Panthers defense is indefensible

There have been lots of good things to watch so far this year if you are a Milwaukee Panther fan.  Milwaukee is fielding one of its strongest teams in years, and they are off to a solid start in league play.  Going 2-0 against the Big Ten and giving a strong road showing against then 18th-ranked Notre Dame has provided a glimpse into the potential that this team has. There have also been times, however, when the Panther fan base has thrown up its collective hands in disgust after witnessing any of the continuous defensive breakdowns from which this team seems to suffer.

What I’ve heard at games and seen on fan message boards prompted me to look deeper into this issue; is Milwaukee’s defense as bad as people perceive it to be? To answer this question, I watched game film on all of Milwaukee’s conference losses, as well as the two overtime losses they suffered in the Gulf Coast Showcase earlier in the year, and their recent close victory over Cleveland State.  What became apparent in my observations of this game film is that the Panther defense definitely has room for improvement, and when they lose games it’s almost always a direct result of poor defensive play.

Tim Ross, in his preview of Milwaukee’s game against Youngstown State earlier this season, did a nice job detailing the strategy the Panthers use on defense called switching. In its most basic sense, switching is used to prevent, and at worst challenge, opponent three point shots. This entails that defenders switch anytime a screen is set outside of the paint or the three point line. It is intended to combat the necessity that the defender getting screened has to fight through or go under the screen and recover in time to close out on his man’s shot attempt, or drive to the basket. Switching almost always occurs between a guard and a big man, because typically the screen setter on a perimeter play will be a big man who has come up from the post to set the screen. When the screen is set it becomes the defensive big man’s responsibility to “switch” onto the perimeter player. For example, if Matt Tiby’s man sets a screen on Jordan Johnson, it becomes Tiby’s responsibility to pick up Johnson’s man on the perimeter.  Johnson is then responsible for switching onto Tiby’s man as he presumably moves back into the post. Tiby and Johnson then will switch back onto their original defensive assignment once the player who received the screen has passed the ball, or decided not to shoot the jumper or drive to the basket.

The defensive strategy of switching can be very effective at both preventing and altering three point attempts when it is executed correctly. The issue with Milwaukee’s defense this year has been that, far too often, the switch is not executed correctly or on time. This can lead to a plethora of issues: it can leave the three point shooter wide open from deep if the big man does not switch in time, it can leave the screener wide open for a cut or roll to the basket if the guard does not switch in time, or it can leave both the big man and/or the guard with significant defensive mismatches if the players do not switch back at some point during the possession. All three of these scenarios have created issues for Milwaukee at times this season.

In reviewing game film of Milwaukee’s losses and close wins, there are many occasions where switches are not being executed correctly by Panther defenders. Against Duquesne and Wright State, often the switches were not completed in time. This led to multiple wide open, high percentage three point attempts. The end result in both games was high three point field goal percentages (Duquesne shot 56% from deep, WSU shot 45%). Against South Dakota and Valpo, the inability to execute a switch didn’t lead to open three pointers, but rather it led to many uncontested drives to the basket. What happened frequently is that the switch would be completed by Milwaukee big men slightly late. This would force forwards like Matt Tiby and JJ Panoske to try to close out quickly on the seemingly wide open three point shooter. With slower foot speed than the smaller player, the guard being closed out on often recognized this last-ditch effort at a shot challenge and instead of shooting a contested jumper, chose to drive right past the crashing Panther defender. This usually led to either a wide open layup, or a late defensive rotation by help defenders, resulting in shooting fouls. This is where switching can become tricky. Sometimes it appears as if this defensive strategy is effective, as it can force opponents to attempt fewer outside shots. When a shooter sees a longer, taller defender closing out on his shot, he is usually less likely to shoot it. This is evidenced by the fact that on the year the Panthers are only allowing about 17 three point attempts a game, 21st fewest among all division one schools. However, even though switching tends to cut down on opponent three point attempts, it does tend to give up wide open long range shots from time to time. Even though opponents are only attempting around 17 three point shots a game against the Panthers, they are making nearly 36% of these attempts, a percentage that puts Milwaukee in the bottom third of D-1 schools. These high percentage three point shots come as a result of Panther big men failing to close out on a shot in time because of slow footwork. Perimeter shooters recognize this slow switch, and often take advantage by taking, and making the open jumper.

Another less common consequence that can result from switching on defense is mismatches in the post. When a perimeter defender is screened by an opposing big man and a switch is executed, it becomes that perimeter defenders responsibility to cover the big man as he goes back down low. This can lead to significant mismatches in the paint. Even if the offense chooses not to exploit this mismatch with an entry pass inside, it leads to offensive rebound opportunities as Milwaukee guards are over-matched by bigger offensive players when battling for rebounds. This issue was prevalent in the Panther’s recent game against conference favorite Valparaiso. The Crusaders had as many offensive rebounds (18) as Milwaukee had defensive rebounds. Many of these offense rebounds came off of three point misses by Crusader guards. In this game, even though Milwaukee bigs did a nice job switching onto perimeter shooters to alter outside shots (Valpo was a paltry 5-16 from deep), the resulting mismatch in the paint left Milwaukee helpless on the defensive glass, which created offensive rebound opportunities and plenty of easy baskets for the Crusaders.

The bottom line is this: employing switching as a defensive strategy can be very useful if the timing of the switching defenders is good. In theory, a perfectly timed switch between a perimeter and post defender leads to a heavily contested, low percentage three point shot, or an offensive breakdown that allows defenders to move back to their original assignments as the opponent resets. Far too often this season, however, the timing is off between Milwaukee defenders, or our big men simply don’t have the foot speed to close out on three point attempts. Other times, Milwaukee defenders are leery of switching back, which produces extreme mismatches in the post as guards try to defend forwards and centers, and on the perimeter as Panther forwards try to keep up with opposing guards. This results in perimeter players driving to the basket with ease, forcing Milwaukee big men to foul in lieu of giving up a layup, or significant size disadvantages as our guards try to box out much bigger players.

Coach Jeter and the coaching staff have talked about the importance of improved defense multiple times this season. As the team continues to focus on getting better defensively this year hopefully the timing of switching defenders can improve and the Panthers defensive strategy can be as effective as it has the potential to be. For a team that leads the Horizon League in field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and assists per game, let’s hope that prevailing defensive struggles don’t prevent Milwaukee from reaching their potential and having a truly special season.

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