As a head coach, you plan for both your opponents' best actions and their best players. Personally, I always felt it was easier to defend against a system than it was to defend against a player who has an elite ability to create plays either for himself or for his teammates. Tricky plays are tough to defend against; tricky players can be impossible to stop.
Good players earn the respect of opposing coaches, but the players your defense must contain for your team to win are the ones who keep head coaches up at night, which is why I call them "matchup nightmares."
Here is my ranking of the 10 toughest players in the nation to defend against, and a game plan for each that opponents should try to enact to slow them down.
1. Russ Smith, G, Louisville Cardinals
Smith might be the best one-on-one player in college basketball. A high-volume shooter who changes speed and direction, Smith can get a shot off any time he wants. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino allows him to probe the defense and gives him the green light to attack the basket and create plays on his own. Smith can play off Peyton Siva's penetration or take the reins as the team's primary ball handler. He explodes off screens and can finish with an array of different layups.
On defense, he is relentless both off the ball and as an aggressive, on-ball defender in the Louisville press. Smith averages three steals per game, which often are live-ball turnovers that lead to transition layups.
Game plan: You need to defend Smith with a bigger defender, if possible. Keep him in front and stay down on his change-of-direction, change-of-pace game. Defenders need to use size to their advantage and close with their hands above the ball. Use help defenders to shrink the court so he doesn't have gaps through which to drive. Defenders must go over all side ball screens, and on flat and shake ball screens, the help defender must stay with the ball and make Smith a passer. With Smith, as is the case with all the players on this list, all five defenders need to be alert when he has the ball. One player may have the primary responsibility, but everyone else has a secondary responsibility. It needs to be five versus one.
2. Trey Burke, G, Michigan Wolverines
Burke sets the tone and pace for the Michigan offense and defense. He brings the ball in transition at warp speed, and his ability to stop on a dime and change speed and direction makes him tough to keep out of the lane. Burke not only explodes off ball screens, but he also does a terrific job of reading the hedge defender. He can reject the ball screen and attack the big when the defense "downs" the ball screen, as well as split the defense when the help defender leaves space on the hard hedge.
Burke shoots the ball with range and has a nice midrange game. The fact that he plays on a team with Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III makes it hard for opponents to give early help. He's also a great decision-maker, as evidenced by his nearly 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Game plan: You must contain Burke in transition with the trail defender. In the two-guard set, down him on all shake and side ball screens (meaning you should force him away from the screen and toward the baseline). Make it hard for him to get the ball back after he gives it up, especially in short-clock situations.
3. Doug McDermott, F, Creighton Bluejays
McDermott is the focal point for the Bluejays' offense on every possession. He moves without the ball and uses screens better than any player in college basketball. He is as comfortable posting up on and off the block as he is facing up and knocking down the 3. Also, he uses the shot fake to set up his driving game and does not chase shots, and he has a knack for drawing fouls and gets to the free throw line six times per game. He is an efficient offensive player who averages 22.7 points on slightly more than 13 shots per game, while shooting more than 50 percent from both 2- and 3-point range.
Game plan: I would defend McDermott with a smaller defender -- say, an athletic 6-foot-5 wing defender with good discipline -- who can get underneath him and is also quick enough to stay with him and fight through screens. A smaller, quicker defender should be able to pressure him and get some strips. You need to stay down on all his shot fakes. When he tries to post up, you need to front him, and push up and stay attached on all ball screens. Plus, be sure to box him out on the shot, especially his own, as he is good at rebounding his own (rare) misses.
Paul is a stat-sheet stuffer: He rebounds, makes scoring plays for teammates, is an alert defender and can flat-out score the ball. He has unlimited range, which puts tremendous pressure on the defense. At 6-4, he is a great ball-screen player, but he also has a middle game and is strong enough to play through contact.
Off the ball, Paul is impossible to close out against, as he can shoot it with range as well as drive. Paul understands the game and is playing with incredible confidence this season.
Game plan: Run the floor with him in transition, and "red" (deny) him off the ball. Make it hard for Paul to catch the ball in the scoring area and do not allow him to get the ball back in short-clock situations. "Blitz" (trap) off all ball screens; you cannot go under, and the blitz defender must stay with the trap.
5. Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV Rebels
Even though he's only a freshman, Bennett impacts the game in so many ways. At 6-8, 240 pounds, he is powerful, physical and agile. He rebounds the ball on both ends, can face up and knock down the 3, can rip and beat you off the bounce and take you down to the block and score with his back to the basket. He plays as hard as any freshman in the country. An active and alert defender, he averages almost two blocks per game.
Game plan: Meet Bennett early in transition and chest him off the lane. Double on the bounce on all low-post catches, and on the perimeter catch, stay down and keep in front. Use help defenders to shrink the court and be ready to scrape (help the post defender when Bennett gets the ball). Be physical in blocking him out by meeting him early and making the first hit.
