The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, March 25, 2020
Princeton's greatness, explained — Interview with Kia Nurse — Must-click women's basketball links
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What Made Princeton’s Defense So Great
The Baylor Lady Bears feature a ferocious defense. It was the driving force behind the 2018-19 title for Kim Mulkey’s team, and it’s why they are among the favorites to reach the Final Four in 2019-20. But Baylor was not, however, the leading defense in the country — not by opposing points per 100 possessions, per HerHoopStats, and not by points per possession, via Synergy.
That team was the Princeton Tigers. The Ivy League champions, by virtue of the cancellation of the conference tournament, can find many parallels with the defending national champs — though the team’s first-year head coach, Carla Berube, said that doesn’t come from a conscious effort to emulate the Lady Bears.
“Honestly, I don’t even watch them at all,” Berube said with a chuckle. “I’m watching Columbia and Penn and Yale, and I have three kids at home.”
So how did Princeton build that defensive profile? It helped that Berube inherited a strong defensive team from Courtney Banghart, the longtime Princeton coach who left the Tigers for North Carolina after last season. Eight of the top 10 players in minutes per game for the Tigers are holdovers from the defending Ivy League champions of a year ago.
Even so, that team was 97th in the country in opposing points per 100 possessions. So the combination of talent and Berube, according to Princeton star Bella Alarie, was vital in taking that next step.
“Coach Berube came in and told us right away, defense is her priority,” Alarie said. “So we don’t chart deflections, we don’t chart steals, but we do just get after it every day in practice. And Coach Berube is always striving for perfection with this team, and is never satisfied with a mediocre defensive possession.”
That level of buy-in is reflected in the numbers in a variety of ways. For one thing, Baylor is the best in the nation in half-court sets, allowing just 0.595 points per possession. Princeton is just behind, fifth in the country, at 0.615. But a key part of what makes Baylor so tough is that the Bears work to limit opposing transition opportunities, with only 11 teams among the 352 in Division I allowing a lower share of transition possessions.
Princeton is nearly as good on that score — Baylor’s rank is 341, Princeton is 321 — but the half-court isn’t much better for opponents. Princeton is one of two Division I teams — the other is Merrimack — allowing less than 0.7 points per possession in the halfcourt. Baylor? Their 0.837 ranks 90th in the country, a potential way for opponents to have approached them come NCAA Tournament time.
Not only did Princeton end possessions well, with a defensive rebound rate second in the country, but they turned teams over before they even get shots up. Princeton’s 7.1 steal percentage ranks 22nd in the nation, and each of their top 10 players by minutes have steal percentages north of 2 percent, with six of above 3 percent. They had an absurdly consistent ability to break up passes and force empty trips down the floor.
“We’re not preaching, ‘Let’s get steals,’” Berube said. “We’re preaching, ‘Let’s make it really hard for our opponents to do what they want to do, what they want to set up, the offense that they want to run, the shots that they want to get. Let’s make it really difficult.’ That means deflections. That means it’s hard to see inside to their post players. It means they’re not going to get a good look at the rim. And it does mean sometimes getting steals. If you’re getting the hand in the passing lane and making it hard for them to execute what they want to do, then steals do happen.”
Berube also said a critical feature of the defense is making sure hands are high, which often leads to blocks, no more so than for Alarie. Her 8.8 block percentage was 46th in the nation, and her ability to both guard in the post and help out on others is a mirror of the way Baylor used its star player, Lauren Cox. Not surprisingly, Cox was 35th in the nation in block percentage, at 9.5 percent.
“That is another piece of our defense — is the great help defense, in the way we can communicate with each other, knowing that someone has our back at all times, if we do get driven by,” Berube said. “And knowing that Bella’s there and her length and her timing and her presence and her shot-blocking ability, I think it makes our defense stronger, and it brings a lot of confidence to our perimeter players and even our other posts.”
And like Baylor, which also features sophomores Nalyssa Smith and Queen Egbo as prominent rim protectors, Princeton used Taylor Baur, a senior like Alarie, as a dual shot-blocking menace, and Baur’s block percentage of 5.5 percent reflects the success of this gambit.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a Berube team is elite defensively. Her teams at Tufts, where she coached before Princeton, regularly finished among the best teams in the country defensively. Something else her Tufts teams did is win in March, including four trips to the Division III Final Four. For Alarie, who has done essentially everything else one can accomplish as a collegiate player, winning in the NCAA Tournament was the last, largest goal, making the cancellation of the NCAA tournament particularly painful for her.
And now, everyone will have to assign the idea of a Princeton run, a Bella Alarie-fueled Tigers trip to the Final Four to mimic what Bill Bradley did with the Princeton men back in 1965, into the ever-growing bin of what might have been.
“Absolutely,” Berube said of whether this Princeton team could have made a run. “I think it’s always been the foundation, and I think that’s why we were successful. And yeah, I think there’s been a lot of better offensive teams that we played against at Tufts, but the way we could shut down players and shut down sort of sometimes the best players on other teams, I think was critical to our success.”
