FDU’s Defense to Upend NEC?

It has been eight years — and three different head coaches — since Fairleigh Dickinson posted a winning record, but there is hope in northern New Jersey for the Knights’ current squad. Comprised largely of freshmen and veterans who were reserves in 2013, the hope is due to the Knights’ past two games, wins on the road against Rutgers and Seton Hall; Big Apple Buckets’ contributor Ray Floriani already provided his take on the Seton Hall game, a tilt that was offensively ugly, and the next two games on the Knights’ schedule — Stony Brook and Princeton — will prove a litmus test for whether FDU is a dark horse NEC contender, especially since it will be interesting to see if coach Greg Herenda continues to use a similar defensive strategy (tonight and on Saturday) versus teams constructed to handle FDU’s various zones.

FDU defended strictly man-to-man at the season’s start, but as Herenda quickly learned in double-digit losses to Hofstra, Hartford, and Arizona, his squad’s athleticism could not foster consecutive defensive stops. Each opponent scored well over one point per possession — Zona’s offensive efficiency rating was a whopping 1.52 PPP — and Herenda needed a defense that would slow opposing offenses while generating turnovers which would yield easy transition buckets.

Down at half against St. Peter[‘s, FDU switched to a zone defense, a change that yielded ten turnovers in twenty minutes and held the Peacocks to 1.01 PPP (on 34 possessions). Though FDU ultimately lost to St. Peter’s, Herenda again installed a zone versus Norfolk State, and it proved a formidable defense for the Knights.

Those two contests set the stage for FDU’s high-major conference swing: Rutgers and Seton Hall on the road. As a wrinkle, Herenda devised a 1-2-2 and 2-2-1 three-quarter and full-court soft press, which would then dissolve in the halfcourt as a 1-2-2 zone that possessed some man principles (for example, there was always an FDU defender on SHU’s Gene Teague). Herenda’s goal was simple: his team had to avoid fouls, and couldn’t stay in front of these AAC and Big East opponents, respectively, so the 1-2-2 would protect his players while also affording gap protection, keeping the guards out of the lane and (hopefully, if the defensive strategy worked) transform both opponents into jump-shooting squads — both opponents entered the FDU match-ups lacking consistency from beyond the arc. And if the 1-2-2 succeeded in confusing the two teams, it would only help fuel FDU’s transition game.

As evidenced by Fairleigh Dickinson’s two wins, the zone thoroughly befuddled the intra-New Jersey teams. Both squads used 63 possessions — only scoring one point per possession — and seemed uncomfortable running their offense. The only time either team succeeded at attacking the zone was to screen the Knight at the 1, allowing the guard to penetrate and either pull up for a jumper or dish to a big lurking near the baseline, but the complexity of Herenda’s zone was the help defense: there was always at least three defenders waiting to help guard weakside or baseline, and that support made it difficult to get a clean look (or catch) when a guard did find an opening. The Pirates tried to isolate Sterling Gibbs for a mid-range jump shot, instructing Aaron Geramipoor to set a pick, but Gibbs (who has struggled mightily with his touch inside the arc and from deep) could not connect and was scoreless from the field. Teague, in particular, seemed flummoxed by the zone, and committed several turnovers. Perhaps the most telling stat was Seton Hall’s eleven free throw attempts — only six other Division I teams get to the free throw line as often as the Pirates, yet Kevin Willard’s team was too confused by the swarming defense they encountered in South Orange. Through four games after Herenda installed his zone defenses, FDU has limited teams to just .82 PPP.

The next two tilts, though, will prove whether the zone will continue to keep teams off balance. Stony Brook and Princeton are much better suited to handle a soft press and a zone — both only give away up to 16% of their possessions, and their tight handles are often used to find teammates for three-point field goal attempts. The Tigers have the nation’s highest three-point field goal rate — per Ken Pomeroy, nearly 50% of their field goal attempts are from deep — and while Stony Brook would rather dump the ball to Jameel Warney, a high-major talent who has beasted throughout SBU’s non-conference play, Steve Pikiell’s squad still makes 40% of their threes. If either team has a cold night, FDU has shown they can monopolize the situation, but the mixture of skilled ballhandlers with long-range proficiency will test Herenda’s defensive schemes.

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