PHOENIX – Defense-minded college basketball coaches love to praise players for deflections, a statistic that many swear by even though it isn’t officially tracked.
“Deflections tells you how much energy you’re playing with and how active your hands are,” Arizona State associate head coach Eric Musselman said. “If you lack deflections, then you’re probably not being a very aggressive team and you probably don’t have very active hands.”
Blocked shots, steals and the opponent’s field goal percentage can be misleading, the coaches say. But deflections measure whether players stay close to their man or the ball and that they are active in passing lanes. And getting deflections can not only lead to turnovers, it takes the offense out of their rhythm.
“You would hope that it led to a turnover, but at the end game, you’re at least disrupting the opponent,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “But you don’t necessarily have to get the turnover.”
Though deflections don’t show up in the box score, many coaches have a team manager or someone on the staff keep tabs during games and in breaking down film to see if their defense is active enough.
And coaches say they are the best defensive stat.
Getting a lot of steals can be great, but sometimes that means taking chances and being out of position. Fail to come up with the ball and the other team could be racing off the other direction for a layup.
Same thing with blocked shots. Get a lot of ‘em it’s great, but go after every shot and miss a lot, the team is vulnerable to offensive rebounding.
Shooting percentages and turnovers are usually solid stats for defensive prowess. Still, those numbers can be skewed, too; the opposing team could just be missing open shots or being careless with the ball.
Get 40 deflections in a game – the benchmark for most teams – and you’re going to win the game almost every time.
“There are so many things that the casual fan doesn’t understand, things like deflections that don’t show up in the box score but are important because they lead to something,” longtime coach and television analyst Bill Frieder said. “Not only do you stop a possible basket, you might get a basket.”
Though not every team tracks deflections, many of the best teams in the country play an aggressive style of defense, getting their hands on lots of balls to disrupt the opponent’s offense and create opportunities for themselves.
Louisville won a national championship last year thanks, in part, to its in-the-jersey defense. Virginia Commonwealth has become a mid-major power with its relentlessness on defense, leading the nation in steals and forcing turnovers with quick hands.
Michigan State is in the Sweet 16 for the 12th time in 17 seasons because of its active defense. Arizona has been arguably the nation’s best defensive team this season and heads to the Sweet 16 this week as a popular pick to win it all after overwhelming Gonzaga with its arm-waving pressure in Sunday’s third-round game.
“When you think of teams like San Diego State, VCU, Louisville, those teams create offense through their defense and it starts with being active, playing with a great deal of energy, guarding the ball tightly and having active hands,” Musselman said.
Tracking deflections, at least to many coaches, is the best way to figure out if that’s happening.