Bears

Ball-press for the defense

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Ball-press for the defense

Of all the high school basketball coaches I've ever met, Vergil Fletcher was the most innovative and perceptive of them all. He was the definition of visionary. He invented the ball-press defense and made it famous. So why don't more coaches employ the 1-2-2 zone press today?

"I don't know," said Lincoln coach Neil Alexander, who has been teaching the ball-press for 25 years. "It is successful for us. We spend a ton of time on it. There are too many options in college so they don't run it. But I'm stubborn. I won't change."

Alexander learned the ball-press from Loren Wallace, who coached at Lincoln and Quincy. Wallace learned it from Fletcher. They made it work. Fletcher won 792 games and two state championships. Wallace won 682 games. Alexander has won more than 600.

So why don't more coaches employ the ball-press? Even coach Bob Bone, who played for Fletcher and later coached at Collinsville, chose not to use it. The only schools in Illinois that currently play the ball-press are Lincoln, Rockton Hononegah, Moline, Mounds Meridian, Nokomis, Vandalia, Highland Park, Homewood-Flossmoor, Curie, Jacksonville and Warrensburg-Latham.

"It doesn't surprise me," Alexander said. "In high school, people don't want to commit to it. I believe in what Bob Knight said. If you believe in something, do it right. Some coaches do a lot to confuse you. We want to play our defense the best we possibly can. It is all about effort. Kids just have to worry about being in the right spot at the right time.

"We spend half a practice working on defense. What I like about it is we have to do it together as a team. In the man-to-man, you have a lot of breakdowns. We have daily drills that we work on. We have used quick kids, slow kids, smart kids and not-so-smart kids, kids who understand the game. Kids know they have to play it here. We work on foot speed every day."

Alexander and Steve Kimbro grew up together in Fillmore, 12 miles south of Nokomis. They played for Loren Wallace at Nokomis in 1971-72. Today, Kimbro coaches the ball-press at Nokomis. Alexander went back to it at Bushnell-Prairie City in 1987, when the three-point line was adopted.

"I started to go to the ball-press to put more pressure on," Alexander said. "I had a group of kids who couldn't plan man-to-man so I went to the ball-press and won 23 games. From then on, I stuck with it."

Alexander recalls sitting on the steps of Huff Gym in Champaign during a state tournament and talking to Springfield Lanphier coach Craig Patton, learning his concepts of the ball-press. Patton had been an assistant to Wallace at Lincoln. Alexander also learned the defense from one of his own assistants, John Welch, who also had worked with Wallace.

What is the ball-press? And what does it take to be effective?

When Fletcher arrived at Collinsville in 1946, he ran a screen-and-roll and a 1-2-2 offense and a man-to-man defense.

"I didn't like to run a lot because we weren't fast. But we weren't slow, either. I played man-to-man defense. Against big teams, however, I went to a 1-2-2 and opponents tried to hold ball on us," said Fletcher in an interview in 2002.

"So I introduced the zone press, the ball-press in the early 1950s. The emphasis is on the ball. Former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca saw me demonstrate it at a clinic and said it wouldn't work in college. Then he began using it the following year. Former UCLA coach John Wooden used it, too."

Fletcher's 1965 state championship team, led by Dennis Pace, played the ball-press as well as it could be executed. "They had a great desire to play and worked so well together. They set a school record for creating turnovers while averaging only five per game," Fletcher said. Pace later played at Illinois and was the only major college recruit on the roster.

In explaining the ball-press, Fletcher said: "The element of surprise can spell the difference in basketball. Pulled at the right time, an unanticipated move can turn a game around. Especially devastating in this respect are full-court presses in general and the full-court zone press in particular. A good full-court zone press is particularly valuable to the coach. Since its execution is similar to the regular zone, it can be easily learned and thus save valuable practice time. In addition, it capitalizes on two other regular zone advantages--pass interceptions and the anticipation of play development."

According to Fletcher, the trick to executing the ball-press successfully and constantly was for the defenders to understand where the ball was going once an offensive player had possession of the ball and was in a particular spot on the floor. Trapped, his options were limited and the defenders were keenly aware what they were.

"We have a man-and-a-half on the ball," Alexander said. "To be effective, you have to have five guys who are moving. The ball-press isn't a one- or two-man defense. They have to be aware of where the ball is on the court. They have to get to a point by physically being there and thinking of a passing lane.

"You have to have kids who want to play hard all the time. They can't take a break. If one guy quits, you have a hole in the defense. Every year, I get four or five coaches in the ball and four or five in the spring who want to talk about the ball-press. But all of them want to use it as a change of pace. I tell them they are wasting their time. They have to commit to it full-time. Kids have to believe in it."

