If we were to search for the moment when college basketball as we knew it began to wobble on its axis, we could look at a day in El Paso in 1988. That's when UTEP assistant coach Rus Bradburd, just back on campus after watching Miners point guard Tim Hardaway score 50 points in a Chicago summer-league game, approached his boss, Hall of Famer-to-be Don Haskins, with a proposal. UTEP had a couple of big men, Antonio Davis and Greg Foster, who would go on to play a combined 26 seasons in the NBA. Why not use those ready-for-big-time bodies to set screens to help spring Hardaway, then a senior, for sallies to the basket?
"Oh, hell," growled Haskins, a disciple of hidebound coaching patriarch Hank Iba. "Hardaway's dribbling the ball enough already."
Only upon reaching the NBA would Hardaway unleash on defenders the fullness of the crossover move that became known as the UTEP Two-Step. That little Chicago guard still left his mark on the college game, for he, Allen Iverson and others would wind up firing the imaginations of a generation of young players. And the kids who worked up their own moves in countless summer league games soon began to transit the college game, revolutionizing it in the process.
How did college hoops, once a pageant of motion and flex offenses, of big men who could post up or drop step while around them other players dribbled, passed and shot, become a specialist's world of drive-and-dish guards, wing shooters and wide-bodied pick setters haunting the free throw line? How did a sport featuring teams of sleek, interchangeable parts—think Louisville's 1980 NCAA champs—turn into the game we see now, with guards bouncing off defenders like bumper cars, then peeling off body padding in locker rooms postgame? How did we go from one generation being told never to set a screen on the ball—and to pass, for crissakes, not dribble—to the current state of affairs, in which coaches yell, Beat him off the bounce.
November 12, 2012
Much of this transformation is the result of a cascade of consequences from the introduction of the three-point shot in 1986. Other changes followed from NBA and international trends filtering down—and from cultural memes bubbling up. "It's the AAU influence and the international influence," says Northeastern coach Bill Coen. "We're getting big men who can dribble and shoot like Europeans. Nobody wants to be considered a center with his back to the basket."
With ball screens all over the pro game, in the Olympics and at the grassroots, many college coaches simply threw up their hands. "A good coach adjusts to his personnel, and to the culture as well," says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "You watch AAU ball all summer, and it's hard not to say, 'Maybe we should try that.'"
For years coaches insisted that the center touch the ball at least once before anyone launched a shot. Eventually a few noticed that during three seasons with Shaquille O'Neal, LSU never advanced beyond the second round of the NCAAs.
And here we are. Says Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, "Now you've got to make plays instead of running plays."
After Georgetown wins a national championship in 1984 with pressure defense, UNLV (in '90) and Arkansas (in '94, with its 40 Minutes of Hell) follow. What's an offense to do? Fight pressure with pressure. On its way to the '91 title, Duke solves UNLV's half-court D by having Christian Laettner set high ball-screens to spring Bobby Hurley free in the half-court.
When he was an assistant to Rollie Massimino at Villanova during the 1980s, Jay Wright remembers his boss calling a play early in each possession when the Wildcats played Georgetown. "If the play didn't work, we'd line up in a 1--4 and have the guard drive to the basket," says Wright. "If they called fouls, we won. If they didn't, we lost.
"Pressure could take you out of your offense if all you did was pass and cut and screen. Coaches realized the only thing that really worked was to drive the ball on a straight line to the basket."
The Trey Is Born
Providence offered a foretaste of the power of the three, riding the 19'9" chippie to the 1987 Final Four. In fact, coach Rick Pitino's choice to cast his team's lot with the trey was born of desperation. The Friars had spent seven seasons near the bottom of the conference, and "I was looking for gimmicks," Pitino says. "We weren't going to win without pressure defense and the three-pointer. We ran the pick-and-roll every time down the floor, usually for Billy Donovan, and spotted up Delray Brooks and Pop Lewis in the corners. Our fast break wasn't for layups, but threes."
As the arc moved out, defenses had to stray farther from the lane, which made the close-to-the-basket movement of the flex and motion seem more and more pointless. Guards' eyes lit up at the space in the middle, and coaches began to put the pieces together, devising ways to pair the three with dribble penetration.
Indiana Red to Duke Blue
For most of his first decade at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski ran the motion offense that his mentor, Bob Knight, perfected in 29 seasons at Indiana. Then Coach K landed prodigious point guard Bobby Hurley (right). "Hurley made better decisions with the ball than five guys could make collectively," Krzyzewski says. "Hurley and [Christian] Laettner really started our ball-screen stuff."
