WITH PERSONNEL TURNING OVER EVER MORE RAPIDLY, COACHES MUST ADJUST THEIR OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHIES FROM YEAR TO YEAR. HERE ARE FOUR TEAMS THAT SHOULD THRIVE IN THE BIG DANCE BECAUSE THEY CHANGED FOR THE BETTER
THE TRUE NCAA tournament contenders are chameleons. Heavy roster turnover in the one-and-done era has made college basketball coaching a high-stakes game of adjustments, in which the winners find ways to match their modus operandi with their current personnel, and the losers fail to settle on their team's optimal scheme. Clinging to the lower rungs of the 2011 bracket are squads who struggled to find solutions, such as ninth-seeded Villanova (in the East region) and 10th-seeded Michigan State (in the Southeast), who appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's preseason top 10 but never truly coalesced. The highest seeds in the field of 68 were reserved for the evolved elite, including Kansas, Kentucky, Texas and Notre Dame. In the weeks leading up to Selection Sunday, SI paid visits to those four teams, all of which were succeeding with offenses that bore limited resemblance to what they ran a season ago. Exclusive film sessions with coaches and conversations with their players provided a window into how their teams have changed—and how they might make their way to Houston. Their goals over the next three weekends will be to survive and advance, but to get this far, they first had to adapt.
"Getting your picks"
Marcus Morris, one of the fraternal-twin junior forwards who make No. 1--seeded Kansas a favorite to win the national championship, is seated in an office at Allen Fieldhouse, explaining how he deals with defenders in the post: back down the shorter guys and shoot turnaround jumpers; step out and face up against the slower, bigger guys, then read the angle of their feet and drive; mix in hitches and fakes against the few that match his athleticism, such as Arizona's Derrick Williams, who scored 27 points (to Morris's 16) in an 87--79 Jayhawks win in November. He is asked if anyone in the nation possesses a post game as good as his.
"Guys as good as me in the post," Morris says, pondering briefly. "I don't think there are any. My brother [Markieff] and I, and the other guys we have here, we're the most skilled frontcourt in the country." In the Big 12, he dismisses Missouri's Ricardo Ratliffe ("I'd kill him any day") and Texas's Gary Johnson ("Not really a banger"), but will admit that Longhorns freshman Tristan Thompson is "going" to be good. Morris wants to face JaJuan Johnson of Purdue, Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and, oh, the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, of Duke. Especially the Plumlees.
You really worry that the Plumlees get more hype than you and Markieff?
"No, but just because they're brothers, I don't like them," says the 6'9" Morris, who like 6'10" Markieff has TWIN TOWERS tattooed on his right arm. "We want to be known as the best brothers."
Most of what Morris, the Big 12 player of the year, says is brash. But none of it is wrong. He (with averages of 17.3 points and 7.2 rebounds) and Markieff (13.6 and 8.2) are the superior set of siblings. And Marcus is the nation's best scorer among players with 100 or more post opportunities, averaging 1.220 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology, a video-indexing stat engine used for basketball scouting. When informed of this figure during a film session in his office, Jayhawks coach Bill Self finds it a compliment too meager for a hybrid forward of Marcus's caliber. "He might also be the best low-post passer, and maybe he's the best pick-and-pop guy too," Self says. "He's the best all-around player I've ever coached."
Self's high-low motion offense was backcourt-dominated last season; its top two shot takers were point guard Sherron Collins (25.1% of Kansas's field goal attempts when he was on the floor) and wing Xavier Henry (24.6%), who both left for the NBA. The 2010--11 version of the Jayhawks' attack now uses role players on the perimeter and runs nearly every possession through the twins from Philadelphia, who are often referred to collectively as the Morrii.
When Self is asked to show, on film, all the ways the Morrii operate, it requires only the first 10 possessions of a Jan. 12 win at Iowa State to see Marcus catch the ball at the top of the key (where he's an excellent passer), on the block, in his face-up area just outside the lane and in a pick-and-pop situation (chart). By midway through the second half he has scored over both shoulders in the paint, whipped pinpoint passes out of post double teams, set ball screens and led a fast break. "A lot of guys," Self says, "don't do that many things in the course of a season." Meanwhile, the only slightly less talented Markieff has alternated between doing the two things he's better at than his brother: power moves on the low block and burying threes as the trailer on the secondary break.
Self hasn't even gotten to all the options the Morrii provide in the ball-screen sets Kansas uses in late-shot-clock situations, so he stops the tape, walks to the whiteboard in his office and begins diagramming. When both twins are available as screeners, he explains, the one being guarded by the opposition's most capable hedger—"Most teams only have one," Self says—can slip to the basket, while the other can run a pick-and-pop. Occasionally, Self will make the twin who's being marked by the opponent's biggest post defender his designated screener, which pulls defensive size away from the rim and leaves the other brother isolated against a weaker defender. Self draws up a set in which Marcus pick-and-pops on the right wing and receives the ball just as Markieff has sealed off his defender on the right block. "Now," Self says, "we've got our best passer feeding our best low-block guy." The twins, Markieff will later explain, have a term for these situations, when they're certain they'll score: "Getting your picks"—as in, your easiest route to points. And they'll be getting their picks all the way to the Final Four in Houston.