Lincoln has been running the ball-press since Loren Wallace introduced it in 1976. "It's been here ever since. It has been a staple here and it's won a lot of basketball games. Our kids believe in it. So do our fans. But you must commit to it. A lot of people won't do that," Alexander said.

Roy Condotti, who coached at Westinghouse and Homewood-Flossmoor, used the 1-2-2 zone press for several years. When he served as Frank Lollino's assistant at Westinghouse, they developed their program around baseline-to-baseline pressure.

"We liked that style of play, the pressure, being the aggressor," Condotti said. "Not a lot of teams were doing it. The 1-2-2 is a safer form of the full-court press. It creates a style of play that allows you to direct traffic and dictate tempo. It isn't as simply as putting five guys out there. A lot of people don't do it because there is a lot to it.

"You need a method to your madness. There are specific responsibilities and breakdown drills for each one. You want to dictate where the ball is going. Five guys have to act as one. If one makes a mistake, it doesn't work. You have to commit to it fully. When we pressed, our defense was our offense.

"You need speed for full-court pressure. So you have to be willing to get beat in it. But you can't abandon it. You must commit to it, for better or worse. It is a mentality for the kids. Aggressive kids like it."

Bears ’18 offseason dramatically different from ’17 but with difficult money-management issues looming

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USA TODAY

Bears ’18 offseason dramatically different from ’17 but with difficult money-management issues looming

About this time a year ago the Bears were setting up for the annual NFL beauty pageant in Indianapolis, sitting with the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft and with myriad roster decisions to address with both that draft and free agency. Because of the Bears’ lofty draft position, even more scrutiny and attention swirled around the college prospects (Deshaun Watson, Jamal Adams, Solomon Thomas, not enough on Mitch Trubisky as it turned out, a testimonial to GM Ryan Pace’s ability to keep a secret).

But what was developing in free agency was arguably of even greater significance in what was then the short term, at least for John Fox, as it turned out. And the changed landscape this year bodes considerably better for Pace and the Bears. At least in one important respect.

First, a perspective from last year’s pre-Combine period...

Because of the unsettled quarterback situation – the Bears were working toward Mike Glennon and cutting Jay Cutler two weeks later – and concerns about a possible lame-duck situation for Fox, free agents and their agents were willing to look at the Bears but only if the Bears would pony up excessive guaranteed dollars. The worry any time a coach is heading into a tipping-point year is that if things go badly, the coach and staff are gone, and the resulting changes will alter the job situation of that particular veteran player.

So the likes of cornerbacks A.J. Bouye or Stephon Gilmore opted for less total money from Jacksonville and New England, respectively, because the Bears weren’t offering higher guarantees to compensate for the uncertainty.

(One of the reasons then-President/CEO Michael McCaskey stated to this reporter for firing Mike Ditka after the 1992 season was a concern over the negative pall Ditka cast over playing for the Bears as the NFL prepared for the 1993 start of free agency. A quarter-century later, Pace didn’t fire Fox because of free agents’ aversion to Fox, but the overall wasn’t making Pace’s job any easier.)

Would Alshon Jeffery have stayed if...

On a slightly different tack: Would Alshon Jeffery have given the Bears a more receptive look had the quarterback position been addressed sooner in the Fox/Pace tenure? Jeffery took less from the Eagles in a one-year prove-it deal, not because Philadelphia was so much warmer than Chicago, but in large part because of where the offensive arrow was pointing in Chicago with Fox, Dowell Loggains and an unsettled quarterback situation.

Not insignificantly in the Jeffery case: Jeffery had four choices – Bears, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Philadelphia. The Colts weren’t sure about Andrew Luck, coming off shoulder surgery and ultimately missing all of ’17. The Vikings were resting then on brittle Sam Bradford, whose knee broke down early, and Case Keenum wasn’t CASE KEENUM at that point. The Bears with Loggains and Glennon? Jeffery didn’t go with Philadelphia, Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz only for the money, which did come anyway.

The Bears have “fixed” all of those issues in the year that’s played out since Jeffery signed with the Eagles almost concurrent with the Bears moving on from Cutler. None of that matters now in the least with Jeffery, Bouye, Gilmore or any other options that demanded too much guaranteed money or spurned the Bears back then, but it does matter going into the run-up to free agency over the next couple weeks.

Why this in fact matters more than the draft is that, while sound organizations are grounded in quality drafting, the reality is that in virtually every offseason, more starters for that season are acquired via free agency than the draft. Last year’s draft centerpiece was Trubisky, though he wasn’t supposed to start last season. But free agents Glennon, Prince Amukamara, Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps and Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright were.

The money pit

Longtime Bears and NFL personnel chief Bill Tobin once remarked back in the beginning of free agency, “Just because you pay a guy $2 million doesn’t make him a $2-million player.” That still applies, adjusted for inflation. And that could make this free agency dicey for the Bears.

