An Extensive Look At Rick Pitino's Defensive System

This post is in response to a lot of fans on this site who have asked two or more of the following questions:

  • What is Pitino's "System"?
  • What about Pitino's "System" is so complex?
  • Why does Pitino say that defense is the problem this year?
  • Why does everyone say that freshman struggle with Pitino's "system"?
  • Why can't Pitino just dumb his system down a little bit?
  • Why does chocolate covered fruit taste so damn good?

First, a disclaimer. I am, by no means, an expert of the X's and O's of basketball. I am just like most of you, a fan of college basketball and a supporter of Louisville Cardinal athletics. Now, what I'm about to go into is very likely me on my assent of Mount Stupid, but I'm going to go ahead and post anyway.


This post will not contain animated gifs of pressing defenses, nor a detailed history of basketball defenses. I'm simply going to discuss how Rick Pitino's defenses have changed over the years and in doing so, perhaps give some of you some insight into the answers to the questions above. So here we go.

At UK, Rick Pitino started his career by instituting a 1-2-1-1 zone press and paired it with a high tempo offense relying heavily on the 3-point shot. This full-court press works by having each defender guard a specific area of the court and not worrying about how many men were in it. It was all about denying the ball to enter your zone. It wasn't particularly unique to Pitino, but Pitino taught his players to go all-out for steals and pretty much not worry about it if you got beat.

Zone presses are easily beaten when your team knows they are coming and has practiced specific press-breaking movements. These press-breaks take advantage of knowing how a defender will move in his zone based on the ball movement, then dribbling or moving the ball through the press knowing where the holes should be. Pitino's early zone press was different enough with players going all-out for the steal in that they didn't respond the way traditional zone presses did, so they got a lot of steals. Coaches would try to execute traditional zone press breaks and would turn the ball over because Pitino's press didn't react the same way a normal zone-press would.

Over the years, Pitino's zone press was figured out with specific press-breaks designed for it. This came after a lot of other teams started adopting his version, most notably the early 90's Arkansas teams under Nolan Richardson. Pitino was one step ahead of the curve though, in that he alone pretty much pioneered the "match-up" press. This press was very different than all the other zone full-court presses in that it was all about ball-pressure. The goal was to keep pressure on the ball and match-up man-to-man on the inbounds, but then execute double-teams depending on two things: ball location and your man's location.

The most famous of these double teams is known as the "Cut and Double" where the ball defender forces his man to speed up the dribble and to the sideline. Once the ball-handler crosses mid-court, another defender, who has stayed even with the ball and in the shadow of the primary defender during the dribble up, cuts over and double-teams the ball-handler providing effectively 4 defenders (2 players, mid-line and side line). You see this move performed regularly by nearly every pressing team and coaches and fans alike hate their PG when they fall into this now classic trap. Today, there are press-breaks designed to make it specifically look like the dribbler is going to fall into this trap, but actually break the trap. There are defensive sets that fake this trap only to force a different trapping scenario. The "Cut and Double" is an absolute classic and Pitino pioneered it.

Pitino pioneered several other now "classic" traps into this match-up press and it is the basis of the press that Louisville (and many other teams) runs today. I have noticed two particular traps that are pretty unique to Louisville; one of which the SF does a variation of a "Run and Jump" trap but cuts into a likely passing lane for a steal. I'll guarantee that move alone accounts for at least 100 steals in Pitino's Louisville tenure and for more than 10 dunks by T-will alone. Nobody else, other than a recent Pitino disciple that is now a head coach, does it in this unique way. It requires a quick athlete and good timing and if it fails, it usually ends up in an open 3-point shot or layup for the other team. It's risky, but Louisville has done well with it. I know UofL is way ahead in the points for/against by teaching and executing this move.

The match-up press is definitely more complicated than a zone press in that you aren't just responsible for an area of the court, but you must know where your man is and where the ball is, and then act accordingly. There are a lot of decisions to make individually and a mistake will absolutely do one of two things: 1. Your man is wide-open or 2. You allow the ball-handler to beat his defender on the dribble and now you have an undefended player speed-dribbling toward the basket. Neither typically turn out very well as you might imagine. If you don't understand the system or make slow or bad decisions, you will cause baskets for the other team. Unlike a traditional 2-3 zone, most HS coaches choose not to implement a match-up press because they do not have enough quality athletes to run it effectively, nor is the risk/reward trade-off beneficial with the amount of mistakes that HS players make.

Most recently, in the last 2-3 years, Pitino has developed a match-up zone defense in the half-court that many of you are familiar with. The D starts off in a 2-3 zone, but has certain triggers that cause it to switch to man-to-man. One of the easiest ways to trigger the switch is passing the ball into the low-post area that causes one of the edges of the bottom of the 2-3 to collapse. In this case, bottom middle of the 2-3 (usually the center) calls the switch and the defense marks everyone but the guy standing in the shadow of the double team straight up. This instantly makes the traditional zone beating offensive scheme less effective and you typically have a big man trying to pass out of a double team to people that are being guarded man-to-man. If each defender doesn’t select the correct man to switch to, most notably the side of the zone that is opposite of the double team, it will result in an either an easy basket (if the top of the zone makes the error) or a wide open three (if the bottom of the zone makes the error) for the other team. Early this season, Chane was offender #1 for allowing open threes by opposing teams for not picking up the right man during this switch. College of Charleston used the same play at least 5 times to get open looks from three, taking advantage of the bad switching by our SF and PF spots in this zone. Pitino moving Kuric to the PF spot is often credited as being the difference maker in that game offensively, but it also had a big impact on the defensive end as well.

