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Wake Forest Basketball: The Case for a 1-3-1 Defense

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Why the 1-3-1 defense could be a good fit for the 2017-2018 Deacons

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Four-Kansas State vs Wake Forest

I have a long standing ‘argument’ with a fellow basketball fan in my hometown that revolves around whether the modern basketball player would be able to compete against the legends of old. The conversation usually evolves (or devolves) into a philosophical basketball discussion on physicality.

Primarily, would today’s player be able to compete against the physical play of the 1980’s and early 1990’s? Of course there is no way to prove either side of this argument, and thus the conversation continues, but the reality of our current state of roundball is that physicality has been de-emphasized at the expense of game flow and floor spacing. This is not to say that rebounding and defense are no longer important, but simply that shooting, ball handling, and flexibility are just as important.

I begin with this intro because the 2017 Deacs look to be a primarily small ball team in this coming year. Danny Manning has out-coached his recruiting, and while the departures of John Collins to the Atlanta Hawks and Dinos Mitoglou to Panathinaikos (a top European Team) are massive boons for both individual players and the long term growth of the Wake Forest basketball program, they are short term problems for this year’s team.

The Deacons have 3 scholarship players and 1 preferred walk-on in the post this year. The general consensus is that Junior Doral Moore and Sophomore Samuel Japhet-Mathias will be the primary players at the center position, and that freshman Olivier Sarr will mix in as a backup.

Sunday Okeke is a walk-on freshman that has good size, but it is doubtful he will be ready to play significant minutes this year. It also seems fairly certain that Moore and SJM will not play many minutes on the court together as both players are true centers in both height and mass. Both would be defensive liabilities in any attempt to guard outside of the post. Sarr has an impressive resume as a freshman, but the learning curve for young big men can be steep, and until we see him on the court it is difficult to project anything more than spot minutes.

This leaves the 17-18 Deacons in a quandary. John Collins broke through his glass ceiling a year too early for the good of the program. To no fault of his own, and no blame from any true Deacon fan, he has proven his worth and taken his talents to the Peachtree City where he will look to improve and show he can play with the best players in the world.

Collins’ departure was pretty much expected after the impact he had as a sophomore for the Deacons, but the departure of Dinos was a surprise. With only weeks remaining until classes start, Dinos has left a gaping hole at the PF position, as he was the only qualified PF the Deacons have on the roster. In response, it is pretty clear that the Deacons best players are almost all guards.

Brandon Childress, Bryant Crawford, Mitchell Wilbekin, Keyshawn Woods, and Chaundee Brown should all project to play major minutes at the 3 guard spots. What I also expect to see a lot of this year is a 4 guard lineup with either Moore or SJM protecting the rim.

There are a great many defensive issues with this kind of lineup, but there are also advantages. I believe that the 1-3-1 defense as a primary alternative to man to man is the proper choice. There is no doubt that Wake Forest will be forced out of man to man in many situations in the coming year. They will be ill-suited to defend the pick and roll. If the opposing team stretches the Deacon’s singular post player to the perimeter they will have very little help or switching opportunities. The help side will be too small to guard the rolling big, and the pick defender (SJM, Moore in particular) will be too slow to effectively switch. Hedge and recover is going to be the primary pick and roll option and when you are limited to one style of defensive strategy the offense can usually find a weakness.

The 1-3-1 offers the Deacons a few advantages:

  1. Maintain ball pressure. A perimeter oriented defense MUST cause turnovers to make up for the lack of rebounding. Sitting in a 2-3 zone is simply waiting to die a slow death. By extending the 1-3-1 outside the three point line the Deacons can cut down passing angles to the post, and create turnovers that put them in a position to start the fast break.
  2. Protect the post. Wake Forest has a junior with stamina issues, a sophomore who played a total of 68 minutes last year, and a freshman who seems very talented, but will almost certainly have an adjustment period. The Deacons simply can’t afford too much foul trouble on Moore and SJM, and both players have show a propensity to foul (Moore 11.4 pf per 40 min & SJM 12.9 pf per 40 min). The middle of the 1-3-1 zone is a fairly static position. This player is responsible for covering the free throw line to the two blocks. Minimizing our center position’s range of motion will maximize their physical gifts, and hopefully cut down on silly fouls.
  3. Protect the three point line. Today’s game is a three point game. It is easy to forget just how much better shooters are in today’s game than in year’s past. By extending the pressure the Deacons can force the dribble drive. By keeping their 7’0” post players in the middle of the paint, the Deacons will have someone to challenge the dribbler. Reducing opponent’s three point percentage by even a few points could mean the difference in whether the Deacons make it to post season play.
  4. Maximize their speed. Every defensive alignment has flaws, and the 1-3-1 is no exception. There are weaknesses in the corners particularly, and weakside rebounding can be a major concern. However, with 4 guards on the court, the Deacons could be a great scramble defense. The difference in a contested corner three pointer and an open corner three point is about a half step. Bryant Crawford, Brandon Childress, and Chaundee Brown have the speed to play multiple positions in the 1-3-1. A coach could station either of those three players at the top, the wing, or the baseline runner. Mitchell Wilbekin and Keyshawn Woods are better off on the wings, but the three speedsters above provide the Deacons with great flexibility.
  5. Steal it, Deal it, and let the CROWD feel it. I must give credit to my old boss (Tony Ingle, who is a coaching legend and now winning championships at Dalton State University) for that quote, but that is the kind of basketball that the Demon Deacons will need to play this year to be successful. Last year the Deacons ranked 101st in possessions per game, and they will need to move up the list this coming season in order to have much success. The 1-3-1 will undoubtedly give up some easy baskets as some gambling is required to make it successful, but there will also be easy opportunities for scoring when the Deacons are able to create 4-on-3 and 3-on-2 breaks because of a steal. Besides, who doesn’t want to see more this?

This year’s Wake Forest basketball team most certainly has its work cut out for it as it aims to replace 60 minutes in its frontcourt. A little creativity and tolerance for risk would go a long ways towards continuing the positive momentum Manning has created. Wake Forest has a great group of guards, and an emerging group of centers. It will certainly be interesting to see how Manning and his staff maximize their abilities.