It was a simpleexchange, really, a moment that laid bare Roy Williams's vision to create themost lethal attacking weapon in college basketball. In the fall of 2002, notlong after rejoining Williams's staff at Kansas, Steve Robinson stood next tohis boss during a preseason practice and blanched at the scene before him, achaotic blur of bodies in motion. The Jayhawks hadn't operated this way sevenyears earlier, when Robinson had left to coach Tulsa (and later Florida State)."I'm a little uncomfortable with how fast you're playing," Robinsontold Williams, who cackled like a mad scientist. "Good," Williamsreplied. "Because I want to play even faster."
In today's gameOl' Roy's ongoing metamorphosis is nothing less than revolutionary. Whetherit's for reasons of ego or control or changing personnel, most Hall ofFame--worthy coaches have slowed down their attacks over the past two decades.Consider Pat Riley, who's gone from running the Showtime Lakers to thebump-and-grind Miami Heat, or Louisville's Rick Pitino, who almost never usesthe full-court press he made famous at Kentucky. "Some guys are trying togo slower than they used to, but I'm always trying to go faster," saysWilliams. "Basketball is supposed to be a finesse game--Dr. Naismith didn'twant people to foul each other--and I think speed is a part offinesse."
Structured chaos,Williams calls his brainchild, an ever-quickening version of his mentor DeanSmith's classic primary and secondary breaks. It sounds like an oxymoron untilyou see the uncanny way in which Williams's latest North Carolina team mixesthe supposedly competing elements of breakneck speed and wise shot selection.With a month to go before the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels (23--4 throughSunday) own the most fear-inducing offense in the land, not least becausethey're the country's fastest-paced major-conference team (averaging 75.1possessions a game, according to kenpom.com) and ranked No. 4 nationally inoffensive efficiency, scoring 1.17 points per possession. We've seen thisdeadly combination before, of course: In both categories the Runnin' Heels areneck and neck with Williams's 2005 national champs.
The Carolinabreak is more dangerous than ever because the Tar Heels have uncommon depth,rotating as many as 12 players, none of whom ever stops running. If UNC has anumerical edge and can score on a traditional fast break, a.k.a. the primarybreak, then that's the first option after a make or a miss by an opponent. Ifnot, the Tar Heels will launch into their secondary break, a term that manyhoops fans have heard but only a few understand. "The secondary break isthe phase between the primary break and a set offense," Williams explains."It gives us a chance to keep attacking so that defenders have to pick uppeople they're not supposed to be guarding. They're backpedaling and trying toprotect the goal, and now we're moving it around and setting screens before thedefense can really get set."
February 26, 2007
Carolina's mostcommon secondary-break sequence is one that any frequent basketball watcherwill recognize. It requires the point guard (usually freshman Ty Lawson) todribble to one wing out of transition, then reverse the ball to a post playerat the top of the key (sophomore Tyler Hansbrough or freshman Brandan Wright),who fires a pass to a guard on the other wing and, using a back screen from ateammate, cuts to the block for a pass. At every step the Tar Heels try to lookinside and feed the other post player, who has raced as fast as possible to thefront of the rim. The object is to create a high-percentage inside shot or,failing that, to draw defenders into the lane, opening up the perimeter forthree-pointers.
These daysWilliams has cranked up Carolina's attack to the point that the Tar Heelsalmost never call set plays in a half-court offense anymore. "They play outof transition into their secondary break 90 percent of the time, and theirearly offense is as good as there is because they've got big guys likeHansbrough who can run like track stars," said Miami coach Frank Haithafter the Heels drubbed his Hurricanes 105--64 on Jan. 31 in Chapel Hill."You'd think it would be easy to defend, because you just have to get backand find your man, but it's easier said than done. Their speed puts so muchpressure on you, particularly if you're trying to [get the] offensiverebound." In fact, some coaches are so wary of Carolina's explosivenessthat they'll send only two players to the offensive glass. Another benefit:Because the Tar Heels inbound the ball so quickly after a basket, Williams saysit's almost impossible for foes to set up a press.
Williams's staffis fanatical about conditioning--every player broke six minutes in the team'sannual preseason mile run, with point guards Bobby Frasor and Quentin Thomasfinishing in under five minutes--and all that running has a cumulative effectin games. "It wears on an opponent," Hansbrough says. "In the firsthalf they may be fine, but in the second half they get winded and worn down.Those are the times when we make a run."
