Zigging while Goliath zags

Tuesday, May 05 2009 by Ben

In the Sunday issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell discusses a variety underdog tactics (H/T Truehoop).  The premise of the article is that the best way for an underdog to win is to fight the unconventional fight.  Gladwell uses all sorts of historical examples from the bible to Lawrence of Arabia to make his point.

However, the story focuses on an 8th grade girls basketball team.  Let me summarize the story for you in bullet points.

  • This team wasn't the most skillful set of girls, but they ran a well-coordinated full court press against their opponents. 
  • They trapped and caused chaos throughout each game. 
  • They played opponents that were substantially better shooters, rebounders, and dribblers. 
  • Each opponent wilted under the intense pressure of the full court press. 
  • And dadgumit, wouldn't you know it?  The girls went all the way to the nationals.

Gladwell takes this as evidence to show that the way for the less talented basketball teams to win unconventionally is the press.   While I understand that the hook for Gladwell and his ilk (the Michael Lewis, et al crowd) is boiling down complex concepts and make them accessible for the average joe, this is a little too much simplification for my blood.

There's many reasons to think that a full court press isn't the only way for an underdog to win against a powerhouse.  Dash Bennett over at Deadspin had a excellent critique of the concept,

It's actually very difficult to run a well-executed press and teams that specialize in it are usually lousy at everything else. (Because all their precious practice time is devoted to pressing.) All it takes is one calm point guard to mess everything up. Plus, when you press all the time, that's what you become known for and teams on your schedule can prepare for it. The idea of "changing the rules" is as much about the element of surprise as it is about the unusual tactic. Those eighth-grade girls who were so flummoxed by the heroines of the story had probably never seen a press before in their lives and would probably fare much better the next time around. Just because it works in specific isolated situations, that doesn't mean it's a guaranteed path to success. Sooner or later you run into a Goliath who can dribble through a trap.

I'd like to extend this a bit further and say that the full court press doesn't represent the only way for less talented teams to keep up.  In fact, it may not even be the best way.

Case in point?  A well-timed book review over at Storming the Floor.  Pete Carrill's autobiography "The Smart Take from the Strong" is a fine example of a less talented and intelligent underdog taking it to the favorite. 

Carrill actually employed the opposite of a full-court press.  His Princeton teams were slow and unathletic.  So he adopted the strategy of lulling opponents to sleep with a slow-paced attack and then, just when the defense would stop paying attention, BOOM!  They'd get a back-door lay-up or three pointer. 

Defending Carrill's teams required patience and coordination on defense, making Princeton's offense as equally flustering as a well-coordinated press.  Though I can't find a clip or link, I once heard John Thompson II say that it's like watching paint dry.  Despite the significant talent gap, Carrill's teams won, a lot.  To this day, they're the team that has come closest to upsetting a number one seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Hence, we come to Tony Bennett's slow-paced slog of a strategy. Slowing the game down can be just as effective as speeding it up.  Bennett's pack line defense (discussed here) helps him fight the unconventional fight. 

Virginia will never be able to recruit with the likes of Duke and UNC.  It's just not going to happen.  What they can and will do, however, is employ a tactic that makes them difficult to peg.  Other teams will prepare for it, sure, but it ought to keep Virginia close.  If this tactic helps them win 30% of their games against those guys, that's a huge victory for the program.

For an underdog, fighting unconventionally is smart.  But that doesn't mean that there's only one way to fight unconventionally.

2 comment(s) and 0 trackback(s)

I usually find Gladwell's stuff interesting, so I'll be sure to read this after exams.

That said, I think this has implications for Wahoo football too. I've always thought the spread option style attack (used at first by typically out-manned teams like Utah, Bowling Green, and WVU) would be a similar animal -- extremely effective at first because, in addition to taking advantage of mismatches, it wasn't what teams were used to seeing; my prediction has been that as more teams use the spread, the surprise/difference factor will wear off and teams will be much more effective at defending it.

I don't think this tipping point has happened yet, and hopefully it won't reach the ACC while Gregg Brandon is calling the plays... but something to think about.

BJ wrote on Friday, May 08 2009

Gladwell's entire premise is off in this article. The main reason the press works at the 12 year old level is because even the best 12 year olds don't have the athleticism counter the press. I think it's safe to say that when Goliath was 12, he was not quite the size and did not possess the strength he did as a trained, battle hardened warrior.

Pressing at the Division I level with inferior athletes is suicide, plain and simple. Heck, as someone who was a DIII level player and is a high school boys coach, I can tell you that generally the last thing you want to do with inferior talent is speed up the game against a superior opponent.

The reason is simple. By speeding up the game, you are giving your opponent MORE possessions, thereby increasing the likelihood that their superior talent level will be factored into the game. Gladwell seems to neglect the notion that, unlike warfare, basketball is played with an iron set of rules: time, number of players, what constitutes a violation, who gets possession, etc are equal for both sides. War throws these notions largely our the window. Davids (as Gladwell refers to them) absolutely throw them out the window. It's apples and oranges.

To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule. Against defensively dominant teams, sometimes attaching them (and doing so quickly) is an excellent strategy. Nonetheless, playing aggressive defense against teams with superior speed and athleticism usually portends failure. Just look at Duke the past few years. Whey in the world they are playing such aggressive denial defense on the perimeter is baffling.