The more you learn about and follow the Abilene Christian basketball program, the more improbable their run to the 2021 NCAA Tournament seems. It's not their first trip to the dance, but that doesn't erase the proximity of where they were a decade ago: a poor Division II program struggling with funding. Almost three hours west of Dallas on the borderline of the desert, the Wildcats have built themselves into more than just a feel-good story: they're a legitimate threat to beat 3-seed Texas in the first round.
Their roster is comprised of a good mix of JuCo guys, local talent and a few out-of-state guys to plug in the gaps. They're deep, with nine guys who play between 14 and 29 minutes a game, and regularly go with a ten-man rotation. Every single player shoots the 3-point shot; they take 22.4 a game and give up only 17.8. They get to the free throw line a TON and are 20th in the nation in free throw attempts. As a top-50 offense, they get a lot of love for their versatility, pace and analytic-friendly approach -- they've taken 533 3-pointers in the half-court and only 105 mid-range jumpers.
In reality, it's their defense that makes them a dangerous Cinderella team. They're 24th in field goal percentage defense (40.0%), 34th in 3-pt. defense (30.6%), 7th in scoring defense (60.5 PPG) and first in the country in turnovers forced per game (20.3).
By nature, Abilene Christian likes to play a bit smaller. They pick up in the full-court on occasion, mixing man pressure with the occasional zone trap. Once the ball crosses the timeline, their guards like to apply a great deal of ball pressure. Reggie Miller, one of their smaller guards, loves to get into the ball and make handlers feel uncomfortable. You can't play small and slow; the Wildcats apply pressure with their guards to set the tone for a frantic possession for their opponent.
They combine that with intense denials from one pass away to strand the ball handler on an island: there's no escaping the pressure. Many teams struggle to move the ball around against Abilene Christian and even enter their offense. Their guards and wings do a great job sprinting to deny when cutters move from more than one pass away towards the ball.
What you notice in the clips above is how long the ball stays in the hands of one guy. Ball movement-heavy teams get stranded and struggle to complete their passes.
The Wildcats want teams to try to backdoor them - they're begging for those passes to be thrown. Active hands and feet create a lot of deflections on backdoor passes, and as we'll see later, this is a fantastic rotation team. They're fine with moving from the weak-side and flooding the lane when an occasional backdoor pass gets completed.
Any time you're aggressive in passing lanes, guys are going to gamble for steals and miss. That can't be the back-breaker to a defensive possession. Abilene Christian is fantastic at recovering with an X-out, having one player off the weak side come in and take the ball after a teammate gambles and misses. The gambler will then sprint back and take the now-open player:
As mentioned earlier, Abilene Christian is a fantastic help defensive team. When they pressure, they're doing so knowing that eventually someone will get past their first line of defense. But they help each other so damn well. They try to influence the ball towards the baseline and never give up middle whenever guarding the ball one-on-one.
One, and sometimes two, helpers will come to trap the box and prevent a layup when a baseline drive occurs. Their arms are always up and ready to deflect the ball. Their guards always have their head on a swivel and will fly around to anticipate help-the-helper responsibilities. They pick off a ton of baseline drift or skip passes, which only adds to their high turnover numbers:
What happens when you don't get a steal off those kickouts?
The Wildcats have to X-out and do what we call "scramble" -- rotating to constantly cover the ball and next pass until every defender has recovered and is matched up again. I think Abilene Christian is one of the best scramble teams I've seen in years. Part of the reason is that they don't care who guards who: ego is checked at the door. Part is also their heightened awareness and strong collective IQ.
Notice how they'll send a low man on defense to trap the box, and when the ball gets kicked out, they're frantically moving to cover the ball and settle it so the offense can't capitalize on a momentary advantage:
When advantages are neutralized so frequently, offenses that face Abilene Christian wind up playing in the final seconds of the shot clock. They force jumpers, fly all over the place and slide in for charges on late drives. Their charge-takers are fantastic floppers, meet the handler high above the restricted area to avoid any referee judgment and are so tight on the ball with their pressure that handlers rarely see it coming.
Beyond the mechanics of their rotations, they're smart with what they do and why they do it. The flying around and energy isn't all for not. There are two key principles in their defensive mentality: guard the rim and guard the 3-point line. You see the emphasis in their offensive shot selection. They get fouled a ton, take a lot of threes and avoid mid-range jumpers in the half-court. It makes sense that they follow the same logic with their defensive gameplan and try to limit the amount of layups and threes they give up.
They're so overambitious in how they fire the help defenders to trap the box. Sending two guys at times to collapse on the lane and prevent easy layups usually leads to far too many kick-out threes. But the Wildcats are strong when it comes to fly-by closeouts, chasing shooters off the 3-point line and forcing them to either take a mid-range (a win for the defense) or re-penetrate to the basket, where the rest of the helpers are ready to pounce.
It looks something like this when it all comes together:
âYou may notice in the clip above Lamar was trying to throw the ball inside and met incredible resistance. Part of that is ball pressure: by getting into the ball on the perimeter, a smaller team can limit the amount of entry passes to the interior when they are getting posted.
The other part of it is that Abilene Christian usually fronts the post. They have one true seven-footer in Kolton Kohl who doesn't work around, but everyone else is 6'8" or smaller. As an undersized group, they have to work around to either three-quarter on the inside side to discourage an entry pass or work around to full front the post.
The combination of ball pressure and post fronting are only as good as the help they provide from the back side. As we've seen, their help is always fantastic, ready and sprints to the position. Watch here as Central Arkansas forces the switch, then cannot get the ball inside to win a post mismatch:
If the ball does somehow get inside, the defender will try to bump and hold their ground. But help comes -- not in the form of a double, but an aggressive dig from above the ball. That usually forces the poster to pick up his dribble and skip it elsewhere, which triggers the Wildcats to scramble, the area they are so damn good at:
This is an elite defense. With TV timeouts abound, I'm curious to see how they shorten their rotation and use that to play even more aggressively with the built-in rest. The Wildcats want to force their opponents to play one-on-one and to shoot in the mid-range. Texas, with their multitude of size and skill at all positions, can play and beat teams one-on-one. They use a ball screen-heavy attack either to force switches they can exploit or create kickout opportunities for easy perimeter shots.
The former will be happening a lot. The latter, I'm not sure sure about. The Wildcats fly all over the place and don't give up a ton of catch-and-shoot looks cleanly.
What Texas does have going for them (besides a wide talent gap) is leadership in their backcourt, especially with Matt Coleman. Coleman has an elite first step, gets into the lane whenever he wants and can shoot the ball.
The Longhorns are fairly inconsistent when it comes to pace. There are times when they really want to get out and run, increasing tempo and out-gunning their opponents. There are also times when they try to be really deliberate and grind teams to death. It's hard to get a feel for who they'll be when, though their experience in playing (and winning) with both means they can adjust to any style on the fly.
One area they have to be careful is in entering the ball when they want to run. The Abilene Christian guards are really, really sneaky at picking off the inbound pass, especially when momentum is on their side after a score:
I'm not sure if I'm picking Abilene Christian to take the upset here. Texas is incredibly talented, playing great basketball lately and will be tough for the Wildcats to score on at the rim. But it's a much more dangerous game than many are giving it credit for. I was shocked to see Abilene Christian not end up as a 13-seed, especially considering two of their four losses came to Texas Tech (by 7) and Arkansas (by 13).
Regardless of whether they win or lose, the Wildcats have been sensational on the defensive end all season long. Look for them to really give the Longhorns some trouble and be an under-the-radar Cinderella team.