An alternatehandle for the Carolina break could just as well be Ty Goes to the Runners.From the moment Lawson catches the outlet pass, it's his job to push the ballwith the same complete commitment as that of his four teammates alreadysprinting toward the basket. "Ty has a gear that very few point guardshave," Williams says, "and an ability to burst between two defendersuntil it's wide open in front of him." More than halfway through Lawson'sfreshman season, Williams says he's made great strides but is still running atonly 60% of his maximum capability. "I'll think I'm playing fast, and thenCoach tells me I need to go faster," Lawson says, smiling. "I don'tthink he'll ever be satisfied unless every time down the court we hitlayups."
Williams'srelentless pursuit of speed reflects personal tastes that go beyond basketball.(He'll proudly tell you about the time he played the famed Cypress Point golfcourse 15 years ago in two hours and 35 minutes--walking and with a caddie.)Yet not even Smith would have predicted that his former assistant would rev upthe secondary break and make it the cornerstone of his offense. "Every yearI'd want to change something we were trying to do," says Smith, "and hewas the one of the three [assistants] who would always say, 'Why are wechanging?'"
The secondarybreak has evolved in fits and starts over the years since Smith coined the termin 1964. That year he hired former Tar Heel Larry Brown as an assistantfollowing Brown's participation as a player on the U.S. Olympic team, and Brownbrought with him a transition strategy (using a sharpshooting trailer) thatOlympic coach Henry Iba called "flattening the defense." For yearsSmith's teams took the ball baseline and then swung it quickly around theperimeter, always looking for passes to the low post, and in 1982 Williamssuggested adding the back screen for the post player at the top of the key. (Henow jokingly calls it "my entire contribution to North Carolina basketballin 10 years" as an assistant.)
But Williamsbegan shedding his conservatism once he took the Kansas job in 1988, findingsuccess by adding another Ol' Roy wrinkle, an interior lateral screen (codename: Finish It) that Smith had junked out of frustration the year before.(Smith showed Williams the ultimate in professional respect by installing theplay himself the following season.) Meanwhile the biggest change in what becameknown as "the Kansas break" took place in the mid-1990s when pointguard Jacque Vaughn began running it at warp speed, increasing the number ofpossessions per game--and, in turn, Williams argues, the Jayhawks' chances tomaximize the superior talent of Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz.
NowadaysWilliams's secondary break is a system in full, featuring more than 15 optionsand gaining currency as the de rigueur transition attack at various levels ofthe game, from high school to the WNBA to youth ball. The challenge now is forhis current Tar Heels (who were averaging 87.7 points and shooting 50.4%) tomatch the potency of not just his 2005 national champs (88.0 and 49.9%) butalso his two fastest teams, period: the Jayhawks of 1989--90 (92.1 and 53.3%)and 2001--02 (90.9 and 50.6%). It won't be easy. "If this team were to staytogether a couple of years, it could potentially be my fastest team,"Williams says, "but who knows how long Tyler and Brandan are going to behere? It takes a while to get used to running the way I want to run."
For now, though,about the only thing missing from the Carolina break is a catchy name. Afterall, while there's a sports bar in Chapel Hill called Four Corners, you'll behard-pressed to find one named the Secondary Break.
"How about 40Minutes of Heel?" Frasor suggests.
Typical for a RoyWilliams point guard. Thinks fast on his feet.
How does this UNC team compare to the top teams in TarHeels history? Weigh in at Luke Winn's Blog.
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"Some guys are going slower, but I'm always tryingto go faster," says Williams. "Basketball is supposed to be a FINESSEGAME--Dr. Naismith didn't want people to foul each other--and speed is a partof finesse."
1 4 2 5 3
In a common Carolina secondary-break sequence the point guard (1) dribbles tothe wing out of transition, then passes to Hansbrough (4), who swings the ballto the shooting guard (2) on the other wing while the small forward (3) cuts upthe lane to screen Hansbrough's defender. Hansbrough comes off the screen andmoves to the block for an entry pass or a lob. The goal is to create ahigh-percentage inside shot for Hansbrough or Wright (5), but if the defenderssag down, the post players can fire the ball back to one of their openteammates on the perimeter.