Dennis Wolff found himself in a predicament Tuesday night: BU’s trademark man-to-man defense wasn’t permitting wide-open jumpers for the opponent, but the Bucknell Bison were still launching up shots from 3-point range with great success. The Bison went 7-for-11 from beyond the arc in the first half, leading by as many as 16 points.
The Terriers pride themselves on their defense, so it would be easy to stick with the plan, knowing full well that the Bison were unlikely to keep up their torrid pace from the field.
Not only would it be easy, it would be the safe thing to do. The Terriers are primarily a man-to-man defensive team. Sticking with the team’s main defensive strength would have been a logical decision.
But sometimes the right tactical decision is the unexpected one. Wolff decided to switch to Plan B, and the Terriers came out of the locker room in the second half and restarted play in an aggressive 3-2 zone. They would stay in that defensive set for the rest of the evening.
It’s clear, in retrospect, that BU’s coaching staff made exactly the right decision. Bucknell’s offense ground to a halt, allowing the Terriers to close the gap and force overtime en route to a three-point victory. But at the time, the decision introduced a risk ‘-‘- a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless.
A 3-2 zone puts a single defender at the top of the key, a defender on each wing and a defender near the baseline on each side of the hoop. Shots from the top of the key and the wings are generally well-contested by the perimeter defenders, but shots from the corners are another story entirely. Furthermore, defensive rebounding is heavily dependent on the two interior players, as the other three players are far away from the basket.
By switching to a 3-2 defense, Wolff bet that the zone would be disruptive enough to hide the weaknesses in each corner. Faced with a double-digit deficit, the Terriers could not settle for a slight defensive improvement. The 3-2 zone would have to be a complete success, or the Bison would win the game.
To amplify the disruptive effect of BU’s defense, the Terriers applied full-court ball pressure after every basket they made. While Bucknell generally took good care of the ball in its own half of the court, the increased defensive pressure made it more difficult for the Bison to run their offensive sets. The net effects were immediately noticeable, as BU began the half on an 11-1 run.
Bucknell responded with a trey by Bryan Cohen, eventually stretching the lead back to nine, but BU would come back with another run. This time it was a 13-2 spurt, giving BU the lead for the first time all game. At that point, the crowd was removed from the game and a BU win finally looked plausible.
So why couldn’t the Bison score in the second half? Ball pressure, yes, but there were more benefits to the 3-2 than that. Another advantage of the 3-2 defense is its ability to create transition opportunities. With three players far away from the basket and numerous ways to trap ball-handlers, an aggressive 3-2 zone creates turnovers and puts the defense’s fastest players in good position for a fastbreak.
The Terriers took their defensive scheme and maximized its advantages. BU had 12 steals Tuesday, including at least one from every player who saw playing time except Jeff Pelage. Of Bucknell’s 19 turnovers, only 10 came in the second half and overtime, but BU turned those 10 turnovers into 18 points. BU’s 15-point advantage in points off turnovers in the second half and overtime mirrored the 15-point swing between halftime and the end of the game.
All of this was the product of a tactical change, and an unorthodox one at that ‘-‘- well, unorthodox for a Dennis Wolff-coached team, anyway. Instead of focusing primarily on contesting Bucknell’s shots, BU aimed to prevent the Bison from shooting in the first place. Unable to establish an offensive rhythm, Bucknell fell apart completely.
Instead of looking to counter Bucknell’s every move, the Terriers implemented an aggressive scheme and dictated to their opponent what the rules of engagement would be: no easy passes, no getting the ball in rhythm and God help you if you turn the ball over.
To be fair, Wolff doesn’t deserve all the credit. Aggressive moves backfire if a team can’t execute on the court. But no matter what his detractors think ‘- and this is saying nothing about the effectiveness of the Terriers’ offensive tactics ‘- time and time again the veteran strategist has made the necessary defensive adjustments to give his team a chance to win.
Most of all, it’s nice to know this team has the flexibility to switch things up on the fly if the situation calls for it. When Plan A isn’t working, at least there’s a Plan B ‘-‘- and while Plan A likely doesn’t call for overtime, I’ll take a hard-fought Terrier win any way I can get it.