Eventually Krzyzewski could no longer count on players staying four years the way Laettner, Hurley, Grant Hill and Shane Battier all would. So he installed a simpler system, familiar to recruits from the travel-team world. Duke would become a classic example of the new paradigm, with shooters in the deep corners to flatten a defense and guards like Jason Williams, Kyrie Irving or Austin Rivers using sudden first steps to get into the lane. "When your most talented guy is a freshman or sophomore, you have to build your system around him," Krzyzewski says, "because if you try to fit your talent to a system, you're playing defense on them. They have better instincts than any system you could run."
Coach K's international experience will be a big part of his evolution. At the 2006 world championships a poised and experienced Greek team uses pick-and-rolls to carve up the U.S., but Krzyzewski, the U.S. coach, studies and learns from them. "Our level of [international] scouting from '06 to '08 was like going from a Model T Ford to jets," he says. "I came back from our last three competitions incorporating things"—at Duke as well as with the national team—"I'd learned from other countries."
The three most recent U.S. national teams all won gold medals at major events, and unless Dwight Howard or Tyson Chandler happened to be in the game, they beat international teams by running international stuff, with, Krzyzewski says, "pretty much four guys playing everywhere, with a point guard." Often that point was LeBron James, the player he calls "the Queen on the chessboard."
AI Hits D.C.
Allen Iverson (3, below) had a stutter step in high school, not a true crossover. Through summers playing in D.C. he develops the move that he unleashes for two seasons at Georgetown. In the NBA he will lift the Sixers to the NBA Finals, winning Rookie of the Year, MVP and four scoring titles along the way, ensuring that his signature move (amplified by a Reebok marketing campaign) runs like a jolt of current through the grassroots scene. "Once he brought that move, every kid in America wanted to cross someone over," says Holy Cross coach Milan Brown, who grew up in Iverson's hometown of Hampton, Va. "And while he was at it, get the arm sleeve and cornrows."
"Allen had the ball control and speed to get by anybody," says Georgetown coach John Thompson III, whose father coached Iverson as a Hoya. "He gave everybody hope. Not Shaq, because he was so big. People could identify with Allen."
Floor leader Stephon Marbury (with ball, below) bolts from Georgia Tech for the NBA after a single season, underscoring a trend that will only accelerate. The early exodus of their most talented players leaves coaches little choice but to run simple, instinctive offensive sets, rather than ones that require sophisticated ability to read and react. "Motion takes a lot of discipline and patience," says Louisville's Pitino. "This generation, they're great kids, but they can't focus at all. The pick-and-roll is very easy to teach. Today, can you imagine telling All-America big guys that they're going to be blockers in a motion offense? They'd immediately call their high school and travel-team coaches and try to transfer."
The Wisconsin Effect
Reacting to quick guards determined to get to the rim, coaches become infatuated with Wisconsin's Pack-Line defense, a scheme that puts Dick Bennett's Badgers in the 2000 Final Four, with four NCAA tournament victories in which opponents fail to score more than 60 points. Coaches from Sean Miller to Brad Stevens will eventually adopt the Pack-Line or a variation. "They're not trying to turn you over," says Harvard's Amaker. "They pack it in and play between you and the basket. It's like Big Ten football, where field position is important."
To attack the Pack-Line, offenses more frequently bring their big men high, to draw out defensive bigs and unclog the lane. High posts lead to more ball screens and European pick-and-pop moves, which further accelerate the evolution of the face-up, multiskilled big man and the disappearance of the back-to-the-basket center.
The Open Middle
At first blush the Princeton offense and Dribble Drive Motion attack seem as different as the Ivy League and coach John Calipari's old haunts in Conference USA. In fact, the two systems are strikingly similar. "Both keep the middle open for drives [in the case of DDM] or cuts [in the case of Princeton]," says John Thompson III, who uses Princeton sets at Georgetown.
In 1998, as Princeton itself goes 27--2, center Steve Goodrich says, "If North Carolina or Kansas ran our offense, they'd be incredible at it. The passes we throw for layups, they'd be throwing to the rim and dunking." In 2002, N.C. State reaches its first NCAA tournament in 11 years using back cuts, dribble handoffs and drift picks. But in the same way young players don't take seriously a style or move until they see it in "the league," most college coaches only begin to consider using the Princeton offense after NBA teams such as the Kings, Timberwolves and Nets adopt its elements. "At first college coaches saw the Princeton stuff and said, 'That's old school, we can't do that,'" says Florida coach Billy Donovan. "And as soon as the Nets did it, and won with it, they're, 'Wow, this is great!'"
