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High school sports

Pulling out all the stops

In high school basketball, successful teams employ strong defense


A few years ago, sports writer Neil Paine of the website basketball-reference.com examined 50 years of National Basketball Association title-winning teams. The teams were strong on offense and defense, but Paine noted that a small improvement to defense increased a team’s chances of winning championships more than the same improvement in offense.

That concept would seem to apply not only to the pro level, but also the amateur ranks, including Colorado high school basketball.

“When talking about the old adage of `defense wins championships,’ I believe it still has substance in today’s game, which seems to be focused on offense and 3-pointers,” Legacy boys coach Connor Clay said.

“Defense is one of the few things in basketball that is always in your control as a player because it is always about effort and attitude. Defensive effort and attitude are a couple of the few things players can consistently control, and consistency wins championships.”

Arvada point guard Isaiah Vigil testified to the importance of defense after Littleton recently beat the Bulldogs.

“They (Littleton) were a swarming defense and pressured us up and down the court,” Vigil said. “Their defense forced us to change some of the things I do. Their defender forced me to go the opposite way. I normally dribble, so he made me pull up and look to get a pass to an open teammate.”

Local coaches saying playing strong defense does more than stop the other team from scoring — it can also translate into offensive opportunities at the other end of the court.

“When you have two really good teams playing against each other, the defense is really what swings it,” Rock Canyon girls coach Becky Mudd said. “Your defense can start so many things for you offensively. You still need to have somebody who can put the ball in the basket but definitely your defense can spark a lot of things.”

Putting strategy to work

There are a variety of approaches that can be employed, including man-to-man, pressure and zone defenses. It is up to coaches to decide which defense to use and when. For instance, zone defenses are often used to change tempo and keep players out of foul trouble.

“It all depends on how well the opponent can score,” Lakewood boys coach Daryl Johnson said. “We just look to give more attention in high school games to those players that can score. So that’s when we like to shift our defense.”

To many, strong defense starts close to the basket.

“The paint is where you win and lose games. Our interior defense is very important to our success,” Rock Canyon boys coach Kenton Grams said.

Joe Ortiz, boys coach at ThunderRidge, agrees.

“Interior defense is more important because those players are the backup most of the time,” Ortiz said. “Most of the time, he is the last guy standing. He is like the free safety. We want to protect the basket first and a lot of time, that’s who it is.”

Defensive trends come and go.

“For a while everyone was playing the full court, 1-2-1-1, then everybody started playing the 2-2-1 and some people the run and jump,” Mudd said. “I think there is a resurgence of good man defense in the half court and playing good, solid, man-to-man defense. I’d like to see that trickle down to the middle schools.”

The right stuff

It takes intensity, passion and effort to be a good defender, coaches say.

“Mindset is the most important thing… it’s got to be a priority,” Ortiz said.

Coaches are always seeking athletes who are willing to play defense.

“Defense is something you can teach anybody, especially (good) athletes,” Mudd said. “They learn so much one-on-one play as they are growing up, they know offensive skills. It takes less talent to play defense — it just takes more heart.

“A coach always loves a good defender. There is always a place for somebody who is going to give their heart and play good defense.”

For some players, defense is more than just a requirement.

“It is really fun to play defense,” Arapahoe junior Eliana McClarie said. “It is satisfying to get steals. I think it is almost more fun to get steals than points. It feels good to play good defense and get a stop.”


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