribed, so the argument that these players are “young” is invalid.

Fatigue was a factor in their missing free throws, however when you are fatigued and stressed, what you’ve been taught is what comes out. These players all played plenty of AAU ball, and the coaches along the way, not just Mark Gottfried, are to blame. We have a system where young players are spending 1000s of hours playing out-of-school basketball, doing extensive traveling not only in high school, but middle school, too, and they don’t know fundamental details such as how to attack a full-court press. This , even more than the unexpected collapse, is what has my stomach in knots today.

top -->