The four dribble penetrators in DDM are perfectly adapted to the travel-team pedigree of the modern player. At Memphis in 2008, Calipari's Tigers demonstrate its potential by coming within a Mario Chalmers three of an NCAA title, as players like Derrick Rose (right) attack the basket off the dribble. After Calipari's move to Lexington, he suits up the best big man in the college game, Anthony Davis—but Davis is more likely to go on a "rim run" from the weak side, mopping up after a teammate's dribble drive, than posting up in orthodox fashion. "Teams aren't scoring off their action," says Donovan. "They're scoring when individual talent can break down a defense and force a double team."
What Vance Walberg, the coach who developed DDM, says of his offense—"It's how to play basketball, instead of how to run plays"—could have come from the mouth of Princeton sage Pete Carril.
The High Ball-Screen
A big man sets a screen at the foul line. A guard dribbles past, trying to rub his defender off it. Then the fun begins—and no team has more fun than Illinois from 2002 through '05, with big James Augustine and perimeter teammates Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head and Roger Powell. Augustine might slip to the basket and take and convert a pass; at other times the dribbler might turn the corner and be gone. "They had the best passing, cutting and spacing, and just sliced teams up," says St. John's coach Steve Lavin.
Florida will also make expert use of the pick-and-roll while winning titles in 2006 and '07, with guard Taurean Green and forward Corey Brewer running off Al Horford and Joakim Noah. "A lot of us watched Mike D'Antoni and the Phoenix Suns," says Gators' coach Donovan. "AAU kids watch so much NBA that we can put them in situations they're comfortable in. Guys come to us knowing how to space and run the floor."
The high-ball-screen vogue spawns other changes. One is the rise of the so-called Stretch or Step-Back 4: a big man who, in addition to rolling after setting a screen, can step back and threaten with a pass or shot, as Jared Sullinger will do for Ohio State from 2010--11 through '11--12.
Meanwhile, as defenses scramble for ways to guard the ball screen, they spawn a glossary of terms to describe their tactics—from showing and hedging to icing and downing. Says Marquette coach Buzz Williams, "For years ball screens were random. Now you guard several each possession. I can't tell you how much practice time we spend on ball-screen coverage."
Ball screens let today's player do what he wants to do, whether he's a guard or wing eager to dribble and drive, or a big man like Kevin Durant intent on facing the basket. Pick-and-roll is what they see in the NBA, where they want to wind up. "Pearl Washington used to take you off the dribble without a ball screen," says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "Now you deal with guys with a ball screen, and you want to say, 'That should be against the rules.'"
In 2002--03, when analytics guru Ken Pomeroy dives into reams of play-by-play records to generate "tempo-free" stats, he seeks to create standardized metrics to better compare teams and players that operate at different paces. Then, in '08, Mark Cuban--funded Synergy Sports Technology widely introduces a video scouting tool that breaks down tendencies using all sorts of variables—which allows a coach to say, as Buzz Williams did before his Marquette team beat Xavier in the '11 NCAA tournament, "Two guys involved in the ball screen constitute 42% of Xavier's points, and of that 42%, Tu Holloway is involved in it 63% of the time."
All this data flowing into the game advantages the D. And that makes it much tougher to score—and leads to more and more shots going up late in a possession. "In the past the defense had to read the offense and react," says Northeastern coach Bill Coen. "Now the offense has to read the defense."
If it can't score a quick opportunity basket, a team will likely pull the ball out and use most of its allotted 35 seconds. "Our game has become either a first-eight-seconds [of the shot clock] game or a last-10-seconds game," says Donovan. "Once the defense gets back, every coach says, 'O.K., let's run offense and wear them down.'"
That offense might be a Princeton-style set. It might be a variation on the Burn, in which Notre Dame runs the clock to single digits before setting a high-ball-screen for a guard or dumping the ball to a big man. Tempo-free numbers suggest that the Swing, a sort of flex with European spacing developed by Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, is among the game's most efficient attacks; over the past few seasons the Badgers took more shots in the final four seconds of a possession than any other team in the country. In each of those offensive sets, a heightened appreciation for the value of possession is changing the game. "You have 200 Hubie Browns running around," says Pitino, whose Louisville team last spring featured the poorest field goal percentage in a Final Four field since 1962, but also led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. "Everything's percentages."
