Men’s basketball transitions to man-to-man defense

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The introduction Matt Heldt and Henry Ellenson allows for a change in scheme (Photo courtesy of Maggie Bean/Marquette Images).

Avid fans of Marquette basketball will notice a lot of obvious differences between this year and last year’s teams, but one of the biggest differences will be a bit more subtle.

Head coach Steve Wojciechowski said that he plans to run a man-to-man defense this year, which is markedly different than the zone scheme that the Golden Eagles ran for most of last year. Wojciechowski said that man defense is his preference, and the zone-dominant scheme that Marquette ran last year was born out of necessity.

“We ended up having to play multiple defenses a lot last year based on our personnel and the number of guys we had on our team,” Wojciechowski said. “I would prefer to play mostly man defense.”

The Golden Eagles started off last season playing man-to-man, but quickly found it ineffective due to their lineup’s lack of size and inability to fight through screens. Starting with its game against Wisconsin, Marquette transitioned to a 2-3 zone defense, which entails two players occupying zones close to the perimeter and three players guarding zones closer to the baseline and basket. The Golden Eagles stayed in that alignment for the majority of the 2014-’15 season, with occasional shifts to man-to-man and other types of zone defenses.

The switch reduced the burden on specific defenders, but often left the Golden Eagles’ frontcourt out of position for rebounds, which contributed to Marquette surrendering offensive rebounds on 36.4 percent of all opposing shots, one of the lowest marks in Division I. However, center Luke Fischer believes that switching back to man-to-man will alleviate the problem.

“Man-to-man absolutely helps with rebounding,” Fischer said. “You’re not searching for a guy like you are in zone… you’re already guarding someone, and you know who they are.”

Even though a new defensive scheme can be complex and take an exhaustive amount of practice to perfect, the prevailing sentiment among Marquette players seems to be that the switch will not be an issue.

“I feel comfortable in both (defenses), honestly,” small forward Sandy Cohen said. “In high school I played all zone, and in AAU I played man, so I can do both pretty well.”

Fellow small forward Sacar Anim concurred, saying, “I’m really comfortable with man-to-man. I’ve actually never played zone in my life before, so I’m really pleased that we’re doing man-to-man.”

Of course, when it comes to running a defensive scheme, it always helps to have bigger bodies on the floor. Marquette’s versatility on defense last year was inhibited by the fact that Fischer was the only player on the roster taller than 6-foot-7. Now, Marquette has three such players, which means the Golden Eagles can guard opposing big men one-on-one without being at a massive size disadvantage near the hoop.

“We have size at multiple positions around the basket,” Wojciechowski said. “We should be a better defensive rebounding team, and I think our size and length across the board is better.”

In the end, though, no defensive scheme is a substitute for skillful enthusiasm at that end of the floor, Fischer said.

“Coach Wojo’s biggest pet peeve is when you’re not hustling,” he said. “As long as you’re playing hard and hustling, he’s going to be on your side.”

It appears that Marquette is wholeheartedly embracing this philosophy. Anim described his defensive style in three words: “Ferocious. Lockup. Furious.”

Wojciechowski will need his new man-to-man defense to be all three of those things and more if Marquette hopes to reverse its fortunes from last year and make a run in the gritty BIG EAST conference.