Pressing, Consistency and DePaul

LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 16: Rick Pitino the Head Coach of the Louisville Cardinals gives instructions to his team during the game against the Butler Bulldogs at the KFC Yum! Center on November 16, 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The full court press is a devastating weapon. It's one that, when used properly, can really change a college basketball game. A press can generate offense and it can force a lot of turnovers. But it comes with its downsides. Break a press and you end up with a three-on-one on the back end and your big men can get into trouble. 

This makes pressing a very inconsistent strategy for a basketball team. It can leads to very high highs and terrible lows. The DePaul Blue Demons are already figuring this out after a 1-4 start to the season. There was a 33-point victory over Chicago State, but there was also a 22-point loss to Cal State Northridge, along with some closer games in between.
That's probably what this season, and many more seasons under Oliver Purnell, are going to be like at Allstate Arena. This Blue Demons aren't going to be a team for those with faint hearts. To illustrate this point I've gone and taken a deeper look at four coaches that regularly employ pressure schemes - Purnell, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Mike Anderson. The results of the study just show how crazy this season is going to be.

As part of the study I looked at Ken Pomeroy's measure of "consistency." He states that his consistency measure is the standard deviation of scoring difference by game for a team. Pomeroy notes that it's a good way of figuring out what teams are overrated by his system, since inconsistency suggests that a team might look more "beatable" on any given night.

There is total Pomeroy data on his site from the 2002-03 season onward. Thus, I constrained my study to those seasons. That means this study, while only looking at four coaches, actually encompasses seven schools (Dayton, Clemson, UAB, Missouri, Louisville, Kentucky and Minnesota). The consistency of a coach's characteristics from program to program actually give me more confidence that this is particularly relevant to DePaul this season and beyond.
So what did I discover? Well here is the average consistency and consistency ranks for each over those seasons:
  • Oliver Purnell: 20.9, 203
  • Rick Pitino: 21.6, 219
  • Mike Anderson: 21.4, 207
  • Tubby Smith: 21.3, 193 

Considering the fact that there are approximately 345 teams in NCAA Division I during this time period, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the adages about pressing defenses are true. It isn't a strategy that's going to provide consistent results.

But here consistency shouldn't be confused with talent or success. All four of these coaches have had great teams over the course of this study. And a few have been somewhat consistent, well except for Purnell. His 2002-03 team at Dayton was one of the most consistent in the country, but when he got to Clemson he was never able to recapture that magic. While he had some very good Tigers teams, finishing in the Top 30 in Ken Pomeroy the past four seasons, they were never particularly consistent. (If you throw out that Dayton season, Purnell's average consistency rises to 21.8 and the average rank 230, actually the worst of the group.) That apparently maddened Clemson fans and was one of the reasons that Purnell left for DePaul.
You should also note that inconsistency can mean problems come tournament time. Pitino's Final Four with the 2004-05 Louisville team is the only one in the 32 seasons studied, though there were four Elite Eight appearances and one Sweet Sixteen. Further, most DePaul fans are aware that Purnell in particular has never made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Still, there are ways for a pressing team to be a bit more consistent - either by relying less on the three-point shot on offense, or by varying up the defenses that a team uses - which can mitigate some of the risk factors that come with inconsistent play.
Right now though, inconsistency and NCAA Tournament's aren't an issue for DePaul. The Blue Demons should be playing the high-risk, high-reward strategy, because it's the best way for this team to get wins. What will be interesting to watch though is the future of the program. What happens when more talent comes to Lincoln Park? That's when the question of consistency will become a fascinating one indeed.

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