System Coaching (Part 2 – Calipari’s Defense)

Posted by on January 1, 2015

Before reading this post you can check out Part 1 if you haven’t already. There I attempted to quantify “system coaching” (offensive and defensive style consistency from season-to-season). I found that a lot of the best defensive coaches were in fact system coaches, but offensive efficiency showed no correlation.
In today’s post, I wanted to take a look at the coaches with year-to-year consistency on the defensive end. As I explained in part one, only coaches with at least 5 years prior to 2014-15 with their current school are eligible. Take a look at the top 25 below:


It shouldn’t be a surprise to see some of the best pack-line defensive coaches appear on the list. Tony Bennett, Sean Miller, and Chris Mack are known for their conservative pack-line defenses. Bennett leads the way among all 25 coaches with the best adjusted defensive efficiency in his Virginia tenure. With high major athleticism and size, the pack-line defense certainly seems like a pretty sure-fire system to establish a dominant defensive program.
Jim Boeheim and Shaka Smart are two coaches known for their unique style that don’t crack the top 25. While Boeheim has been running the 2-3 zone for years, he changed some principles of the zone around 2010. From 2003 to 2009 the Orange were never in the top 100 in forcing turnovers. However, since 2010 the Orange have been in the top 100 (and as high as 10) every year. The same general story goes for Shaka Smart at VCU. The Rams’ Havoc defense didn’t really begin until year three of Smart’s tenure.

Calipari’s System

Despite all of the roster turnover as a result of recruiting style, John Calipari is remarkably number two out of the 130 coaches in consistency of defensive style. In his first five seasons in Lexington the Wildcats didn’t force many turnovers, instead making opponents take extremely tough shots without fouling. While 2015 doesn’t factor into the list above, Calipari has completely changed his style to better fit his depth.
This season, UK has used their depth and talent to apply fullcourt pressure. With all the defensive versatility and rim protection, Kentucky’s defensive field goal percentages are actually better than ever despite the more risky style of play.
So despite the reputation of being a system coach with a lot of defensive success, Calipari’s switch has turned Kentucky into one of the best college defenses of all-time. I went back through the list of 25 system coaches to find any similar seasons where the coach decided to change styles in order to attempt to provide more perspective:

2013-14 was excluded for the list because of the freedom of movement rule changes. The “Season AdjD” is the team’s adjusted defensive efficiency in the one year with the style change. The “AVG AdjD” is the coach’s career average adjusted defensive efficiency with his school.
An interesting thing to consider is the reason behind system coaches changing up for a season. Calipari is doing it to better fit a unique team. This Kentucky team would be great at running his usual system, but the aggressive style helps maximize the team’s resources. On the other hand, a coach could switch up because his team is simply incapable of playing the normally effective style.
The third way to make this list is unfortunately unhelpful for the analysis. In Dixon’s first season at Pitt (2004), his team played his usual defensive style. Dixon defenses almost always force tough shots without fouling and 2004 was no different. However, the 2004 team was just particularly amazing at the style to the point where my method thinks they changed altogether. (2011 FSU is another example of this.)
Eight out of the 10 coaches on the list had better defensive years than normal with the changes. 2004 Pittsburgh and 2011 Florida State not only improved the most relative to average but were also the number one ranked defenses in the country that season. As mentioned above, they both “faked” their way onto the list by being amazing at the existing style of play.
Simply put, it takes a special group of players for a coach to completely switch his defensive philosophy like Calipari has this season. As you would expect, system defensive coaches like Dixon and Hamilton have had their best seasons when their personnel best fit the existing scheme. This is just one of many ways to show how unprecedented Kentucky’s season has started.

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