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Rick O'Brien: Fundamentals take beating with run-and-gun of AAU

High school coaches work to keep their players focused on defense.

Archbishop Carroll's Juan'ya Green passes in a game last season against Neumann-Goretti. Green and backcourt mate DJ Irving will lead Carroll's man-to-man defensive sets this season.
Archbishop Carroll's Juan'ya Green passes in a game last season against Neumann-Goretti. Green and backcourt mate DJ Irving will lead Carroll's man-to-man defensive sets this season.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

The national spread of Amateur Athletic Union teams and showcase events, in which running and gunning is the norm, has no doubt lessened the importance of defense in the minds of some of the area's premier players.

Because of that, area coaches need to reteach even the most basic of defensive principles when players leave their AAU squads and return to their high school gyms.

"To the AAU folks, we're the off-season now," Jim Donofrio, Plymouth Whitemarsh's coach, said. "There are a lot of people out there who say that the high school season is in the way."

The showcase events and tournaments are in full swing from March to mid-November. On any given weekend day, a Division I recruit might play two or three games for his AAU team. And, of course, filling up the bucket, making nifty behind-the-back passes, or delivering high-wire dunks takes precedence over showing off well-oiled man-to-man defensive skills.

And the concept of team defense? Well, that's just not part of the off-season program.

"When you play as many games as these kids do over the summer, you lose your defensive focus," Donofrio said. "Win or lose, a kid knows he has another game, and he knows college coaches are going to be watching him."

Individual exposure

Last season, Plymouth Whitemarsh, spurred by 6-foot-9, 200-pound forward C.J. Aiken, posted a 25-6 record and came within a victory of advancing to the Class AAAA state final in State College, Pa.

Donofrio said the squad's intensity and team concept on defense "was a major factor in us getting as far as we did."

Aiken, bound for St. Joseph's, and 6-7, 210-pound junior forward Jaylen Bond, an elite-level recruit who is being pursued by the likes of Big East powers Pittsburgh and Villanova, are AAU and showcase regulars.

"The focus of AAU ball is individual exposure, no matter what the coaches say," Donofrio said. "That's in complete conflict with a high school coach who says the focus is the team."

For the Colonials this season, it will be man-to-man defense 90 percent of the time. They will also mix in the 2-3 zone, with a trap out of that set, and a 1-3-1 zone. Pressure will be a constant.

"I don't like to play like a victim," Donofrio said. "Nobody likes pressure. That's why I have a lot of respect for the Chesters, the Roman Catholics, and the Neumann-Gorettis of the area."

Stress defense

From lacing up his sneaks under Tom Ingelsby at Archbishop Carroll and Fran Dunphy at Penn, Carroll coach Paul Romanczuk, a fundamentally sound 6-6 forward in his playing days, learned the ins and outs of man-to-man, zone and press defenses.

"They really did stress defense," said Romanczuk, who last season led the Patriots to a 27-3 record and the PIAA Class AAA state crown. "At Penn, as long as you defended, rebounded and played hard, Coach Dunphy gave you the green light on offense."

While Romanczuk was at Penn, the Quakers mostly used a man-to-man scheme. Against quicker and more talented opponents such as Kansas and Villanova, they would switch to a 2-3 zone.

With a smaller lineup and a pair of speedy guards in D.J. Irving and Juan'ya Green, Romanczuk this year will often go with a man-to-man set, including length-of-the-floor pressure, and work in some zone presses "to give teams a different look."

Quickness counts

At Roman, which last season reached the Catholic League final before falling to Neumann-Goretti, second-year coach Chris McNesby tries to use the Cahillites' ample quickness to the fullest: Plenty of full-court pressure and man-to-man sets, with the goal of forcing a quick-tempo, up-and-down contest.

"We've always been a get-in-your-face, get-after-it type of team," McNesby said. "I think our tradition of quality defense has always been there."

McNesby, who played at Roman under 22-year-boss Dennis Seddon, always keeps in mind that a high school game is 32 minutes with no shot clock. "We want to play a game where we get between 50 to 60 possessions," he said. "We try to speed the other team up."

Often, the Cahillites enter a game with a goal of yielding an approximate number of points.

"If we hold a team to 55 points in a game, that's pretty good," McNesby said. "If it's under 50, that's really good."

Wear teams out

Friends' Central coach Jason Polykoff admits that defense was not exactly a priority for the Phoenix last season. "With our athleticism and depth, we tried to wear teams out and run them out of the building," he said.

There's a different approach on the Main Line this season. "We've been devoting about 75 percent of our practice time to defense," Polykoff said. "We'll still run a lot, but we'll be more defense-oriented."

Look for Friends' Central to primarily use three schemes this season: man-to-man, 1-3-1 zone, and 2-2-1 zone.

Polykoff was a point guard for the Phoenix and a wing guard at Haverford College. He often heads over to nearby Villanova, just down the road on Lancaster Avenue, to soak in one of Jay Wright's practices.

"They make everything a competition, and I think that helps make it enjoyable for the kids," Polykoff said.

He does the same with his squad. For example, a Phoenix player can earn points in a defensive drill and use them toward not running as many "suicide sprints," usually 20 from side-to-side, following practice.

Defense wins titles

Lighting up the scoreboard in rapid-fire fashion is all well and good, but a porous defense, in the end, will lead to a team's ultimate demise. History has proven it.

To the casual observer, Chester, a perennial powerhouse, has a reputation for flying up and down the court, with a focus on netting as many points as possible, and having a laissez-faire approach to defense.

But Chester is no Loyola Marymount. Six state titles, with countless key defensive stops in taut playoff contests during those runs, are proof of that.

"Defense is how championships are won," second-year Clippers coach Larry Yarbray said. "No matter who's on the team, we emphasize defense and that's how we win games."