Bulls

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."

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

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USA TODAY

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

Over the past several weeks, the Bulls have been heavily rumored to be selecting Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although the 6-foot-7 Hutchison had a stellar four-year career with the Broncos, and was regarded as a top-100 national prospect coming out of high school, his background is relatively unknown compared to many of his first-round counterparts. Not many recruiting gurus watched Hutchison in-depth in high school. The same could be said about draft analysts watching Hutchison's career unfold at Boise State.

Part of the reason Hutchison has flown under the radar for so long, despite being a first-round talent, is his unique basketball upbringing. Many elite high school players opt to transfer to big-time basketball schools while playing in high-exposure shoe-company leagues during the spring and summer. Instead of the normal path, Hutchison chose to stick with the people that he trusted.

Playing for a small, independent grassroots program in high school known as Team Eastbay, Hutchison started showing special gifts as a sophomore in before blossoming into a top-100 national prospect towards the end of high school. Hutchison's trainer and coach with Team Eastbay, Perry Webster, saw that Chandler had the ability to be a big-time player.

"I walked into the gym and saw this 15-year-old kind of gangly kid. And he just moved different than anybody else. I thought he had a chance to be a pretty good player," Webster said of Hutchison.

As Hutchison developed more of a reputation in the Southern California basketball scene, becoming a starter at Mission Viejo High School his junior season, he started to draw more attention from local and national recruiting analysts — including former ESPN recruiting insider Joel Francisco, Scout.com's Josh Gershon and SoCal recruiting analyst Devin Ugland.

"You saw during his junior year that he was a legitimate Division I prospect. During the spring he started blossoming," Francisco said. "He had the ball skills and the prototypical length and things like that. And he was finishing plays. He had a good IQ for the game. It was a matter of strength and he had to fill out to become a more complete player."

By the end of summer going into his senior season, Hutchison had established himself as a potential Pac-12 recruit, as schools like Oregon and USC started to show heavy interest. But it was mid-major programs like Boise State, Saint Mary's and UC-Irvine who had long been involved in Hutchison's recruitment.

Knowing that Hutchison was a unique wing with a high IQ and passing skills, Webster, a former Division I player at Cal State Fullerton himself, advised that his star player take a close look at the programs that would put him in position to succeed right away.

"Every AAU program in Southern California was trying to get him for their team. Free ride this, free shoes. The kid stayed really loyal to me. I was very hard on him," Webster said. "I demanded a lot of him. I screamed at him, I yelled at him. And he looked me in the eye and took it. I realized, this kid is pretty special because he's not running away from what he is. He knows what his limitations are. That's not something he's afraid to address.

"Not everybody was sold on him. Joel [Francisco] was. Joel was one of the proponents of him. But being that he burst on the scene late, and that he didn't play for the big shoe companies, we kind of came to the decision that we wouldn't be so enamored by the Pac-12. He realized he had ability but he still had a long way to go." 

Hutchison eventually decided to sign his National Letter of Intent with Boise State before his senior season started as assistant coach Jeff Linder acted as his lead recruiter. Even though his collegiate future had been decided, Hutchison continued to evolve into a major prospect during senior year as he flourished at Mission Viejo.

Even with his strong senior season, skepticism remained about Hutchison since he hadn't played with and against many of the major names in Southern California. Ranked as the No. 83 overall prospect in ESPN's final Class of 2014 national recruiting rankings, Hutchison was viewed as the seventh best player in his own state. While Francisco pushed for Hutchison to be ranked in the top 50, he had to settle for him being a back-end top-100 talent.

"They're like, hey, he's going to Boise State, he's not on a major shoe company team. How good can he be? But if he can play, he can play. It doesn't matter if he's not on the adidas circuit, he's not in the EYBL," Francisco said.

Francisco wasn't the only major recruiting analyst to take notice of Hutchison's play. Rivals.com's Eric Bossi also labeled Hutchison as a potential breakout player at Boise State. Hutchison was even placed in the Rivals national recruiting rankings, ending up at No. 98 overall, after his senior season. Bossi was on vacation with his family during spring break and he happened to see Hutchison play during his senior season. But Hutchison's strong effort, along with some research, convinced Bossi that he was worthy of a top-100 ranking, even with only one serious viewing. 

"I decided to go watch some regional California high school playoff stuff. And it just so happened to be that Chandler's high school team was one of the teams I was seeing," Bossi said. "I knew he was on the team and committed to Boise State. But then when I watched him play I was like, 'Holy cow, what an incredible get for Boise State. Like, this dude's legit.' He had great size for a wing. He could handle the ball, he could really pass and I thought he could defend multiple positions at the next level when it was all said and done. I thought he was a versatile, well-skilled, well-rounded basketball player. So, based on that, I thought he was top-100. I wish I had seen him more."

Even as a former top-100 national prospect, it took some time for Hutchison to gain traction at Boise State as he didn't put up big numbers during his first two seasons. Although Hutchison played plenty of minutes and started a healthy amount of games, he often took a back seat to talented all-conference players like Anthony Drmic and James Webb III.

When those players eventually moved on from the Broncos, Hutchison was given his chance to shine, as his ascension into all-conference player and future first-round pick came with an intense work ethic that continually developed during workouts in college.

Hutchison also became a consistent three-point threat — something he had been lacking during his development — as he became a hot name in the 2018 NBA Draft despite his unorthodox basketball background.

"He's always been competitive. I think the big thing is reps. And it still will be as he continues to play in the league," Webster said. "He wasn't a bad shooter in high school, but I think the big adjustment for him getting to college, it's hard to put up good percentages in college. I think some of it is mental. But I think he's a good shooter and I think that he'll prove that." 

It's hard to predict if the Bulls will end up with Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick on Thursday night — especially given all of the chaos that can occur on draft night. But if Hutchison does end up in Chicago, he won't be fazed by having to prove himself after already doing so at the high school and college level.

Mike Trout says Browns will win more games than Bears in 2018

Mike Trout says Browns will win more games than Bears in 2018

Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout is quickly becoming an icon in American sports. The two-time American League MVP is enjoying another dominant season batting .335 with 23 home runs and 48 RBI.

On Tuesday, he took a swing at what Bears fans may consider a shocking NFL prediction.

“I’ve got the Browns having a better record than the Bears,” Trout told a radio reporter, according to the Los Angeles Times. Trout's comments were made in response the reporter "talking up" Chicago.

Both the Browns and Bears have had productive offseasons that involved headline-grabbing acquisitions on offense. Cleveland drafted QB Baker Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick, traded for WR Jarvis Landry, signed RB Carlos Hyde and drafted a backfield mate for him in Georgia's Nick Chubb. They added potential lockdown corner Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick, too. Add all that to a motivated Josh Gordon ready to contribute for a full season, and there's good reason to be excited in Cleveland.

Still, it's hard imagining Trout can be that confident in a team that's won only one game over the last two seasons. And let's not forget what GM Ryan Pace has done this offseason, one that's been praised by analysts from all corners of the NFL universe. From new coach Matt Nagy to free-agent WR Allen Robinson and all the skill players in between, the Bears are ready to make a legitimate run in the NFC North.

Trout doesn't strike out much in the major leagues, but this prediction feels like it could be a back-straining whiff.