On a first glance, Kansas isn't an easy match for Maryland point guard Melo Trimble. The Jayhawks have three athletic and powerful guards of their own and two quality interior defenders in Perry Ellis and Landen Lucas. Their two-point defense is elite, and their three-point defense is solidly above average. They've recently held other point guards to miserable games, ahead of a Sweet 16 bout with Maryland on Thursday.
But Trimble isn't a typical player. Not only is he really good, but what influences Trimble's success or failure goes far beyond simply the caliber of the opposition. After all, he's had some of his most prolific scoring games this season against Maryland's best opponents: 23 points against North Carolina, 24 points (once) against Michigan State and 21 points (once) against Wisconsin, for example.
What makes the biggest difference for Trimble is how teams defend him. On a great many Maryland possessions – probably more than half of them – the Terps bring a big man from their frontcourt to set a high ball screen for Trimble. The goal is to free up Trimble from the guard who's defending him, giving him space to rumble toward the basket and draw a foul, or to draw in a help defender and find an open teammate for a shot. Simple stuff.
How teams can defend Melo Trimble on ball screens
But there are different ways to confront a high ball screen. Without getting too far into the weeds, a defense has a couple overarching types of responses.
One is to play along, with the guard running behind the screen and trying to reconnect with Trimble as quickly as possible. This gives Trimble his space, and it puts a lot of pressure on the guard to recover. If the opposing big man decides to help him, that probably leaves a rolling big man (Diamond Stone or Robert Carter Jr.) open for a pass.
The first time Maryland played Michigan State, back in January, the Spartans defended him that way.
Another is for the opposing big man near the play to "quick-show" – to pretend he's about to come out to challenge Trimble, limiting Trimble's vision and maybe causing a rushed decision, but backpedaling to clog the lane or find his own man. This doesn't kill Trimble, because he's so fast and good at drawing contact that he can out-duel most bigs in close combat.
Another option is to "blitz" – for both the opposing guard and big man to show Trimble their hands and surround him with a rapid double-team. This often leaves the screening Maryland big man (Diamond Stone or Robert Carter Jr., usually) open. So it's dangerous if Trimble can execute a quick bounce-pass to a wide-open big. But that's not always an option, and sometimes the result is simply that Trimble has nowhere to go. The Spartans took that approach this month.
In Maryland's Big Ten semifinal loss to Michigan State, the Spartans harassed Trimble by blitzing him all day, or at least keeping their guards draped close to him with a big close by. Trimble told me after the game he hadn't gotten much of that defense this year, and he struggled with it. A ball-screen blitz puts a lot of strain on Trimble to get the ball out quickly, and it makes it nearly impossible for him, or any guard, to penetrate on his own and create shots near the basket. It turns Trimble into a passer, and good defensive teams can keep a lock on whoever's going to get the ball next.
Why Kansas is the right fit for Trimble to thrive
It has been Kansas' practice this year – based on a review of three recent games– not to pressure ball-handlers too heavily in ball-screen defense. Perhaps that'll change for Trimble, but the Jayhawks make a habit of keeping their big men at home, around the basket, and letting guards Frank Mason, Wayne Selden and Devonte' Graham chase the opposing guards around. This should work for Trimble.
Kansas doesn't, at least from what I've seen, blitz often. It doesn't even "quick-show" or try to create the illusion that its guards are getting any help at the top of the arc against a skilled opposing guard.
Above, Jamari Traylor, one of Kansas' backup bigs, doesn't bounce outside to deny a lane to Wesley Iwundu (No. 25), a 6'7 wing for Kansas State. He sags off, leaving guard Graham (4) to cover him. Graham's vulnerable to a rightward spin move, and Traylor is beaten. Iwundu doesn't score, as Selden (1) eventually helps to defend the basket. But Iwundu gets a really good chance to score. This approach to screen defense, I'm told, is called "staying flat." Maryland feels good about Trimble's ability to play against it.
Kansas does a lot of this. But there are holes in Kansas' ball-screen defense even when the Jayhawks take a more aggressive approach. When they do blitz, show or otherwise somehow double-team the ball-handler, they tend to leave players open in dangerous spots. They certainly did against West Virginia in the Big 12 final.
The Mountaineers' Tarik Phillip doesn't have Trimble's vision. But if this were Trimble with Carter or Stone rolling toward the basket, there'd have been a bounce pass at the end of the drive and an easy dunk.
(To be fair, Kansas has tremendously skilled defenders, and the Jayhawks are going to recover better when they do leave someone open than most college teams will.)
Kansas sometimes does bring its big men out to challenge guards after screens, but not typically as part of a double-team with a guard, and sometimes only if the guard is clearly beaten off the pick. This should be OK, too, because Trimble can take most big men off the dribble.
Trimble is dangerous when he's given space to operate, and Kansas' big men will give Trimble the chance to earn that space, one-on-one, against the Jayhawks' talented guards. There's a lot more to this kind of defense, and a lot of it is well beyond my pay grade to understand, but Kansas plays these situations conservatively.
(Here's a primer on ways to combat the ball screen, if you're interested in learning more. It's complicated, and I can't pretend to have full command of all of it, beyond the point that Trimble clearly does better when he's not blitzed.)
Mason and Graham will probably spend most of the game guarding Trimble, and if he can beat them off the dribble, Ellis, Lucas and Traylor aren't likely to immediately risk leaving their own men open by bouncing out to help, unless Trimble has already beaten his man.
Trimble is best when he brings the game to the other team, and Kansas' style of defense is going to put the ball in his court. The rest, as ever, is up to him.