Because price isn’t always determined solely on quality; it’s a matter of supply and demand. And while the Bears are among those with the greatest estimated space under the projected cap of $178 million, the others way up on the list include Cleveland, Indianapolis, the Jets, Houston and Tampa Bay – all teams with five or fewer wins in ’17 and expected to be the most aggressive in using free agency to fix gaping holes. The Bears have a lot of money to spend, but so do a whole lot of others.

Meaning: A lot of dollars will be chasing a select few players, which will make some of them overpaid, not unlike Glennon was last offseason (how many apparently better options were there?) or a couple of others, who will be paid like $2 million players even if they aren’t, adjusted for inflation.

The result is another offseason of brinksmanship for Pace, this time in need of better results than his first three free agencies if the outcome for his second head coach is to be better than it was for his first.

Would potential bargains like Mike Moustakas or Carlos Gonzalez make sense for White Sox?

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USA TODAY

Would potential bargains like Mike Moustakas or Carlos Gonzalez make sense for White Sox?

The 2017-18 baseball offseason continues to be, well, the 2017-18 baseball offseason, even with spring training games being played in Arizona and Florida.

A bunch of names remain on the free-agent market, including All-Star players who thought they would be in for big multi-year contracts. But as teams continue to deny the wishes of guys who expected to get big deals, the suggestion that those players might end up needing to take one-year offers if they want to play during the 2018 season is becoming a more common talking point.

So with potential bargains to be had for some pretty big-name players, do the White Sox jump into the waters and try to lock up a potential future piece on the cheap? Though they aren’t expected to contend this season, the White Sox have been mentioned in a pair of recent reports surrounding a pair of All-Star position players: Mike Moustakas and Carlos Gonzalez.

MLB.com's Jon Morosi wrote last week that the White Sox are a potential fit for Moustakas, who has sat and watched as former Kansas City Royals teammate Eric Hosmer received a huge contract from the San Diego Padres. Moustakas set a new Royals record last season with 38 home runs but has yet to find a team.

The White Sox, connected to Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado earlier this offseason, seem to have a current big leaguer or highly ranked prospect locked into almost every position on the diamond for the foreseeable future, but third base isn't necessarily one of them. Jake Burger was last year’s top draft pick, though there’s speculation he could slide over to first base. The team still envisions him as a big league third baseman, for what it’s worth.

Moustakas is 29 and already has seven big league seasons under his belt, including a pair of All-Star appearances and a pair of trips to the World Series, including the Crowns’ championship back in 2015. His 38 homers and 85 RBIs in 2017 were both career highs. He slashed .272/.314/.521, the final of those three numbers the best mark of his career.

Moustakas has rarely hit for average or reached base at too high a clip, though those recent power numbers would be intriguing at a hitter-friendly park like Guaranteed Rate Field, where he has 10 career dingers, 26 career RBIs and a .249/.308/.456 career slash line as a visitor.

Certainly Moustakas would be a buzz-worthy addition, and if the White Sox could get him for a good value thanks to this slow-moving market, that adds incentive to bring him aboard. A short contract would have even more incentive for the rebuilding White Sox, who would have the option to either sign him to a long-term deal or deal him away in a deadline deal depending on his immediate production levels.

But for fans hoping the White Sox will spend big on a third baseman in one of the next two offseasons — Machado is a free agent next winter, and Colorado Rockies star Nolan Arenado is set to hit the market the winter after next — slotting in an outside addition at the hot corner now could impact those plans.

Gonzalez is a completely different story, a three-time All Star during his 10-year big league career who is just three seasons removed from a 40-homer campaign in 2015. The 32-year-old Gonzalez also has a trio of Gold Gloves to go along with his 215 career home runs. FanRag’s Jon Heyman listed the White Sox as a possible landing spot for CarGo this weekend.

But his walk year in Colorado was not a very good one by his standards. In 136 games for a Rockies team that ended up in the playoffs, he slashed .262/.339/.423, all those averages way down from his usual level of production. And his power numbers plummeted to 14 homers and 57 RBIs after he combined for 65 homers and 197 RBIs in 2015 and 2016.

The good news for the White Sox is that down year makes Gonzalez far more affordable. Should he command only a one-year contract, the White Sox could take a flier, stick him in the outfield — which still has an unresolved spot with few strong offensive options for center field — and trade him should he bounce back in a big way. Or, at 32, perhaps he’s a guy the White Sox could opt to keep around should he prove valuable and the rebuild continues to move along ahead of schedule.

Gonzalez seems the less risky move at this point, as Moustakas could still be looking for a multi-year contract. But the White Sox have plenty of financial flexibility and flexibility in their decision-making should they add either guy and he proves worthy of a midseason deal or a long-term look.