This Week in Women’s Basketball
In-depth look at the Penny Toler lawsuit by Erica Ayala.
Zac Boyer writes that Gail Goestenkors is ready to return to coaching.
Loved this Mirin Fader piece on overseas WNBA players getting home.
Lauren Cox is sad about no basketball, just like all of us.
Megan Gauer provides useful info on win shares out of this past season in college hoops.
Dan Connolly updates UConn fans on those players who transferred.
And, obviously, always listen to Cheryl Reeve.
Alexa Philippou tells Kyra Irwin’s story so well.
Dawn Staley insists South Carolina is the national champions.
Jacob Goldstein created a database of PIPM for every single WNBA player ever. Read it, bookmark it, love it.
Neil Paine quantifies the losses facing women’s basketball right now.
And Doug Smith does the same for Team Canada.
And let’s end on a fun note: we’ve been running a March S[imulation]adness NCAA Tournament at High Post Hoops. It’s Sweet 16 time! Join us, lots of coaches and analysts participating.
Tweet of the Week
Five at The IX: Kia Nurse, New York Liberty
I spoke to Kia by phone last week.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I want to talk to you first and foremost about the news that should be leading headlines around the world, which is the fact that you are now driving a Kia. I think this is long overdue, and I was hoping you to take me through how that process came about.
KIA NURSE: Yeah. So, I have a really, really awesome team on the marketing side here in Canada. They’re called Cimoroni and Company, and I work with them pretty closely on deals and just typical things that I use daily and potentially getting partnerships with them.
So, I had spoken to them about my car lease on my former car being up this year. I was going to go into the market and look for a new car. I said, “Well, why don’t we just talk to Kia for a little bit?” That’s what they did. They went into it and they got Kia of Hamilton, which is the city that I live in, to sign an endorsement deal for the car that I’m driving now, the Telluride. So, super exciting, super grateful to Kia of Hamilton and their team for what they’ve done to make this a reality.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Take me through just what has been most different over the last week or two as the world has been grappling with this and sort of what your process has been dealing with the issue of the Coronavirus as it’s been happening.
KIA NURSE: Well, I’ve been able to get home about a week ago and be with family. I think that the biggest difference in my life right now is just the extended time with family. This isn’t something that I get very often, so fortunate for that and fortunate to be around my siblings and my parents.
Obviously, it’s a little bit more tough to be around grandparents right now, just in order to keep them safe, but definitely has been something different. Maintaining home workouts and having a little bit of extended time, after a really, really long season overseas, it’s not a bad thing necessarily for our bodies, but that’s pretty much been the difference.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I was just talking to Napheesa Collier about this and she said there been some real intense Monopoly games going on at home. But it’s almost been like a throwback she’s saying to a period of time that predates professional, even college, years. I’m wondering what are those day-to-day like in the Nurse household? What are some things you guys are doing to pass the time?
KIA NURSE: Yeah, or just keeping up-to-date with obviously our emails and everybody’s got their own stuff going on between work and with what I’ve got going on as well, outside of just being around the house and doing my homework. So, puzzles are a big thing here. Me and my mom are very much into 1,000 piece puzzles. So, we have a good one going on the coffee table right now, and it seems like every moment we get, we kind of sit down, put a couple of pieces in, and then go and do something else and come back.
HOWARD MEGDAL: What is it? What’s the puzzle? What is the picture?
KIA NURSE: It’s birdhouses, like multicolored birdhouses in a massive tree.
HOWARD MEGDAL: So for you on the basketball side of things, I mean, that’s sort of the advantage I guess with basketball is a lot of the training can be done on an individual basis. Is that typical for you or have you had to change that routine along the way?
KIA NURSE: No, I’m very individual in what I do basketball-wise and training-wise. I try to keep everything pretty close quarters with myself. I don’t let cameras in the gym or lots of people in the gym. For the most part, it’s really just me and one other person or one other rebounder.
So yeah, that’s the only been the real big difference. Obviously with social distancing, you don’t want to be around too many people at all. So, if it’s got to be just me and the ball and the hoop, that’s the easy way to be too.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Have you thought about just how different this summer may end up being? I mean, you’ve really established yourself now as an All-Star, as a mainstay in this league, and a mainstay on the New York Liberty as well. But when there’s so much up in the air, everybody’s lives are changing so much. I’m wondering, do you think about it? Have you let yourself think about it? What’s that process like for you just on an emotional end?
KIA NURSE: It hasn’t been necessarily something I’ve thought about. I think I’ve gotten way better. I just taken everything as it comes one day at a time. Right? There’s so many uncertainties in life, whether it be what we’re going through right now, or maybe something that was happening a month ago and just understanding that the cards are going to fall the way they fall.
So, do what I can do to control things. So, I can control doing the homework, that I can control eating healthy, I can control what I’m looking at, what kind of content that I’m consuming. That’s kind of the stuff I try to focus on day-to-day. What happens it’s going to happen, regardless of dates, times, what changes when we’re doing things. So, just making sure that I’m staying up-to-date with myself and my mental side of things is being as productive as possible.