"Handoffs from my man"
It's the morning of Valentine's Day in the office of assistant coach John Robic, who has worked with John Calipari for 14 seasons, at UMass, Memphis and Kentucky, and directs the Wildcats' scouting and game-planning efforts. Mississippi State is visiting Lexington tomorrow, and Calipari opens Robic's door to pass along a few tactical instructions, the last of which is, "The best thing, I think, is handoffs from my man."
In this case the object of Calipari's affection is SEC freshman of the year Terrence Jones, a 6'9" forward who became the focal point of the Wildcats' offense, as they put together a 25--8 résumé worthy of a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. A long, lefty slasher with perhaps the best handle of any college player his size, Jones uses a team-high 28.9% of their possessions, while averaging 16.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Kentucky tweaked its offense over Christmas break to install a series of handoffs by him and center Josh Harrellson at the start of possessions. Harrellson, for example, will catch the ball near the top of the key, then take one or two dribbles directly into the defender of one of the Wildcats' sharpshooters—freshman point guard Brandon Knight (38.8% from beyond the arc), freshman swingman Doron Lamb (48.4%) and junior wing Darius Miller (45.4%)—who then takes the ball and slips above Harrellson for an open three.
Watching footage of Kentucky's first meeting with Vanderbilt, an 81--77 loss on Feb. 12 in Nashville, Robic points out stark differences from last year, namely the rise in handoffs, pick-and-rolls, three-pointers and isolation possessions. After Kentucky sent John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton to the first round of the NBA draft, then lost an eligibility battle with the NCAA over the school's one elite post recruit, beastly Turkish center Enes Kanter, the coaches couldn't just force the new personnel into the old slots. They had to create new slots and hope it would work.
Calipari is even more adept at branding his offense than he is at adjusting it, so it went mostly unnoticed last season that the Wildcats barely used his celebrated dribble-drive motion, an attack he helped popularize that uses few screens and emphasizes guard penetration and spreading the floor. "We'd really just try to score in transition because of our speed, then run set plays, then look to post the ball," Robic says. "We were the biggest team in the country, and we had to take advantage of that size." Synergy Sports scouting data for the 2009--10 team bears this out, showing possession splits of 20.2% transition, 11.3% post, 6.9% isolation, 4.5% pick-and-roll and 1.6% handoffs. This year's offense, Robic says, features fewer fast-break points, and in the half-court it consists of actions that segue into the dribble-drive much more often. The Synergy splits reflect the change, showing 15.2% transition possessions, 6.0% post, 12.8% isolation, 7.8% pick-and-rolls and 5.0% handoffs.
Calipari and Robic have been entrusting their teams to elite freshman point guards for four straight years: Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis, Wall and now Knight at Kentucky. The pre-dribble-drive handoffs were put in specifically for Knight, who's a better three-point shooter than his predecessors but a less physical player. "He's still fast, but he's thinner," Robic explains, "and he doesn't play through the bump as well as those guys did on the drive." Knight happens to be the best student of the foursome—he had a 4.3 GPA at the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale—and could be the first to not go one-and-done to the NBA. The Wildcats' coaches aren't sure which of the current freshmen will jump to the league, though Jones is projected to be a lottery pick. Kentucky's performance in the NCAA tournament, where it is a dark horse Final Four candidate, could affect those decisions. No matter what happens, the next adaptation cycle will soon be upon them: The nation's No. 1--ranked recruiting class will arrive in Lexington this off-season, demanding new roles and new wrinkles in the offense.
"He doesn't have to look for trouble"
There is order in the kingdom of Rick Barnes, but it has not always been this way. On a Friday morning at the end of January his Longhorns have yet to lose a Big 12 game and are on their way to being ranked No. 1. The only other presence in the coaches' lounge is his pastor, Ronnie Smith; Barnes rededicated himself to his faith in '08 and now no longer even swears during practices or games. He mixes his beverage of choice—a scoop of Metamucil powder mixed with water—and prepares to watch film. Last year he presided over a painful meltdown, with his team falling from No. 1 in January to a first-round exit as an eighth seed in March. He is about to show what has changed, that he has found not only religion and an adequate amount of fiber but also a structured way to score.
Barnes's first teaching tool is an NBA DVD. "He watches more of this than he does college," says graduate manager Chris Babcock, whose father is Timberwolves scouting director Rob Babcock, as he cues up an October game between the Suns and the Jazz, then coached by Jerry Sloan.
