Figuring out which defense to play was not a major consideration for Travis Ford in his first two seasons at St. Louis University.
The Billikens would practice a zone, but Ford often said he didn’t know if it was game-ready. He did implement a 1-3-1 zone last season but used it sporadically despite its occasional success.
These days it’s difficult to know what defense Ford is going to use, and that element of surprise was a factor in SLU’s ability to win four games in four days at the Atlantic 10 tournament.
The 1-3-1, or what Ford calls the “13” defense, was highly effective in wins over Dayton and Davidson. But Ford used it on only a few defensive possessions in the final win over St. Bonaventure, eventually playing man-to-man after heavy doses of zone the previous three days.
The predictability is gone. Senior D.J. Foreman spoke to the Billikens’ versatility when he broke out the team’s inside terminology in New York.
“The 1-3-1 is just one of our many defensive sets, and we just change concepts to keep the other team on edge and keep them confused,” he said. “For the most part we go from man-to-man to ‘five hedge’ to ‘13’ to ‘two’ – just mixing it up.”
Ford went back to basics in the championship game against St. Bonaventure. After trying various tactics early in the game, he decided that man-to-man was the only thing that was working.
As it turned out, the decisions he made defensively were critical to SLU’s ability to advance to the NCAA Tournament. In the final three games, the Billikens held their opponents to 25.6 percent shooting and an average of 19.7 points in the second half.
“I went into the tournament — and this is not something we’ve done — wanting to change defenses and figure out which ones are working and go with that the rest of the game,” he said.
Ford added he took that approach “to try to conserve energy. If we were going to win four games we had to figure out five to six minutes into the game where we could conserve a little bit of energy and then try to keep teams off balance.”
SLU spent the final portion of the season trying to rediscover the defensive edge it had displayed much of the time. The Billikens were in the top 20 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in late December, according to kenpom.com. They dropped to around No. 60 before showing progress.
If there were any questions about SLU’s ability to play four games in four days, the players answered in the second half against St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies scored 20 points in the first 10 minutes and then sputtered the rest of the way.
“We couldn’t score,” St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said. “Give St. Louis credit. They did a really good job of taking away some of our actions and making it a one-on-one game. And we don’t have one-on-one type players.”
The 1-3-1 was a major problem for Dayton and especially Davidson. The trapping zone caused turnovers and basically made ball movement difficult. The Billikens went to that defense against Davidson trailing 27-20 and turned the game around, holding the Wildcats to 17 points the rest of the game.
“They switched to the 1-3-1 and I thought we got a couple of good looks and they didn’t go down,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. “When they didn’t, the 1-3-1 becomes even more lethal because it’s a mental aspect as well as a technical-physical aspect.
“Their defense started to play chaos with our minds. … You don’t see that very much. As we prepared for the tournament we knew the possibility of it coming, but we hadn’t seen it all year except against them back in January.”
When the Billikens needed their defense the most, they turned up the pressure. St. Bonaventure only had two field goals in the final 10 minutes and nine points in that time.
As if on demand, they took their defense to another level to finish out the game.
“At the eight-minute mark, I told them, ‘All right, now let’s put the pedal to the metal. Let’s let loose a little and get more aggressive on defense. Let’s try to get a steal somewhere,’” Ford said. “And Jordan (Goodwin) made a big steal.”