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Making of Mayhem: Inside the Seawolves’ signature defense

  • Author: Stephan Wiebe
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published November 21, 2017

When Ryan McCarthy first received an email from Championship Productions asking if he'd be interested in making some videos showcasing the UAA women's basketball team's signature fast-paced defense, he sent it straight to the trash.

McCarthy figured it was a promo email offering him a discount for buying so many Championship Productions videos over the years. He never even opened it.

It wasn't until he received a call from a Championship Productions employee that he realized they weren't trying to sell to him — they wanted to feature him and his team.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, they want me to do something?' " McCarthy said. "Very few coaches on the women's side do anything with this company. They mainly do big-time coaches."

McCarthy and the Seawolves — who branded their defense "mayhem" because often that's what it creates for opponents — made two videos for Championship Productions. One discusses their 2-2-1 press and their other explains their amoeba-style defense.

Championship Productions has produced videos about UAA head coach Ryan McCarthy’s women’s basketball defense. Photographed in the ADN studio in Anchorage on Tuesday. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

The Seawolves are ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II heading into this week's GCI Great Alaska Shootout, but their videos were No. 1 for a time on championshpproductions.com. Each is sold for $39.99.

"It ended up being a best-seller for a while," said McCarthy, whose DVDs are for sale along with those featuring Kansas men's coach Bill Self and UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma. "The only DVD that's selling better … is Mike Brey at Notre Dame."

UAA's defense is fast, chaotic and a big reason the Seawolves were 103-7 the last three seasons and led the nation in steals the last four.

Chalk talk

So what is mayhem?

McCarthy, who became UAA's coach in 2012, got the idea for the name of his defense from watching Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth make a Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2011 as a No. 11 seed. Smart, now the head coach at Texas, preaches an aggressive press defense he calls "havoc."

At the time, McCarthy didn't know exactly what "mayhem" would look like, but it has evolved into two main components: an amoeba style half-court defense and a 2-2-1 full-court press, which are demonstrated in the DVDs.

The amoeba defense was made famous by former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, who amassed nearly 1,000 wins with the Runnin' Rebels from 1973-92.

The defense mixes man-to-man and zone defenses and emphasizes putting pressure on the ball-handler.

"The amoeba defense … can change shape or function during the middle of a possession or depending on how the offense aligns itself," McCarthy says in the video. "But it's also a defense that uses man principles, and we really like that."

Mixing man-to-man defense with the positioning of a zone means the Seawolves are often in position to trap the ball-handler or force her to pick up her dribble with two defenders in her face.  And that can cause turnovers.

The Seawolves also force turnovers with a full-court press that they adjust depending on who they're playing.

For new players, the amoeba and the full-court press can be tricky to learn.

"It was overwhelming at first," said point guard Yazmeen Goo, a redshirt sophomore. "In amoeba, there's a lot of rotations and a lot of 'fix-it situations.' That (can) be kind of frustrating at first to learn it."

Goo said she benefited from playing behind former UAA point guard Kiki Robertson, whose 382 career steals are school and Great Northwest Athletic Conference records.

This season, it's Goo's turn to help eight newcomers get up to speed, especially fellow point guards Sydni Stallworth, a junior transfer, and Nicole Pinckney, a freshman.

"Our main responsibility is just keeping the ball handler in front 'cause the rest of the defense kind of feeds off what we allow," Goo said. "If we get beat, then the whole defense has to fix it."

Creating mayhem

The first-time UAA showed success with the amoeba defense was a 2013 exhibition game against Kansas State in McCarthy's second year at the helm.

McCarthy and assistant coach Alex Carlson decided to open the game in amoeba, thinking it might throw the Division I Wildcats off their game plan.

A couple of quick steals and solid defensive possessions led to a fast 11-1 lead for the undersized Seawolves, who led 37-33 at halftime.

"We're going into the tunnel and I just remember Alex putting his arm around me … like I'm his little brother and he's like, 'We're ahead at Kansas State,' " McCarthy recalled. " 'We're gonna be good.' "

Kansas State fought back to win the game 73-65, but UAA went on to finish the season 19-9 and earn its first NCAA tournament bid under McCarthy.

McCarthy credits Carlson, now the women's coach at Southern Oregon, with helping him put together the initial ideas for mayhem.

"We'll call each other all the time and talk about things we can improve on or things we see in each other's system," McCarthy said. "This is a style we're comfortable coaching in and we both understand. We both kind of put our own signature on it in terms of cracking the code."

Drill, drill, drill

Before McCarthy busts out the whiteboard and starts explaining the Xs and Os of his system, he has to prepare players mentally and physically for the demanding defense.

Every practice is a battle.

"Everything we do is competitive," McCarthy said. "(T)hey don't even learn (the defense) until we feel like they're ready to compete."

In one drill, two players line up on the baseline and sprint to a line of cones, grabbing one cone at a time and bringing it back to build a stack on the baseline. Whoever stacks the final cone first earns a point for her team.

"Kids are just diving and they'll get into a wrestling match because they don't want to lose," McCarthy said. "That is the kind of mentality in our defense that you have to have."

The losing team has to run sprints or do wall sits. Then, it's onto the next drill.

McCarthy said he's never had the same group of players win every drill at a single practice. The losing team always rallies back.

"It's just like in a game — if you get down, you have to dig yourself out and it's not going to get any easier," he said. "So if you lose your first (drill) and have to do your punishment running, you have to dig down to win that second round.

"It shows you the power of mental toughness."

McCarthy gives away some of his secrets in his DVDs, but he said he's more than happy to help other young coaches. He said he has gotten emails from coaches in Vermont, Louisiana, Texas and other places, asking him what he'd do in certain scenarios.

"It was always a dream of mine to have a DVD for mayhem," he said. "I just never even imagined this, man. When I got (the UAA job) I just didn't want to screw it up. I never imagined that all of this would happen."

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