College Sports

Chris Elliott: It's easy to love players who love to defend

There was just something about the way Brian Latham played basketball.

The former University of Houston point guard didn't have a killer crossover. He was a rim grazer at best when it came to dunking, and his shot was by no means automatic. But he was one of the most intimidating players I saw in my four years of covering the team during my college days.

He'd earned a Division I scholarship and starting job on a highly competitive team by putting defense first, and it showed on the court. His eyes seemed to burn holes through the chests of opposing guards as he mirrored their movements. Flawless footwork and an uncanny sense of anticipation allowed him to be physical and create turnovers (2.8 steals per game) without fouling. Defense was an art form for him, and he managed to make it look gritty and sleek. Latham never threw down a dunk in a game or hit a game-winning three pointer, but after the members of Phi Slama Jama, he will be the first name that comes to mind when I think of Houston basketball.

There are times watching basketball at all levels that I think not many players want to be like that.

East coach Ron Allen points to summer-league ball.

"They don't preach defense as much as we do and the team concept," he said. "When you're playing pickup games, teams don't really focus on defense because it's not something that's exciting. What's exciting is the crossover dribble and the dunk. Defense is overlooked because everyone is looking for that excitement."

Allen played basketball for Arizona in the mid-1970s and took pride in defense. In 16 seasons at East, he's compiled 249 wins and two Class 6A championships. He said the first thing he judges potential varsity players on is their willingness to learn how to be sound defenders.

The defensive-minded player has always intrigued me. Maybe it's the mentality — flustering an opponent.

Wichita Collegiate girls coach Terrence Phox agrees. He is 81-17 in four years and finished third and then second in Class 3A in 2008 and 2009. He's used guards Kamri Phox, Mariah Green and Ashia Woods to wreak havoc on offenses because of their mentality and accepted role as lock-down defenders. Woods even averaged 5.8 steals as a junior.

"They would get after you. They were relentless. I used to tell them all of the time when looking at scouting reports before games. 'I want you to make this young lady's 32 minutes the most undesirable she's ever experienced," Phox said, laughing.

"I want them walking out of the locker room worrying about Kamri and Mariah. Ashia is a prime example, too. I've asked Ashia to guard some girls over the years and I knew that just the sight of Ashia standing in front of them would change their whole mindset."