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Film Room: Problems with the Pick and Roll

The cornerstone of modern basketball is befuddling the ‘Cats.

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why the pick and roll works so well in basketball. A solid screen can take a defender out of the equation and create pseudo power plays for the offense. Bringing four players into such a small airspace causes confusion and disruption, which can hurt every player that does not control the ball in their hands.

The play can be served in many creative variations. Best of all, it’s the most simple play there is. It does not require surreal basketball instincts from its participants. Rather, basically any competent player can at least initiate the action, though it does take an impressive ball handler to truly excel within it.

All of those are factors for why the pick and roll is so hard to defend, and thus, why so many teams on both the college and professional level run it quite often. Plenty of teams struggle with how to stop a basic pick and roll, so saying that the ‘Cats need to defend it better isn’t some huge leaping conclusion.

But not only did Northwestern get picked apart by Pitt’s pick and roll Wednesday night, whenever Collins’ team tried to run it themselves, it was often just wasted motion. I’ve had some questions about this team’s general approach to pick and rolls, and that culminated with the play absolutely killing them on both sides of the floor in the Fort Myers Tipoff Championship.

Let’s get into the tape:

P&R Defense

Even though it didn’t hurt them early, the ‘Cats defensive pick and roll issues were very noticeable, resulting in a multitude of easy, open threes for the Pitt Panthers.

I know that this shot didn’t fall. In fact, Pittsburgh missed all 11 of its three-point attempts in the first half. But regardless of outcome (and for the record, down the stretch, made threes off of similar action killed any chance Northwestern had of coming back), the defense in this situation just was not good.

In that clip above, I’m having trouble understanding why the ‘Cats choose to defend this way. Ryan Young and Anthony Gaines “double” the ball handler, and I say “double” because instead of trapping him at the point of attack, Young drops and contains him while Gaines half-heartedly trails behind the two. Meanwhile Pete Nance slides over to guard the rolling big, leaving his man wide open in the corner, and not a single person rotates toward the open shooter.

Since the ball handler was attacking to his right, Nance should have stayed home on his man, while Miller Kopp should have bumped down and shaded to the roller, as he would have a much better chance to recover out to his man on the perimeter. Even if your opponents keeps missing, giving up wide open threes to division one guards almost always comes back to kill you eventually.

Justin Champagnie was the one who clanked that corner triple, and he finished with a game-high 21 points after the ‘Cats let him get comfortable with open looks in the first half.

The same problems continued for much of the first half defensively, despite the final stats looking pretty good on that end for Northwestern.

Once again, the ‘Cats undeservedly dodged a bullet here (even if this bullet was one of the worst airballs I’ve ever seen). This play shows that what happened in the first clip wasn’t Nance’s fault. It seems that he was simply obeying the defensive protocol Collins and co. have laid out, as again the ball is softly doubled, and again the strong-side defender, this time Robbie Beran, slides down to take the roll man. Yet again, it results in an open three.

That’s not to say the bad defense was all om Collins’ scheme, though the passive doubles continue to confound me. Sometimes the NU defenders just looked flat footed and surprised in P&R-type situations, like they were just going through the motions while the Pitt players read and reacted in real time.

Young and Beran are playing as if they’ve already taken away the ball handler’s option to go right, both having their left foot in front of their right. The only problem is that they haven’t forced anything.

They’re in the position they should be after the screen is set, not when the screen is set. Pitt’s Trey McGowens immediately crosses back, the other three Northwestern defenders were glued to their men and not ready to help, and he races to the rim unimpeded.

But that passive double continued to hurt the ‘Cats, even as Pitt began to slip the screen later in the game.

Even when Nance as the weak side defender helps over rather than the strong side defender, it’s still a problem. In modern, high-level basketball, you should either switch, pursue the handler over as the screener’s man drops back, and if you still want to be kind of old school, you could even hedge and recover. Passively doubling just doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the Panthers took advantage of that.

Northwestern’s pick and roll defense gave up open corner threes to an embarrassing level, and this may well become an even bigger problem come conference play, as I’m willing to bet that most Big Ten teams will shoot better on these open looks than Pitt managed to.

P&R Offense

This just isn’t a good enough pick from Beran. He doesn’t screen in one particular direction, just standing behind the Pitt defender lifelessly, and Spencer is just left to try and isolate up top, leading to a tough shot as the shot clock runs down. Spencer perhaps could have made more of it than he did or called for a re-screen, but really, the first year needs to do a better job in that situation.

Northwestern just seemed discombobulated whenever they tried to roll a big man to the hoop. However, they did find some success when they tried variations on the pick-and-pop, particularly with Nance and Jared Jones as the screeners

That’s a great stroke from Jones. No hesitation, and he slipped out of the screen with great timing and rhythm.

Nance can’t hit the open shot in that second clip, but what the ‘Cats ran is one of my absolute favorite plays in basketball — the Spain pick and roll. The name derives from its origins in the Euro League, and it’s become the pet play of many teams in the NBA.

The basic idea is that after the ball screen is set at the top of the key, another player comes and immediately backscreens the screener’s man. This almost always opens up a lob to the initial screener or an open three to the backscreener, as it did here with Nance. Nance and Jones are both capable shooters, and I would love to see them run more sets like this.

Unfortunately, the ‘Cats did not run enough of these types of plays down the stretch. Instead, they were doomed late by their inability to create good offense in straight-up P&R scenarios. Even worse, they couldn’t stop the play that they largely couldn’t run. This last sequence here was the dagger, and fittingly, Northwestern was killed in pick and roll concepts on both ends of the court.

If Spencer waits just one more second, Young is wide open in the paint for an easy pass, and Nance too has an opportunity to hit the big man, but opts in favor of a contested three that wasn’t particularly close.

Instead, the Panthers come down the court and again catch the ‘Cats leaving a man open in the corner for three off of their favorite action, and this time they made the shot that ultimately sealed Northwestern’s fate.

There wasn’t one singular thing to blame for why the pick and roll was such a huge problem last night. The whole thing was a gigantic mess, and all I can definitively conclude is that despite the promise they showed in other areas, Collins and his young squad have a lot to work on in post-Thanksgiving practice when it comes to P&R concepts.