Playing for coach Rick Pitino at Kentucky, Travis Ford learned a thing or two about pressing for 40 minutes and the impact it can have on an opponent.
Ford has picked his spots when implementing a press as a head coach. He now wants to find out what it can do for St. Louis University.
The fourth-year SLU coach plans to use an athletic and, hopefully, deep roster to pressure opponents this season and unveiled that look in a recent exhibition win over Kentucky Wesleyan. The next chance comes Tuesday night, when the Billikens open the season against Florida Gulf Coast at Chaifetz Arena.
Defense has been Ford’s calling card since arriving at SLU. Now it’s just taking a different form.
“How much time we spend on defense in practice hasn’t changed,” he said. “The look of it is now picking up 94 feet, and I’m doing it for several reasons. I think it’s a great way to use 10 guys that haven’t differentiated themselves from each other.
“We need everybody to play, so what is the best way to use eight to 10 guys who are are pretty good athletes but all kind of similar and can guard multiple people?”
How extensively SLU will employ a press remains to be seen, but it was revealed immediately in the exhibition game. Ford said the press will have various looks, and the Billikens will still rely on a staunch halfcourt man-to-man as well as their “33” trapping defense.
Ford said generating steals is not the emphasis of the new approach, although creating points off of turnovers is important. His hope is to disrupt opponents, take them out of their comfort zone on offense and to eventually wear teams down.
“One thing I struggle with when it comes to pressing is that I don’t want it to take away from our half-court defense,” Ford said. “We have to be able to take our full-court pressure, and once a team breaks the press, which they’ll do 80 or 90 percent of the time, to defend throughout the shot clock.”
SLU has been among the stingiest defensive teams in the country under Ford. Last season the Billikens allowed 63.8 points per game to rank 22nd nationally.
That was accomplished mostly with solid half-court work along with the use of a 1-3-1 trap that played a key role in winning the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.
“I think we can do it for 40 minutes,” junior guard Jordan Goodwin said. “We’re going to switch up defenses a little bit but we practice it a lot. Conditioning is not a question. It’s just sustaining the effort and being alert when the ball goes through the net.”
Steals are not the focus as much as disruption. At Kentucky, Ford learned from Pitino that when a pressing team is able to get 35 or more deflections in a game the chance of winning skyrockets.
That statistic is kept on the SLU bench and updated for the players at every timeout. The Billikens had 37 deflections against Kentucky Wesleyan and 33 in a scrimmage win against Loyola-Chicago.
Sophomore Fred Thatch Jr., however, doesn’t discount the pursuit of steals, especially when they can be turned into points.
“Against really good teams with good ball handlers, we won’t be able to make them turn the ball over every single time,” he said. “But I feel we will every five or six possessions. The intensity speeds teams up.”
Disrupting another team can occur in various ways. A press might force an opponent to go faster than wanted. It can delay the ability to get into a half-court set. To that end, Goodwin said he wants to make the guard he’s defending switch directions with the ball six times on a trip down the court. Ultimately, the goal is to fatigue an opponent over the course of a game and capitalize.
Offensively, Ford said the Billikens have been highly productive in practice and instrasquad scrimmages, but that didn’t translate to the scrimmage or exhibition.
“There might be some teams we don’t press, but right now I like what we’re doing so I’d say we want to stick with it,” Ford said. “It’s been beneficial to us. We’re a team right now that’s searching for an understanding of our offense. So, the answer needs to be to play hard and impose our will on people as much as we can.”
SLU vs. Florida Gulf Coast
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Chaifetz Arena.
Series: First meeting.
TV/radio: Fox Sports Midwest Plus; KPNT (105.7 FM).
2018-19 records: SLU 23-13; Florida Gulf Coast 14-18.
About the Billikens: SLU will unveil the 2019 Atlantic 10 Conference tournament championship and NCAA Tournament banners before the game. . . . Hasahn French starts the season needing just 11 blocked shots to become the school’s career leader. . . .This will be SLU’s 12th season at Chaifetz Arena. The Billikens are 9-2 in openers at the facility. . . . SLU was picked to finish seventh in the A-10.
About the Eagles: The team was picked to finish third in the Atlantic Sun Conference in a vote of coaches. . . . The FGCU roster includes one senior, five juniors, four sophomores and six freshmen. . . . The Eagles lost their top three scorers from last season and list 11 newcomers. . . . Coach Michael Fly is in his second season after spending seven years as a FGCU assistant. Like Travis Ford, he graduated from Kentucky.