When head coach John Ellenwood brings players into the Ashland University men's basketball program, he makes it known they will have to defend.
"If you can't play defense, you have a tough time playing for me," Ellenwood said. "Our guys know that when they get here, and it's taken years to establish the culture, they have to buy into the way we teach things here."
And bought in they have.
The Eagles have ranked in the top 30 in Division II in scoring defense in four out of the last five seasons under Ellenwood and only once have they ranked outside the top 31 in opponent's field goal percentage.
This year, the Eagles are second nationally in scoring defense, giving up just 61.2 points per game. Opponents are shooting 39 percent against the Eagles – the fifth-best mark in the country. Only once has Ashland given up 70 points this season.
"I played for Steve Moore at Wooster where we were always in the top of the country in defensive percentages," Ellenwood said. "A lot of the stuff I do today was based on what they did at Wooster. We've made adjustments through the years as well."
Part of what has been impressive about the Eagles' defense, coordinated by assistant coach Rob Gardiner, is their ability to play without fouling. Ashland commits just 12.4 fouls per game and opponents take just 12.2 free throws per contest. Of any team that has played at least 16 games, the Eagles' 214 fouls are the third-fewest in the country.
In Ashland's 83-61 win over Saginaw Valley last Thursday, the Eagles committed just eight fouls in the game and just one in the first half.
In an era that disallows hand-checking on the perimeter and with the advent of the restricted area, players need even more awareness to stay within the bounds of the rules. That includes post players keeping their bodies vertical even while moving laterally.
"We do a lot of drills on that," said junior center Drew Noble. "There's a lot of emphasis, especially in the post, where you can't have a hand on the back. We work on going straight up and bodying them, then trying to contest. You'd rather force tough 2s than send them to the line."
"If your post player leaves his feet in one spot, goes straight up and doesn't come down (with his arms), he's supposed to own that space," Ellenwood said. "We work hard with Drew and our other big guys on not coming down."
Here, Noble is physical with his assignment, who eventually catches on the block. Noble stays in front to force a difficult shot.
In the Eagles' pack-line defense, the perimeter defenders do not necessarily have to stop a drive to the basket at the point of attack. They just need to beat their opponent to the spot and get help from the post players to prevent an easy bucket at the rim.
"On the drive attack we want teams shooting the ball at 15 feet or 18 feet, because those are lower percentage shots," said Ellenwood. "We'll give up a lot of space with guys driving in order to cut them off at 10 feet, instead of right at the spot of the dribble."
Ellenwood said it can take some time for players to defend in his system.
"Some guys it takes a year, some guys it takes a semester," Ellenwood said. "(Former Eagle) Boo Osborne was one of the best defenders I ever coached. His first two years, he was hugging his guys and fouling them too much on the first dribble. He could get away with that in high school, so you're breaking a habit."
That isn't to say his players can't be physical. It's about being physical in the right areas and the right part of the body.
"You have to do it with your feet and your body," said Ellenwood. "If the ball-handler is going to come into you, you have to show your hands."
Here, sophomore forward Derek Koch stays in front of his man with his hands high while guarding with his body to force an 18-foot stepback jumper.
Often times Ashland's guards will come up on an offensive player and be physical while making sure not to draw the officials' attention.
Here, Thompson applies pressure with his body and stays with his man while leading him to Noble's help. Noble stays vertical to force a difficult look.
Craftiness and skill are required to become a strong defender, especially in the Eagles' demanding scheme. But it can also come down to physical build.
"They have long arms – that helps," said Ellenwood. "The longer your arms, the more space you can give. The longer your legs, the more space you can give. That's part of it, having people who know how to use their length."
The Eagles look to continue their impressive defense run on Tuesday (Jan. 22) when they play Ohio-Chillicothe at 6 p.m. at Kates Gymnasium. GLIAC play resumes Saturday (Jan. 26) at 3 p.m. at Wayne State.