John Adams, Basketball Patriot
After two of college basketball's best players, Oklahoma's Blake Griffin and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough (left), suffer concussions during the 2008--09 season, Adams swings into action. A former Midwestern referee who had become the NCAA's officiating coordinator two years before, Adams pledges to champion "freedom of movement" and orders refs to whistle certain "absolutes" if they want to work the NCAA tournament.
Among the fouls Adams decrees to be absolutes: any impediment to a dribbler's progress, such as a hip check to ride out a guard as he comes off a high screen. In 2008--09, UTEP essentially builds its offense around this absolute, and penetrator Stefon Jackson winds up making more free throws (312) than any collegian since Pete Maravich.
The NCAA rules committee introduces an arc beneath the basket to eliminate cheap charging calls and further empower offenses. "Freedom of movement and cleaning up rough play have been themes for 10 years," says Notre Dame's Brey, who just finished a turn as chair of the rules committee. "The NBA has done a better job of permitting movement than the college game. The season starts out pretty well, but by January or February it's a bloodbath. A guy can't make a cut without getting chucked. It's one of the reasons widening the lane is being discussed."
College hoops has lost plenty in the course of its journey: the choreography of five guys who spend four seasons together; the subtle skills of the classic center; the fundamentally well-rounded player who's a threat from any spot on the floor. But, says Boston College coach Steve Donahue, "I love this way. It's exciting. You have to work on your craft. You've got to be tougher and smarter than your opponent. The first cellphone was attached to the roof of a car. Now it's in your pocket."
... AND THE COLLEGE GAME THEY SHAPED
Beasts of the East
The fearless drives of Syracuse's Dwayne (Pearl) Washington (31) are typical of the Big East's style, which portends the end of the cuts, screens and freedom of movement characteristic of flex and motion offenses. Meanwhile TV deals ensure wide exposure to the conference's aggressive style.
THE TRENDSETTERS ...
Sonny Vaccaro begins to pour Nike money into summer basketball scene
Adidas and Reebok follow suit; travel teams and summer leagues boom
Michael Jordan signs five-year, $2.5 million shoe deal and wins NBA Rookie of the Year award
Post men don't sell shoes; you've got to attack hoop north-south
Soviet nationals jack up 28 threes versus Providence in a preseason game
Rick Pitino decides to up Friars' target of treys per game to 25 from 15
Tim Hardaway unleashes UTEP Two-Step crossover on NBA
Warriors, then Heat, permit him to do what he couldn't in college
Bad Boy Pistons, Pat Riley's Knicks lend glamour to physical play
As league gropes for some way to stop Jordan, scoring plummets
U.S. Dream Team inspires hoops generation worldwide with romp to gold
Despite blowouts in Barcelona, decadelong trend toward international parity begins
Kevin Garnett jumps straight to the NBA from Chicago's Farragut Academy
Other future Big Kevs (Durant, Love) will develop face-the-basket skills
Frank Williams of Peoria, king of crossover, named Illinois' Mr. Basketball
Calls laying a move on someone "like getting a dunk and an and-one."
And1 builds ad campaign around high school phenom Rafer Alston's highlight tape
Releases And1 Mixtape Vol. 1 and launches national tour
Princeton offense helps Nets reach Finals
With NBA's imprimatur, Ivy League set legitimized for college coaches
U.S. team of NBA players finishes sixth at worlds in Indianapolis
Spain, Yugoslavia, Argentina, even New Zealand put U.S. offense to shame
To protect players from impeded progress, NBA prohibits hand checking
Rule empowers dribble penetrators
Mike Krzyzewski (left) picked to lead U.S. national team
Names Suns' Euro-style offensive maestro Mike D'Antoni (right) to staff
At worlds in Japan, Greece denies U.S. gold with high-ball-screen attack
Realizing effectiveness of global style, Coach K and staff vow to adapt
Nike introduces Pro Combat padding for hoops
Protective gear puts players such as Amar'e Stoudemire at ease with rougher game
U.S. wins gold in London
Face-the-basket big men Kevin Love and LeBron James "out-Euro" field
Paul, Westbrook, Lin, Barea all earn Ph.D.'s in reading high ball-screens
The successes of Steve Nash and Tony Parker, led coaches to "go small" at point
NBA strikes Center from 2013 All-Star ballots
With more teams playing smaller and big men becoming more versatile, position has become impossible to define. Does it even exist anymore?