The Oklahoma Defense: Breaking Down the Sooners’ Improvement

Posted by on January 13, 2015

Oklahoma is currently one of the best examples in the country of something I’ve wrote about here quite a bit: Experienced teams (surprisingly) struggle to get better on both sides of the ball. The Sooners ended 2013-14 with the 16th ranked offense and 91st ranked defense in the country by adjusted efficiency. The off-season focus obviously needed to be defense and Lon Kruger’s veteran team has become elite on that end of the court in 2014-15 at 5th in the country. This huge jump has undoubtedly improved Oklahoma on the whole, but the offense taking a step back (59th) has prevented Oklahoma from performing like a potential one-seed.
 
With the additions of TaShawn Thomas and Khadeem Lattin the Sooners do have a lot more size to work with inside this season. However, the huge defensive improvement is not simply due to changes in personnel. Kruger has changed his defensive scheme this season. First, let’s take a look at the defense by the numbers from hoop-math.com:
 
Stats

Oklahoma has done a slightly better job forcing teams into mid-range jumpers, but the big improvement has been rim protection around the basket. Oklahoma doesn’t block as many shots as most of the other powerhouse defenses around the country, but their positioning and rotations have placed them second in the country in eFG% on non-transition possessions (only behind Kentucky). Another big improvement not shown in the chart above is Oklahoma’s ability to defend without fouling.
 
Coach Kruger’s defensive scheme has some flexibility to it. Depending on the opponent I have seen Oklahoma scramble around with frequent double teams, switch all screens to the point where the defense looks more like a matchup zone, and double team all post touches.
 
Even with the changes from game-to-game, I identified the two key principles that are behind Oklahoma’s new found defensive success:
 

1. Keep the ball on one side of the court

 
The easiest way to show Oklahoma’s focus on keeping the ball out of the middle is via pick and roll coverage. Last season, the Sooners allowed the ball handler to go in whichever direction he wanted. On ball screens involving Ryan Spangler, Oklahoma lacked a sense of urgency to deter the ball handler. Spangler would briefly pick up the ball (almost as if to just switch the screen) and then slowly recover back to his man. This often led to a second of freedom for the ball handler to either take a fairly uncontested pull-up three or to look to create.
 
Fast forward to this season and OU is using Tom Thibodeau’s “ICE” (also known as downing the screen) to keep the ball on one side of the court. Here’s a fantastic example of Jordan Woodard performing ICE twice in a row against Kansas State:
 
OklahomaICE
 
Notice Woodard’s body positioning when he recognizes the ball screens. He doesn’t allow Nigel Johnson to get into the middle of the lane, instead forcing him to the baseline right where the screener’s defender has dropped (the other part of ICE).
 
Many NCAA offenses rely heavily on side ball screens into the middle of the court. Downing this action can take a team out of their comfort zone and lead to a lot of long two-point attempts. Still, just keeping the ball out of the middle alone has not turned Oklahoma into an elite defense. It’s the combination of that and their second defensive principle:
 

2. Let weak side defenders do the helping

 
Keeping the ball out of the middle establishes a weak side and a strong side for the defense. When a strong side defender leaves his man to help the ball handler, there’s not much the defense can do. It enables the ball handler to make a short an easy pass to an open shooter before the defense can recover. Watch this clip from last season as Buddy Hield plays terrible defense due to helping one pass away:
 
Oklahoma2014
 
Everything about the play above is just too easy. When a defender leaves his man on the weak side, the defense at least has enough time to rotate and recover. This isn’t the case when you help one pass away. Kenny Cherry just has to make a simple read to find a wide open corner three-pointer.
 
Now take a look at the new and improved 2014-15 Oklahoma defense handle the same type of situation:
 
Oklahoma2015
 
This is just fantastic defense all around. Here’s a list of steps that lead to the turnover:
 
1. Cousins keeps Felix on the right side of the court on the initial penetration.

2. Woodard (one pass away) stunts at Felix but keeps his balance on his back foot for a quick recovery back to his man.

3. If Felix had kept going, both weak side defenders were in proper position to step up.

4. Woodard closes out high on Yancy, forcing him baseline.

5. Cousins doesn’t chase Felix through (he’s now a weak side defender) and gets the steal.
 
Some of the specifics change depending on the scouting report for Oklahoma’s defense, but always with these two general principles in mind. That’s what has turned an average defensive team without a big shot blocker into an elite defensive team.
 

So what’s the best way to score on the Sooners?

 
This question is obviously very dependent on personnel, but in watching film I did notice one thing I would like to see more teams take advantage of.
 
The Oklahoma perimeter players like to switch a lot. This does a great job of making teams go late in the shot clock by breaking up the initial action. However, the switching can tend to ruin some of OU’s positioning. I think sometimes Oklahoma gets so focused on finding a new man to match up with it hurts their execution. Positioning is crucial when performing ICE. If the defender is a second late (due to some confusion on a switch) the ball handler has a pretty good chance of getting into the middle of the court.
 
The most successful offensive teams against Oklahoma will be those who don’t even necessarily look to score off their primary action, but instead use it to get Oklahoma out of position on the secondary action. Easier said than done of course, but something to look for in the future.
 

 

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