How the full-court press distinguishes Syracuse from the rest of the sport

first_imgIt didn’t matter that Syracuse led unranked University of Maryland, Baltimore County by 35 points with five and a half minutes remaining.After her reverse layup, Teisha Hyman didn’t jog back on defense, instead she turned to immediately face-guard the Retrievers’ point guard. UMBC’s inbound sailed over Hyman’s head and into the Carrier Dome stands, awarding Syracuse another possession in a Dec. 8 game already sealed.The defensive strategy that held the Retrievers without a field goal for the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter makes Syracuse an outlier. Nobody else in the sport presses like SU does — for every minute of every game, after every made basket or backcourt inbound. Nobody does it as sophisticatedly as the Orange, who deploy at least a dozen different press schemes that keep their opponents guessing.“The way that they do it and the success they’ve had with it, if somebody else is doing it — maybe at a lower level — I don’t know about it,” said Mechelle Voepel, who’s covered women’s college basketball for ESPN since 1996.Unlike the rest of the sport, Syracuse (8-7, 2-2 Atlantic Coast) has embraced the press, which defines the program as much as its margin-based offense. Syracuse’s goal isn’t always to cause turnovers, rather to either speed teams up or slow them down, forcing rushed shots early or late in the shot clock. Ultimately, SU wants the press to make the defense’s job easier in the halfcourt, “shrink the clock” and win the possession battle, head coach Quentin Hillsman said.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textVoepel, SU coaches and players alike can’t pinpoint exactly why women’s teams might be more hesitant to press than on the men’s side, where pressing for longer spurts is common. But they all agreed that its rare nature can play to Syracuse’s advantage, an edge it rode to the 2016 National Championship and searched to recreate ever since.“I think a lot of people are afraid of pressing,” former SU star Alexis Peterson said. “Pressing is a gamble. And so sometimes you know that you’re going to get beat, you’re going to give up easy baskets. So not a lot of people are willing to take that risk … And especially to do it for 40 minutes, it takes a certain level of athlete to press for 40 minutes no matter what.”Corey Henry | Photo EditorWhen assistant coach Vonn Read joined Hillsman’s coaching staff in 2011, Syracuse ran mostly a half-court 2-3 zone. Hillsman had picked up some principles from Jim Boeheim’s famous zone, but it wasn’t working — in the five years before Hillsman hired Read, SU made one NCAA Tournament.To avoid defending 30 seconds of ball reversals and finding weak spots in the zone, Read suggested the full-court press. That way, SU could dictate the tempo and force teams to begin their offensive sets with 18 or fewer seconds on the shot clock.Read and Hillsman soon developed the advanced pressure system Syracuse still utilizes today. The Orange use several different types of presses, both in man-to-man and zone. Sometimes SU defenders deny opposing guards the inbounds pass, sometimes they trap after the catch, or even after the first ball reversal. The calls from the bench include fist, double fist, red, white, 22, 21, and 12, each indicating different looks.The sheer amount of unique presses allows Syracuse to disguise one variation while actually playing a different one, tricking teams into running the wrong press break. Hillsman morphs his press into “whatever it needs to be” based on the opponent’s press break offense. Opposing coaches have told Read and former assistant Tammi Reiss that they try to simulate Syracuse’s press in practice by putting seven defenders on the court.“I always laugh when I hear people say, ‘Oh, we figured your press out,’” Hillsman said. “I’m like, that’s impossible, even I don’t know what our press is going to be until the ball comes inbounds.”The Orange’s press got an added boost before the 2013 season when the NCAA approved the 10-second backcourt violation rule, which had been law on the men’s side since 1932. The implementation rewarded SU’s pressure and helped it better control the pace of games, Read said.Against UMBC, the Orange pressed until they emptied the bench. Reiss said Hillsman and Read never want to “call the dogs off.”The press has become Syracuse’s reputation. It’s how they play, regardless of game situation or opponent. Against Notre Dame on Jan. 5, the Orange baited UND into throwing a wild advance pass and forcing up a contested, double-teamed shot four seconds into the shot clock. The sequence led Hillsman to tweet out a video clip of the play with the caption “This is Syracuse Basketball #execution.” Incoming recruits know they’re going to have to press for 40 minutes, sophomore Emily Engstler said, and sprinting to your spot or matching up after a shot ripples through the net has become muscle memory for players.