At 6-6, Carter-Williams is a mixture of Penny Hardaway and Magic Johnson. He has the size to see over the defense, plays with pace, makes great decisions in transition and can finish at the rim. It is not uncommon for him to rebound the ball and immediately initiate the Syracuse transition game.
What makes Carter-Williams so tough to defend is that you cannot speed him up. He plays with his head up, sees plays early and delivers the ball on time and on target. There's a reason he leads the country in assists per game (10.7 apg). An excellent ball-screen player, Carter-Williams has the explosiveness to turn the corner or reject the screen. In short, he puts constant pressure on the defense.
On the defensive end, Carter-Williams has great anticipation and the length to disrupt opposing offenses in Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone. He averages 3.4 steals per game and may end up leading the nation in deflections. He is a triple-double waiting to happen.
Game plan: I would guard Carter-Williams with a bigger player and play him soft. Jam the outlet and make his first dribble have to be toward the sideline, not the basket. In the half court, push up on all ball screens and go under, making him a jump shooter. Also, defenders must close short with high hands on all reversals. Help defenders need to watch the ball at all times and be active in gaps, but must also stay home.
7. Isaiah Canaan, G, Murray State Racers
Canaan is as tough a guard as there is in the country. He is physically strong and explosive getting to the basket. Half of his shots come from behind the 3-point line, where he shoots 43.7 percent, but he also is excellent off ball screens and tough to keep out of the lane. He gets to the line five times per game, and is a rare player in that he has the ability to both get to the rim and shoot a 15-foot pull-up jumper. Canaan is a winner who elevates his team's play with his energy and competitive spirit.
Game plan: Defending Canaan can't be one player's responsibility; it has to be done collectively. You need to build a wall against him in transition, and all help defenders need to be alert. On ball screens, trap and go over. When he gives up the ball, make it hard for him to get it back. When your team is on offense, make Canaan defend every possession, running him off screens when you can. Controlling the tempo of the game will also help contain him, as it will limit his touches.
Thomas is a power forward in a small forward's body (6-7, 225) -- or a small forward with the strength of a power forward, depending on how you choose to look at him. Either way, he puts a great deal of pressure on opposing defenses. Thad Matta does a great job of moving him around, adjusting on the fly based on the defensive matchup.
Thomas and Aaron Craft are extremely effective in the two-man game, as Thomas does a great job of creating separation on the pop. Thomas is the Buckeyes' best low-post scorer, but he also connects on 41 percent of his 3-point attempts. He can face you up and put it on the floor or shoot a 15-foot jumper, and his shot fake is one of the best in the Big Ten. He's an active offensive rebounder, so you must cut him out off the glass.
Game plan: You need to defend Thomas with a player capable of chasing him off screens and who can play him on the perimeter, because he spends more time there than he does posting up. Defenders must push up on all ball screens and stay attached. Further, you must take away all pick-and-pops, chase off all staggers, help off the passer and pinch the curl. When he posts up, double him and be physical in blocking out.
Franklin, always in attack mode, is one of the most active players in college basketball. At 6-5, he is a relentless runner and offensive rebounder, and he looks to score every time he touches the ball. He has the ability to get to the rim and goes to the line eight times a game. Franklin likes to use a rhythm dribble to step into his jumper. This season, he is making better decisions playing out of double-teams, playing with great confidence and is seeing plays earlier, which is reflected in his improved assist numbers (3.1 per game versus 1.5 last season). An active off-ball defender, he likes to use his quickness to run through passing lanes. Plus, he averages 1.7 steals per game.
Game plan: The most effective defender for Franklin is someone who is a little bigger, can play off him and still contest the shot, and also keep him off the glass. He's not a great jump-shooter, so you want to make him shoot. You also need to run the floor with him. Push him left on all scoring-area catches, and on high-post catches, get to help spots and take away driving lanes. When he does drive, you need to stay down, stay between the ball and basket and wall off shooting lanes with high hands.
Leslie is one of the most explosive athletes in college basketball. He is too quick for big forwards and too strong for small forwards. He runs the floor well and is explosive in the basket area. He is as comfortable knocking down a 17-foot jumper as he is driving the ball from the high post. Plus, he is skilled enough to grab a defensive rebound and initiate the fast break. Tough to keep off the glass, Leslie's second jump is the best in college basketball. Also, his quickness makes him an excellent off-ball defender and shot-blocker. When engaged, he can take over a game.
Game plan: You need to be physical with Leslie on all post-ups and get him off the block. Drive him back if he tries to roll out for the lob, scrape on all low-post catches and double on the bounce. Make him run the floor and put him in ball screens to wear him down.