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: | @DannyEmermancenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img read more

Before (maybe) Tim Tebow and (possibly) Kyler Murray, D.J. Dozier blazed rare NFL-to-MLB path

first_imgHe split the 1993 season between the Padres’ and Cardinals’ Triple-A squads, posting an .800 OPS with eight homers and six stolen bases in 88 games. Dozier, who played six games for the NFL’s Lions in 1991, officially retired as an athlete after the 1993 baseball season.Following his passion for baseball, he carved out a unique niche in American sports. “I didn’t want the regret of not trying,” he said. Kyler Murray, as you know, chose football earlier this week. This doesn’t close the book on Murray’s potential baseball career, of course. Not completely. It does, certainly, close the chapter.  Last June, Murray was the No. 9 overall pick in the MLB Draft, but the Oakland A’s allowed him to play one more year of football at Oklahoma. The ultra-talented quarterback won the Heisman Trophy, and buoyed by that success and the prospect of playing in the NFL this fall, he forfeited the $4.66 million bonus from the A’s and will concentrate his efforts on preparing for the NFL Draft. If he’s picked in the first round, as expected, he’ll earn more than $4.66 million over the next few years.MORE: Opening Day schedule for all 30 MLB teamsAnd if he’s the star quarterback most expect him to be, he might never give baseball a second thought. But funny things happen along the way to NFL stardom — and very unfunny things, too (injuries, etc.) — and with elite talent in baseball, too, Murray has a fallback option. He wouldn’t be the first NFL/MLB two-sport star, obviously. But his path, going from the NFL to MLB, would be pretty rare.Superstar Bo Jackson started with baseball in 1986, then began his NFL career in 1987. Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan both started in the minors a year before being drafted into the NFL. Drew Henson and Chad Hutchinson, to name a couple, went from baseball-only to football-only.Only one player since 1949 — when former NFL punter/halfback/defensive back Andy Tomasic pitched two innings for the New York Giants — has gone from a football-only career to a baseball-only career and actually reached the major leagues. Tim Tebow is attempting to become the second to make that leap, following in the footsteps of D.J. Dozier. Dozier helped lead the Penn State football team to the 1987 national championship, then played four years for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings before officially launching his professional baseball career. He reached the majors in 1992, playing 25 games with the New York Mets.To know what challenges Kyler Murray might eventually have to overcome, should circumstances ever lead to a sport change, I wanted to talk with Dozier about his story. He lives and works in Virginia Beach, Va. — his self-help book, “Decide to Dominate,” was released in October 2018 and we spent an hour on the phone, talking about his journey.“Either way, it’s hard,” Dozier said with a laugh. “To take a few years off of football and try to go back, that would be challenging, from a physical standpoint. With baseball, it’s the same level of challenge, only on the mental and skill-development side. I tell people I had no idea how challenging it would be to learn how to hit in the big leagues.”Really, to learn how to hit, period.”MORE: For Murray, baseball question will be big challenge of NFL Draft processDozier was a star in both football and baseball at Kempsville High in Virginia Beach. Despite his strong Penn State commitment, the Detroit Tigers picked him in the 18th round of the 1983 MLB Draft, just in case. Dozier planned to play both baseball and football at Penn State, but Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno had one request. Paterno wanted Dozier to dedicate his freshman season to football, and then he was fine with Dozier picking baseball back up in the spring of his sophomore year. Dozier was a football star from the beginning, rushing for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. He followed that with 741 yards from scrimmage as a sophomore, but a swollen knee led to minor surgery after the season, and rushing back from that to play baseball seemed like a bad idea. And after a junior season that saw Penn State go 11-0 and a No. 1 ranking before losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Dozier opted — wisely — to focus on helping his teammates achieve their national championship dreams his senior year.That year, Dozier led Penn State in rushing yards (811), receptions (26) and total touchdowns (12), and the Nittany Lions stayed perfect into a Fiesta Bowl matchup with top-ranked juggernaut Miami. “Nobody gave us much of a shot,” Dozier said, “but they forgot how good our defense was.”MORE: 30 teams, 30 grades: Rating each MLB team’s offseasonPenn State, of course, won 14-10, with Dozier scoring the go-ahead touchdown, a six-yard run midway through the fourth quarter. Dozier was a first-round pick by the Vikings in the 1987 NFL Draft (14th overall), and football consumed his efforts. Baseball, though, made a couple of pointed appearances in his mind. The first time was his senior year at Penn State, when some of his friends were watching a Pirates game on the television and Dozier said, in a thought out loud, “Oh, I can do that.” Playing for the Vikings in his rookie year, Dozier went to the 1987 World Series games in Minneapolis, and in Game 2 had the same “I can do that” thought, a little deeper this time.After the 1989 NFL season, baseball tugged again. This time, he acted. “It became so overwhelming that I decided to pray about it, then called my agent. ‘Hey Brett (Senior), listen. I’ve done a lot of thinking, praying. I’m going to play baseball,’ ” Dozier said, “The phone went silent for about 10 or 12 seconds. Then he quietly says, ‘Well, what do you want to do that for?’ And I said, ‘Because I do.’ ”The Tigers’ draft rights had expired. Senior had a few contacts in baseball, but Dozier asked him to call Dave Rosenfield, the longtime general manager of the Tidewater Tides, the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate. Rosenfield knew Dozier from his high school days, when Dozier was a local prep baseball star. “Dave always said to me, ‘D.J., I don’t care where you go or what you do, don’t stop thinking about baseball. You’d make a heck of a player,’ ” Dozier said. An offer to come work out with the Mets that spring followed. Dozier went out and bought spikes, a bat and a glove, then spent 30-something days quietly working out at Saginaw Sports, trying to remember and refine baseball skills he hadn’t used in more than six years. Dozier’s first day in spring camp with the Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla., included a batting practice session with Dwight Gooden, of all people, on the mound. That spring, Dozier’s “hit anything that looks good” philosophy from high school was quickly challenged.“The curveball didn’t intimidate me, but I realized the curveball was a little better at this level, and those left-handed changeups were ridiculous,” he said with a laugh. “That pitch was my nemesis. I could not figure out how to hit that pitch, and it frustrated the heck out of me. It put me in a humble place. I’d never even seen a slider in high school. I was as green as they get. But I was also a guy living a dream, that no one could even imagine how amazing it was for me. I realized how much of a gift this was.”The Mets liked what they saw from Dozier’s time and wanted to send him to low-A Columbia that summer, but he was still under contract with the Vikings, and the NFL team nixed that idea. In the spring of 1990, though, the Mets brought him back and signed him. That summer, split between High-A St. Lucie and Double-A Jackson, Dozier — an outfielder who hit and threw right-handed — was a revelation. In 122 games, he stole 36 bases, hit 15 homers, 10 triples and posted an .882 OPS. Dozier spent spring 1991 in the big-league camp, then had 33 stolen bases, nine homers and 11 triples between Double-A and Triple-A that season. But a lack of playing time in spring training 1992 was frustrating, and then he spent the first month in Triple-A watching other players get the call to the majors.“I was thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ They’re not even thinking about me. I’m wasting my time,” Dozier said. “It’s probably the most dejected I’ve ever been in my sports career.”He’d forgotten to enjoy the game, and it showed in his play. An epiphany in his hotel room one night changed all that, and his production improved as his attitude improved. And then came a moment he’ll never forget. “We were in Syracuse,” Dozier said. “After the game, we walked into the locker room, and the Mets are on the TV. Vince Coleman is the left fielder for the Mets, and as I walk in and look up at the screen, he literally pulls a hamstring the very moment I look up. One of my teammates, Dale Plummer, who was a pitcher, says, ‘That’s you.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. I’m content right where I am.’ I was serious about that.”Around midnight, Clint Hurdle — whose managerial rise paralleled Dozier’s rise through the Mets’ system — knocked on Dozier’s door to tell him he was being called up. Dozier made his debut May 6 as a pinch-hitter against Cincinnati lefty Greg Swindell.“My first at-bat, I told myself, ‘You’re not going to be nervous,’ ” Dozier remembered. “But I’m going to tell you, when I stepped in that batter’s box, it literally felt like the earth was shaking. I mean, to this day and before that day, I’d never, ever been that nervous in my life. And I couldn’t stop it. I tried to talk myself out of it, but I was not listening to myself. I didn’t even know how I’d see the ball.”MORE: 19 reasons why baseball will be great in 2019After the first pitch, the nervousness went away. Dozier fell behind, 0-2, fouled off a pitch and then smacked a grounder to the left side of the infield. “I thought I’d gotten a hit, because I hit it toward the shortstop and beat out the throw,” Dozier said. “What I didn’t realize was he’d bobbled the ball and still tried to get it there.” Dozier started the next night, walking and stealing second base in the second inning. His first hit came May 8 in his first at-bat at the Mets’ home park, Shea Stadium, against Dodgers right-hander Roger McDowell. “He jams me, and I’m not exaggerating when I say when I was 5 years old I could hit the ball farther,” Dozier laughs. “This ball dribbles off my bat, like a pulling bunt for a lefty. It’s moving fast enough that it gets past McDowell and the first baseman has to get it. When it comes to a race, very seldom do I lose, and I ended up beating him to first.” Dozier spent most of May in the big leagues, then was called up again in September. He saw action in 25 games — 14 starts — and hit .191, with four stolen bases, two doubles and two RBIs in 54 plate appearances. Turns out, that was his only taste of the majors. last_img read more