“We know this is what we do,” former SU star Brittney Sykes told reporters after a win in 2016. “We press for 40 minutes. If we’re up 30 or if we’re down two, we’re going to press, press, press.”Sykes, Peterson and the 2015-16 team is one of the main reasons SU’s press stands out within the sport. That year, the runner-up Syracuse recorded the second-most turnovers per game in the NCAA (23.87). In a Sweet 16 matchup against the No. 1 seed, 33-1 South Carolina, the underdog Orange forced 18 turnovers to advance.That group had been playing together in SU’s system for three or four years and had developed a special chemistry. They all trusted each other to recover and help whenever they got beat one-on-one in the press, Peterson said, and turned the “gamble of pressing” into “second nature.” Peterson (third) and Sykes (fifth) make up two of Syracuse’s five all-time steals leaders.“That team fit our pressing mentality,” Read said. “They loved to do it, they understood it, and it worked for them.”This year, Syracuse hasn’t been able to match 2016’s press. Despite having five returning players in the starting lineup, SU’s press doesn’t have the same continuity it had at its apex. As of Jan. 11, the Orange have forced 14.57 turnovers per game, 274th in the nation.The press has repeatedly broken down, allowing opponents to get easy layups or open 3s in transition. For the majority of games, Syracuse puts its guards — typically Gabrielle Cooper and Kiara Lewis — at the top of the press to apply light pressure. This can disrupt opponents’ half-court sets, but when SU needs to shift momentum with one of their traps, it’s had trouble generating turnovers.The Orange have also recorded the 169th most possessions per 40 minutes out of 351 teams, per Her Hoops Stats. In other words, they’re failing on both objectives: forcing turnovers and playing to their pace. Engstler said SU’s press has, at times, faltered when fatigue sets in.“(The press) really pumps us up, it energizes us with turnovers or even if we’re just slowing them down,” Engstler said. “It gives us a better chance to score. But … sometimes when you run a press for 40 minutes, you get tired. And, when we’re tired, which is our fault, the press doesn’t always work as effectively.”Roshan Fernandez | Asst. digital editorAgainst then-No. 1 Oregon, reigning national player of the year Sabrina Ionescu and other guards dribbled through the middle of SU’s press with ease, splitting double teams and advancing the ball up the court with little resistance. The Orange played Oregon to a draw in the first quarter, but eventually fell behind and ramped up their trapping presses. The Ducks’ lead only widened.But against Notre Dame, as Syracuse’s offense sputtered through several scoring droughts and a 1-for-17 stretch from 3, SU needed a momentum swing more than ever. It turned to the press, and it delivered.At one point, Notre Dame broke the run-and-jump, but SU’s traps sped them up so much they recklessly turned it over anyway. Late in the fourth quarter, Hyman, alone in the backcourt, swiped the ball from UND’s point guard. Twice, Notre Dame tried to force a pass through the middle to beat SU’s zone press, and twice Digna Strautmane intercepted it.In the 15 minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, Syracuse held Notre Dame to 14 points on 22.7% shooting. Eight of the Fighting Irish’s 22 turnovers came in that span, and SU pulled away in their comeback victory.Though the success of SU’s press against Notre Dame could’ve been an anomaly, it also may have been a sign that SU’s group is growing more comfortable and confident in the defense. It takes time.“When we first started, we weren’t always great,” Peterson said. “We gave up a lot of things, we didn’t turn people over. But I think the more they trust it and trust the system and really learn teams and schemes and places where you can pick your points … I think they’ll have some more success.” Comments Published on January 12, 2020 at 11:18 pm Contact Danny: dremerma@syr.edu | @DannyEmermancenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img read more