The most important player in this match-up zone defense scheme is easily the Center. The Center communicates the switch and the players are supposed to wait for the call to make the switch. When Gorgui isn’t in the game, we aren’t very good at communicating or timing the switch. In fact, I’ve seen us blow a defensive set when everyone switched to man-to-man BUT Buckles, leading to a dunk for the other team. To put it bluntly, Buckles wasn’t good at the center spot in this defense. Price doesn’t have the experience yet to run this defense. This is why Pitino is saying that defense is the problem. So, in recent games, starting with Notre Dame, we quit running the match-up zone when Gorgui was on the bench. (Check the timing of this change with the first "defense is the problem" statement if you want your mind to be blown.) This is why ND’s burn offense hurt us so badly. This is (one of technical on-the-court reasons) why Providence lit us up from outside. Our defense loses its teeth when we don’t execute and becomes a basic 2-3, which we aren’t as skilled at as other teams. Teams who can’t get a quality shot against our match-up zone can often get a quality shot against our 2-3. This is also why Pitino continues to say that Gorgui is our most important player and he wants 35+ minutes out of him. (Interesting Gorgui side note with respect to that recent Gorgui block +/- analysis…Gorgui is supposed to call for a switch to man-to-man when there is lane penetration that he’s going to help defend. Most of the time when he calls for that switch and blocks the shot, we secure the block and when he doesn’t, we do not secure the block. Just like how it’s easier to rebound defensively in man-to-man D versus a zone D, so it goes with securing a blocked shot. So even Gorgui is still learning and growing in this defense.)

So, a quick review of those questions, also a TLDR; version of the above:

  • What is Pitino's "System"?

Simply, Rick Pitino’s system is a defense driven system in which a full-court match up press is utilized in conjunction with an unique match-up zone defense designed to confuse the opposing team’s offense via switching, control tempo and disrupt flow via steals and deflections.

  • What about Pitino's "System" is so complex?

Pitino’s system is complex in the respect that it requires repetition in practice to understand. The match-up press and match-up zone depend on players making timely correct decisions in response to the opposition. Correct execution doesn’t always result in a turnover (even though it significantly increases it), but poor execution often leads to open shots for the other team.

  • Why does Pitino say that defense is the problem this year?

Because he noticed that against some of our more "quality" competition, and with Gorgui on the bench, we struggled with the timing and communication of switches in our half-court defense. Our half-court defense was getting beat in the match-up zone because of execution errors, not fundamental flaws in the scheme. When we switched to other traditional half-court sets, teams beat us with skill because our team isn’t as skilled at a traditional 2-3 zone.

  • Why does everyone say that freshman struggle with Pitino's "system"?

Because most often, they do struggle on the intake of the defense. The superior athletic ability of our freshmen compared to our competition covers a lot of their mistakes early on, but when it gets to the meat of the season and athletic ability is even or possibly at a disadvantage at times, only proper execution will suffice. Injuries and limited practice time with players experienced in the system compound the problem of a steeper learning curve.

  • Why can't Pitino just dumb his system down a little bit?

Actually, he has this season. And things got worse when he did. With our offensive woes this season, we are a (with the exception of Russ) a completely defense-driven team. It has not and will not benefit us to change our defensive style. Traditionally it has worked out better for Pitino to take his lumps in January in order to be successful in February.

  • Why does dark chocolate covered fruit taste so damn good?

I think it’s the combination of the bitter elements of the chocolate and the sweetness of the fruit together all compounded behind the endorphin releasing smell and guilt-shedding excuse of eating healthy anti-oxidants. It’s altogether just a pleasant physical, sensual and mental experience.

Finally, I’ll leave you with some personal thoughts on Pitino’s Defensive System.

Pitino is a master on defense. He’s often said to not be an X’s and O’s coach, but that is definitely not true on defense. He has continually, throughout his career, been the trend-setter through innovation and making adjustments and improvements to his defensive schemes. A huge part of Pitino assistant coaches’ success when they move to a head coaching position comes from the defensive end. Pitino’s biggest compliment from coaches at the next level about his players always includes that they know how to play defense.

A side effect of Pitino’s defensive genius is that not all players are a quick study. It takes repetition to master the system and I’m very proud by the growth of Chane and Gorgui this season on the defensive side of the ball. Gorgui is our leader and Chane is no longer a liability and becoming quite adept at executing. We have a lot to look forward to as these young interior players grow.

Either Gorgui’s ability to stay on the floor 35+ mins a game and/or Price’s ability to absorb and adequately lead the defense in reserve is very likely the most important key to the rest of the season. I personally believe that a combination of both is the best solution. Gorgui shouldn’t play 35+ mins because that will take away some of his aggression and mean Gorgui is the Gorgui we want out there. Price isn’t inept at leading the defense, just ignorant. The criticism of not playing Price more early in the season is, in my opinion, a valid one; but it would have come with a cost. Would you have traded an early-season head scratcher loss to Ohio or College of Charleston for an unknown amount of improvement in Price? I don’t know what the right answer to that is, only that it may not have changed anything but adding one more loss to the column, happening early in the season.

Injuries really hurt our new players, even if the injury doesn’t happen to them. Seeing the proper execution and how effective it is valuable to understanding and changing the behavior of new players on defense. Repetition is key to mastering the defense and even missing a week can cause players to be rusty in their decision making, lowering the efficiency of our defense.

Lastly, I just want to comment that even though there are legitimate gripes going around with how this season has progressed, I still think Coach Pitino is a great coach. Like many rich guys who got rich because they are also smart guys, he’s got an ego. He knows he’s good. However, as a guy who is daily trying to tame an ego, let me tell you that nobody is more embarrassed internally about the performance of this team than Pitino. This team will get better this season and since it doesn’t seem that great shooters are just going to fall from the sky to save us, it’s going to start on the defensive end. Perhaps instead of saying "defense is the problem", Coach Pitino should start saying that "defense is the solution."