This matchup has significance: The Suns are what Texas was. Barnes borrowed heavily from former Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni's random ball-screening system—built around Steve Nash—to cater to point guard D.J. Augustin from 2006--07 to '07--08. Barnes stuck with that scheme, perhaps against his better judgment, for two more seasons.
The Jazz is what the Longhorns are. After being advised by numerous NBA friends that Sloan's flex-motion offense was the hardest system to guard due to its high volume of options and emphasis on precise execution, Barnes made a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City last July to meet with Sloan's top assistant, Phil Johnson, then returned during Utah's training camp in late September to conduct further X's-and-O's study. Barnes melded elements of the Jazz's system into his own, copying plays, such as Sloan's signature 1--4 sets. He even borrowed wardrobe tips from Utah, calling Texas equipment manager Rob Lazare from Salt Lake City and telling him to arrange for players to wear identical T-shirts, warmup suits and sneakers on road trips this season, something Sloan's Jazz did in the name of team unity.
After screening three successful Jazz possessions, the last featuring forward Andrei Kirilenko whipping a crisp, perfectly timed pass to point guard Deron Williams coming off a curl for an open jumper, Barnes hits pause and asks, "What was the biggest difference between that and college?" He then answers his own question: "Dribbling. There wasn't any. College teams overdribble."
The Longhorns were particularly guilty of this in their '09--10 late-season swoon—and this year's star, sophomore Jordan Hamilton, still has lapses. Switching to footage of a win over Oklahoma State Jan. 26, Barnes highlights his 18.6-points-per-game swingman with a green laser pointer and says, "That's the Jordan Hamilton of a year ago: catches it, puts it on the floor, goes sideways, through his legs, takes a bad shot. But watch—he's learned a lot."
A clip from a 71--58 win over Missouri the following night shows a more calm, collected Hamilton putting effort into moving without the ball. In the first half, Texas replicates one of the Jazz's 1--4 sets, with senior power forward Gary Johnson waiting on the right elbow for Hamilton to set up his defender on the weak side. Hamilton then curls off a down screen from center Tristan Thompson, receives a pass from Johnson, pivots and swishes a free-throw-line jumper in one fluid motion (chart).
The Longhorns can play variations on this set, with Hamilton taking a higher path for an open three or, if his man cheats over the screen, cutting baseline for a layup. "These sets have given Jordan stability," says senior forward Matt Hill. "He doesn't have to go looking for trouble, because he knows that we can create open shots for him." Likewise, the system has positioned Johnson to take more midrange jumpers (his "kill zone," according to Barnes) and helped freshman combo guard Corey Joseph (10.5 points per game) get free off the same "rub" cuts that Williams regularly used in Utah.
But in late February—perhaps symbolically, after the breakup of the Jazz, with the retirement of Sloan and a trade sending Williams to the Nets—the Longhorns stagnated, dropping three of their final five regular-season games. "When we struggled," Barnes said in the week before the Big 12 tournament, "it's because we got away from executing."
Can the Longhorns stay committed to structure and make a deep NCAA tournament run? An appearance in the Big 12 title game (in which they lost to 85--73 to Kansas) may indicate things are turning around. During the losing streak, Barnes's most influential mentor, Bob Knight, urged him—just as he did this past summer—to rededicate his team to structure, proper spacing, screening and cutting. Sitting in Barnes's lounge earlier in the season, when Texas was cruising, the General had passed along a message from his wife, Karen, who was a Hall of Fame high school girls' coach in Oklahoma. "She watched you play," Knight said, "and she told me, 'Rick is finally running an offense.' "
"Let's get flowing"
Practice begins on a Friday in Purcell Pavilion, and the only voices belong to the players, shuffling through a drill that expands from three-on-zero to four-on-zero, then five-on-zero. They need no instructions. In every workout, and before every game, they take turns calling out these same patterns of movement:
These are Notre Dame's dance steps, which are choreographed by its all-senior starting lineup—guards Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis and forwards Scott Martin, Carleton Scott and Ty Nash.
"Four out cutters."
"Five out cutters."
This drill is a suite of screening and cutting at half speed. Veteran NBA coach Doug Collins introduced it to Irish coach Mike Brey seven years ago, and now it forms the basis of what Brey calls "unpredictable motion"—a perimeter-oriented pas de cinq he used to outmaneuver most of the Big East, finishing second in the league (after being picked seventh) despite losing All--Big East post player Luke Harangody, who took 37.1% of Notre Dame's shots in '09--10. According to Synergy Sports, the Irish have the nation's most efficient half-court offense, shredding opponents at a rate of 1.020 points per possession. Before practice Abromaitis talks about the random nature of the Irish attack: "We joke about it: What do other teams say when they're scouting us? 'This guy is here ... this guy is here ... and they just play'?"
