Despite what Danny Ocean makes you think, stealing is hard. If you get caught out of position, the offensive player will blow by you for the bucket. If you gamble too often for steals, you’ll get beat on a symphony of backdoor cuts. If you swipe too hard, you’ll foul out. If your timing is slightly off, it’s the difference between three points and a turnover.
Stealing is even harder in the college game, where a well-run offense or a supernova individual talent will often torch the opposition because it’s hard to find five experienced, in-sync defenders.
A standout defender at the college level is special. Not just one that swats highlight blocks or dives on the floor for loose balls or takes a million charges, but someone that truly understands the subtle art of defending.
This season, three such players suited up for mid-majors: Richmond’s Jacob Gilyard, UNC Greensboro’s Isaiah Miller, and Belmont’s Grayson Murphy. These are three of the best defenders in the country, and I spoke with them about their defensive craft.
Gilyard finished his career as the Spiders’ all-time leader in steals with 358, good enough for second in Atlantic 10 history and fifth in NCAA history. Considering how his last two seasons were shortened due to the pandemic, that’s even more impressive. Last season, he led the nation with 99 steals. This year, he led the nation in total steals, steals per game (3.6), and steal percentage (5.4).
Miller did it all for UNCG. He was the only player in 100 years of SoCon history to win back-to-back Player of the Year AND Defensive Player of the Year awards. (Plus it was his third consecutive DPOTY trophy).
Miller closed out the second in the nation in steals (74) for the second year in a row and second in SoCon history with 314 career steals — a UNCG program record mark. He’s also 31st all-time in NCAA history.
Unlike Gilyard and Miller, Murphy is a junior, so he still has another whole year to climb up the all-time standings. Fresh off of being named the OVC Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, the point guard currently stands at 204 career swipes.
For the second year in a row, Murphy led the nation in rebounds from the point guard position (8.0), joining Penny Hardaway and Evan Turner as the only other floor generals in the last 30 years to snag eight per game. He led the OVC in steals per game (2.2), and perhaps more impressively, defensive rebounds per game.
MMM: Is defense something you’ve always prided yourself on, or is that an aspect of your game you’ve added during your time in college?
Gilyard: “I think I’ve done it for a while. I wouldn’t say always. I feel, like most kids, everybody wants to put the ball in the cup. But I’d say around fifth grade. It was kind of just coached into me that defense is something that you have to take pride in for sure. That’s something that I think goes a long way. It’s definitely helped me throughout my college career.”
Miller: “Oh, yeah, that’s instilled in me. It’s just there, man. Just something I know I’m going to get paid for basically.”
Murphy: “A little bit of both, but I would say in college. Matter of fact, my freshman year I was awful at it. I will never forget, playing in our NCAA Tournament game. We’re in the scouting room and Coach Byrd let me know I’ll be guarding the four-position on the night. I think he was like 6-8, 250. That’s when I really understood, like man, I have to work on this, cause it seems like I’m a defensive liability.”
MMM: What style of defense do you like best — man-to-man, zone, roaming as a free safety type, guarding the other team’s best player?
JG: “I really like getting in passing lanes. That’s usually where I get most of my steals. Trying to read whoever has the ball, trying to read their eyes and see what kind of play they’re trying to make. But yeah, I’d say I prefer man. I feel like with zone you don’t really get a chance to go out and compete and really take it personal, like if somebody scores on you. I feel like zone’s more of a team defense. I mean, man is as well, but I feel like in man you get a chance to just go one-on-one sometimes with the guy in front of you.”
IM: “My best one is probably full court man to-man. I like to get in the ball, then I just have to be a pest on the ball.”
MMM: Do you watch a lot of film? If so, how do you approach that?
JG: “I think naturally I just watch a lot of film in general, not necessarily on defense, but I have noticed throughout my college career there’s guys that I will pinpoint when I’m watching their game and I’ll actually just watch them on defense. Like Marcus Garrett, vital. Herb Jones, guys you watch and see what they do and how they guard. Overall, defense is definitely film-related for sure. You have to know what the offense is going to be doing or the guy’s tendencies and it definitely gives you an advantage.”
IM: “I always watch film. I always watch our game the next day after we play. I basically grade myself on defense, on my angles, if I’m guarding him or hacking, if I need to get the ball more or play more solid next time we play them.”
MMM: What are some of the offseason drills you do with defense in mind, if you’re not giving away any secrets?
JG: “In the summer, I usually play a lot of pickup or a lot of one-on-one just to get a different feel for a lot of different guys. Every time you go out there, you’re going to see somebody different with different styles of play. The more guys you can guard and compete against, the more things you have seen and obviously the better off you’ll be down the road.”
IM: “I mean, it’s not a secret, you just have to work hard throughout that offseason. I just did a whole bunch of sprints, running, agility work, and worked on my lateral movement.”
MMM: Is it tough to give it your all on both ends when you also carry a big load on offense?
JG: “Yeah, it’s definitely tough. But, I feel like everything basketball-related is pretty tough. You just have to want to. Obviously there’s times you want to take plays off on either end, but just trying to stay committed to doing the best you can the whole game. It’s definitely tough, but I try to do it the whole 40 minutes.”
IM: “I mean, sometimes it’s tough. But that’s when preseason getting in shape throughout the offseason, that’s when that comes in, just being in better shape than the other team. You have to be more focused on offense than you are on defense, but you’ve got to be more disciplined on defense as well. You’ve just got to balance those two things out.”
MMM: What’s it like to guard the opponent’s best player most nights?
JG: “The A-10 is a really good conference. There’s a lot of really good guards especially, so you have to come prepared.”
IM: “I mean, it’s a big responsibility. That’s what comes with being the leader of a team, being that guy on your team. You have to take on certain challenges. I take it every night.”
MMM: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the defensive side of the ball in college?
JG: “I would say the most important thing I’ve learned is probably just knowing when to take your chances. Trying to stay aggressive, but also knowing when you need to back off and be conservative. I think early on as a freshman I was just aiming for every steal that I could possibly get, shooting every passing lane which would probably hurt us more times than I would have liked. So as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized when to take chances. There’s different types of defenders. I think there’s smart defenders versus what I usually call ‘rah rah defenders’ like guys who are just getting in your face and trying to be as aggressive as they can on defense, but I consider myself a smart defender. I just try to make it tough on the offense.”
MMM: Your team is known for its defense as a whole as well, what’s it like to go out on the court and know that everyone is locked in on defense?
IM: “It’s something special here when you have a team that’s right behind you, when you have the same mindset on defense, and they just have the same mindset.”
MMM: Are there any defenders you’ve studied aspects of their game?
IM: “Oh, yeah, Michael Jordan. He didn’t let up. Nowadays, I probably look at Marcus Smart more than anybody.”
MMM: As a point guard, what is your main job on the court and how does defense fit into that?
GM: “Just trying to get everybody involved and put them in position to be the best players they can be. As far as defensive and rebounding, whether it’s getting deflections, making steals or going to clean up a rebound once their bigs are boxing out at the point guard position.”
MMM: Do you think your defensive skills will help you get to the next level?
IM: “Oh, yeah, most definitely. That’s the main thing I always keep in my head like that’s going to get me paid. That’s my bread and butter right there.”
MMM: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the art of defending?
JG: “I hope more people take pride in it. I hope kids take more pride in it. Obviously the game’s about putting the ball in the cup, but if you can guard somebody you can make a name for yourself.”