Tue May 05 11:18am EDT
Yesterday, I recommended Malcolm Gladwell's latest piece for the New Yorker. Why did I do so on a college basketball blog? Because it is about the full-court press, something near and dear to any college basketball fan's heart, and because it had some great anecdotal reporting on Rick Pitino, master of the modern press, and because it was a really popular, famous writer deigning to slum about with our little game. What's not to like?
After a closer read, it turns out there's a whole lot. Gladwell, usually so good on so many different topics, so clear a thinker in so many ways, just kind of loses his way in this one. To be more accurate: If you know nothing about basketball and you read Gladwell's piece, you'll love it, and you'll wonder why more teams don't press all game. If you're a basketball fan, you'll scoff.
Why? Because Gladwell's thesis as it relates to basketball (there's a whole bunch of statistical analysis about how underdogs win in classical war battles; Lawrence of Arabia gets major shouts-out) rests almost entirely on anecdotal evidence, and that anecdotal evidence is almost entirely the travails of a 12-year-old girl's basketball team coached by an Indian software engineer who didn't know much about basketball before he started coaching his daughter's team. Turns out, a deny-the-ball, all-out full court press works great when you're coaching against 12-year-old girls. But, um, duh? Their skills aren't there yet. Dribbling and passing up the floor is a sometimes severe challenge.
The leap, then is to apply this theory to modern college hoops. The problem is that college basketball players are not 12 years old, and their challenge is simply not the same for college teams facing quick, nimble point guards. One of Gladwell's major focal points is Rick Pitino, one of (in the author's estimation) the few coaches that's learned the value of the full court press and made it a core tenet of his philosophy. But if we're working in anecdotes here, how about Pitino's last game in 2009? Surely he remembers. Kalin Lucas and the rest of the Michigan State backcourt shredded his team's ferocious full court press, leaving Louisville -- certainly not the David against Michigan State, but the Goliath -- in their wake.
This is not to say that the full court press can't work, or doesn't, or even that Gladwell is necessarily wrong. (In the end, he seems more concerned with the way Davids behave against Goliaths than with the actual vagaries of college basketball.) It's just that if you're going to ask basketball coaches to fundamentally alter the way they play the game, and posit the all-too-comforting notion that effort can trump ability, you just have to want it enough, the burden of proof is higher than, "It seems to work in youth games. Why not, right?"
Because every team in college basketball is different. Every David has their own Goliath. Sometimes, a stone -- the full-court press in Gladwell's analogy -- works great. But in the real world, sometimes a stone won't get it done. Sometimes you just need a better sword.