In very general terms, a team can play very aggressive, or more conservative on defense.
On the aggressive side, think Bob Huggins’ West Virginia teams, or Shaka Smart’s Final Four run at VCU with his trademark “havoc” defense. Both teams, among many others, play ultra aggressive on defense with constant full court pressure, hard hedges or traps on ball screens, and often commit a lot of fouls in the process. The goal is to force your opponents to make mistakes by making them play fast and under constant pressure. This is a good option if you have very good athletes and some depth to deal with foul trouble. Generally speaking, this style of play is high risk, high reward. In playing fast and aggressive you can force teams into turnovers and get easy points in transition, but you could also get caught out of position and give up easy points, or get into foul trouble where your opponent gets easy points at the free throw line and your best players potentially forced to sit.
On the other side of the spectrum you have more conservative defensive teams like the national champion Virginia Cavaliers or my Wisconsin Badgers. Both teams play more of a “pack line” defense, predicated on always being in the right position, minimizing defensive mistakes, and never giving up easy points. Our goal at Wisconsin was to frustrate teams by always being in the right position to make their shots difficult and never jump out of position to get steals or block shots unless we were certain we would be successful. We had specific rules for every situation, and everyone was on the same page in sticking to those rules no matter what. That style of play allowed us to beat teams that were more athletic and talented than us, because we were consistent and smart. It also may have cost us in games when we struggled offensively because we didn’t force a ton of turnovers to generate easy points in transition.
So what style is best?
By many metrics, Virginia was the best defensive team in the country last season and it led them to the National Championship. However, from a players’ standpoint I can tell you when you go against a team that plays fast, aggressive defense all game long it is tough.
Throughout my playing career I played on teams that implemented either style of play and had some success with both.
Stay tuned for more in depth breakdowns of the conservative style of defense we played at Wisconsin and some of the aggressive defensive strategies we implemented during my experiences in the NBA Summer League or my time playing in Europe.