This past Friday night, I settled in on my couch and flipped on the Stephen F. Austin versus Long Beach State game on ESPNU. And I watched the whole thing.
Am I crazy? Maybe I am. Do I have no life? That’s debatable.
The thing is, I’m a stat-head, and throughout my research this season, I always see the same team at the top of the defensive numbers: The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.
Coming into that ballgame, SFA was:
- First in the nation in points allowed per game at a double-take-requiring 49.7
- First in the nation in defensive efficiency at just 78.8 points allowed per 100 possessions (nearly 6 points better than the second-best team, which just happens to be the Florida Gators)
- Third in the nation in efficiency field goal percentage defense
To spice things up, the Lumberjacks – members of the oft-forgotten Southland Conference – would be playing on the road at The Pyramid against a 49er team averaging more than 70 points per game.
Talk about one of the more exciting Friday nights I’ve had in a while!
So I popped open an ice cold root beer and reclined. I couldn’t wait to find out why Stephen F. Austin, a little known school located two hours east of Dallas in the town of Nacogdoches, leads the nation in defense.
The starting lineups were introduced and I immediately noticed:
- The Lumberjacks do not start anyone taller than 6’6”
- The three guards for SFA go 5’11”, 6’2” and 6’3”
Huh? This team has no size! How in the world are they shutting people down?
The game started and after a handful of possessions, I could already see it. It was a straight up defensive clinic.
The Nuts And Bolts of the Lumberjack Defense
- SFA plays good old-fashioned slide-your-feet defense with great ball pressure and ready, active hands. Most guys nowadays reach and hold and grab—not this team. The Lumberjacks are as fundamentally sound a defensive team as I have ever seen. You constantly hear coaches and announcers saying, “Play defense with your feet, not your hands.” Well, nobody is saying that to this team.
- They don’t reach unless the ball presents itself. Piggybacking off my last point, the Jacks always apply hounding ball pressure, but without reaching. They simply shadow the ball with their hands while remaining in classic defensive position. This caused three or four turnovers when Long Beach State players were attempting simple passes. Like I said, a flat out clinic.
- SFA stays solid. They stay between their man and the basket and do not take unnecessary gambles for steals that could result in one man being out of position and cause the rest of the team to have to scramble to rotate. Not only that, each man’s off-the-ball defense is alert. Each SFA player sees the ball, denies passing lanes (without gambling of course) and is always ready to slide over to provide help and take a charge if need be.
- All five guys are always ready and willing to immediately dive on any and all loose balls. The sixth man, Thomas Walkup, who stands all of 6’4”, led the charge in this area. The millisecond a ball became loose or tipped, Walkup and his teammates pounced like dogs on a table scrap that fell on the floor.
- SFA is strong up the middle with Senior Hal Bateman at the point and 6’6” man-child Taylor Smith protecting the rim. Bateman, who wears No. 4, is unbelievable at sliding his feet to stop penetration.
The Offense Helps the Defense
Something else that helps SFA’s defense is the team’s offense. And, as you might expect by now, that offense is built on a foundation of fundamentals. Watching this team on offense is very refreshing (even though they don’t shoot the ball very straight). It’s basically a passing drill for the four perimeter players and a sealing drill for Smith.
There are no one-on-one isolation type plays drawn up by head coach Danny Kaspar and his staff. Oh no, this team passes and passes until somebody gets an open look or Smith seals his man to create an angle for an entry pass. And when Smith creates that angle and receives that pass cleanly, the Schwertz, Texas, native powers up off two feet and rams the ball through the basket with authority.
The offense is effective in three areas:
- The Jacks rank 14th in the nation in assists per game (a result of the crisp “hot potato” ball movement).
- SFA is 27th in the country in field goal percentage at about 47%. Taylor Smith leads that charge at over 70 percent; a result, of course, of his nonstop seal drill and the resulting rams, jams and slams (51 of his 175 made field goals have been dunks).
- Patience. First of all, SFA is not afraid to use most of the 35-second shot clock before attempting a shot, which limits the amount of scoring chances the opponent will get (and of course, those limited opportunities come against the stingiest defense in America). Secondly, this forces the opponent to expend energy on the defensive end, which can lead to heavy legs and errant shots down the stretches of games.
Back to my fantastic Friday night.
Stephen F. Austin’s players wreaked major havoc all night, forcing 19 turnovers en route to the 68-60 victory over the 49ers. If not for SFA’s concerning weakness, free throw shooting (60% as a team), the Lumberjacks would have won the game by 15 or 20. (They were 11-for-26 from the stripe—yikes.)
In conclusion, now you know (and I know you were losing sleep over this) why the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks have the best defense in the nation. Kaspar’s crew sports a 23-3 record and will take on Northwestern State, who just so happens to be the highest scoring team in the nation (83.7 ppg), at William R. Johnson Coliseum on Saturday, March 2.
Unfortunately for me and for all of you converted Lumberjack bandwagon occupants, that game will not be televised. (And yes, I am very upset about that.) But, if SFA can win the Southland Conference tournament, Hal Bateman and the Jacks will be on TV—terrorizing and frustrating an unlucky school from a big conference in the NCAA Tournament. And you know I’ll be watching.