Indeed, most of Notre Dame's possessions are guided only by concepts. In a lunchtime film session, assistant Martin Ingelsby says of Brey, "I think if he could run zero set plays, that would be his ultimate team." Brey concurs. He has close to his ultimate team now, led by the virtuoso point guard play of Hansbrough, the younger brother of former North Carolina star (and current Pacer) Tyler, who transferred to South Bend from Mississippi State in '08 and is averaging 18.5 points and 4.3 assists. His backcourtmate is Abromaitis, a 42.4% three-point shooter with a formidable IQ: He graduated in three years and is on track to receive an M.B.A. in the spring. "There are times," Brey says, "where I'll just tell the guys, 'Let's get flowing.'"
There are other times, such as the ones that are obvious on the tape of Notre Dame's 56--51 victory at Pittsburgh on Jan. 24, where Brey asks them to grind to a halt. The Irish are the only team to win at the Panthers' Petersen Events Center all season, and it did so by going into "full burn" mode, a slowed-down version of the motion that the team first experimented with when Harangody missed five games due to a bone bruise in his right knee last February and March. Hansbrough, its lone true one-on-one operator, helps them burn down the first 25 or so seconds of each second-half possession. He then fillets the Pitt defense on a series of high pick-and-rolls on a left-to-right diagonal path, either by scoring on his own, hitting a rolling Nash or finding a shooter (Scott or Abromaitis) who has dragged up to the left wing. "Ben has become such a smart player," Brey says. "When we first got him, he could be a caveman, just running over everyone, chasing raw meat."
Hansbrough hasn't lost his intensity, which is hardwired into his family's genetic code: Tyler's nickname in Chapel Hill was Psycho T, leading some to refer to Ben as Psycho B. But Ben has received an education from the Brey School of Pacing. What makes the Irish a threat to reach its first Final Four since 1978 is that their offense can thrive at three speeds—full burn, semi-burn and regular. This has resulted in their scoring as few as 56 points (against Pitt, full burn) and as many as 94 (at Providence, regular). In each version the Notre Dame players take multiple walking steps before making hard cuts. And all five players, including Nash, who refers to himself as a "point center," tend to roam the perimeter and take turns handling the ball. Brey will occasionally request something abstract ("Let's get a low-post touch," for example) and trust his team to expand on the theme.
Brey stops the Pitt tape to review a possession during which Martin, a 6'8" Purdue transfer whom Brey calls "a beautiful basketball player," catches the ball off the right block. Martin faces up to the basket and waits a full three beats, interpreting the D as his teammates circulate—then whips a pass to Scott, who saw an opening for a basket cut down the lane. "That, right there," Brey says, "is five men who have played a s---load together."
The average age of Notre Dame's starters is 22, and Brey uses men as both a noun and a compliment. He was proud when a TV announcer recently compared the Irish with a YMCA men's league squad. Those teams, Brey says, have a great feel for the game. Those teams understand how to do the dance.
AFTER FIVE PLAYERS LEFT FOR THE NBA, THE WILDCATS' COACHES COULDN'T JUST FORCE THEIR NEW PLAYERS INTO THE OLD SLOTS. THEY HAD TO CREATE NEW SLOTS.
BREY WAS PROUD WHEN A TV ANNOUNCER LIKENED THE IRISH TO A YMCA MEN'S LEAGUE SQUAD. THOSE TEAMS, THE COACH SAYS, HAVE A GREAT FEEL FOR THE GAME.
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Marcus Morris at Iowa State
In one of his more impressive games this season, Morris scored 33 points on Jan. 12 in an 84--79 victory. He made 11 field goals (shown right) in 15 attempts using a variety of moves, including three drives that originated outside the arc. Morris also hit 11 of 14 free throws.
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PLAYING SOME JAZZ
The Horns' 1--4 high set
Dogus Bolbay (DB) passes to Joseph (CJ) on the right wing, then makes a rub cut off Johnson (GJ) to take his defender away from Texas's scorers. Joseph hits Johnson at the right elbow while Hamilton (JH) curls off of Thompson's down screen (TT). Hamilton gets a feed from Johnson and shoots.
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Photograph by FRED VUICH
BURN NOTICE Hansbrough (23) and the Irish—the rare team with five senior starters—used their slow-motion offense to stymie Pitt in a January win.
TWIN POWERS The Jayhawks' attack revolves around the brothers Morris, Markieff (21) and Marcus, whose all-around skills make them the most imposing frontcourt tandem in the country.
HANDLIN' IT Jones's dribbling ability has opened up a slew of options for Calipari, who continues to entrust his offense to an elite point guard.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES
GOOD LOOK Hamilton's play is vastly improved, thanks to a more structured offense, which helps him get open shots without overdribbling.
PACE MAKER Hansbrough (23) has the skill—and the temperament—to help Notre Dame run its motion offense at three different speeds.