DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Division 1 NCAA men's basketball tournament resumes tonight. The Louisville Cardinals have been dominant in the tournament, thanks to their harassing defense. But there's something else at work too - deflections. They are not an official statistic, but the team counts every one of them to help define defensive intensity. NPR's Mike Pesca explains.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The way Mario Batali thinks about black truffles, the penchant Quentin Tarantino has for quoting Hong Kong martial arts films in his own movies, that's the way Louisville head coach Rick Pitino talks about deflections. Why deflections?
RICK PITINO: If you've got 35 deflections, you're going to win 95 percent of your games.
PESCA: That's in the NBA, 48 minutes a game; in the 40 minute college game the number is lower. Louisville has been breaking deflection records this post-season. The deflection doesn't have a set definition. Like King Cnut affecting the tide, each college coach gets to personally define deflections. A deflection can occur when a defensive player in any way redirects the intended flight of the ball.
Indiana coach Tom Crean, the other big-time college coach who is always talking about the stat, counts drawing charges as deflections. Pitino doesn't, but he does count corralling loose balls as a deflection. Pitino has been charting this phenomenon for over than 30 years, including his first stint with the New York Knicks under legendary coach Hubie Brown. Brown allowed his young assistant to post the team's deflection stats on the blackboard at halftime.
PITINO: Ray Williams, two deflections; Louis Orr, three deflections.
PESCA: But Pitino left off the players without a deflection. Soon Hubie Brown's voice was heard, questioning the exclusion of the Knicks players who hadn't recorded a deflection.
PITINO: Where the F are the other guys?
PESCA: Brown, who remembers the moment well, says that deflections are the kind of stat that reveal a great deal about a team's defensive effort.
HUBIE BROWN: Whether we were up for this game, whether we were just in second gear, or whether we needed a major transformation of getting after people.
PESCA: And the habit of shaming the non-deflector lives on. Louisville guard Kevin Ware is a part of a grand tradition of fearing the wrath of a deflection- obsessed coach.
KEVIN WARE: Every halftime, every game, they'll have the deflections tallied up, how many you got, 'cause Pit, he's really big on deflections. So if you're playing minutes and you're not getting deflections, there's something wrong.
PESCA: The great beauty of the deflection is that it makes the ephemeral tangible. Most of the stats kept in basketball relate to offense, like points and shooting percentage and assists. Telling a player in a time out to play hard defense is vague and telling him to get a steal is requesting an outcome.
GREENE: But speaking of deflections is to emphasize a specific action, which gives the player a sense of control. Brown, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, says so much of communicating with players in pressure situations who are dealing with crowds and adrenaline and opponents is to make instructions understandable.
BROWN: You have to be able to short-term them when you talk to your players so that they retain what's going on.
PESCA: This tournament, members of the Virginia commonwealth staff were seen on the sidelines counting deflections in checkers on a Connect 4 set. Louisville and Indiana keep their own private tallies. The only real way for the public to get a handle on their number is to subscribe to a service which counts them. Well, there's another way to get a sense of deflections. In this tournament, deflections have been offering a direct correlation to a team's chances of making the Final Four. Mike Pesca, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.