Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 1: Transition

Bob Williams and the incredibly fun West Virginia Tech offense

When you think of basketball in the state of West Virginia, your mind likely only goes to one thought: Bob Huggins and Press Virginia. West Virginia’s defense has dominated the state’s basketball discussions for the last half-decade, and for good reason. It’s a fun, loose, hyper-aggressive defense that grabs eyeballs with ease when it works. However, you’ll recall that this is a series about offensive basketball.

Why would we bring up the state of West Virginia here? Two reasons: firstly, three of the nation’s 11 most efficient offenses in 2018-19 reside in West Virginia, a state slotted in between Nebraska and Idaho for overall population. Second: it’s home to one of the best resurgence stories in all of college basketball. Meet Bob Williams and the West Virginia Tech Golden Bears offense.

What Williams has done at West Virginia Tech is an excellent story for just about any coach to take inspiration in. The Golden Bears played at the Division II level until 2006, when the University decided they could no longer compete with the state’s D-2 schools. Obviously, this is understandable; WVU Tech is a small public school of around 1,100 where a third of the faculty are part-time professors. They currently reside in Beckley, which is 30 miles away from where they spent the entire university history at until 2017. Their basketball arena used to be an armory. And yet, in his 17th season with the Golden Bears, Williams pulled off his latest miracle: a 30-win season a year after losing two senior starters at a school that hadn’t won more than 23 in a season since their NAIA move.

As has been the case for a few years now, Williams has reached new heights at Tech with a fast-paced, transition-heavy offense. Tech spent 24.9% of their offensive time in transition, per Synergy. This translates to around 34% of Tech’s shot attempts coming in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, given the Synergy-to-HoopMath conversion rate of .738. Unsurprisingly, Tech was strong-willed in getting to the rim in transition:

But they were just as likely to get points from deep, where 41% of their transition attempts came from:

West Virginia went for about 78.4 possessions per game, which would have made them one of the three fastest offenses in Division 1. Why play fast, you ask? Because they get so many open looks from transition:

Per Synergy, the percentage of open catch-and-shoot threes in transition among D-1 teams this year was around 56.5%, versus 42.47% as the national average on half-court catch-and-shoot attempts. Considering catch-and-shoots are the most efficient and most common three-point look, you’d be thrilled with a type of offense that produces open looks 14% more often than normal. Plus, the average D-1 offense shot 38.1% on open catch-and-shoots versus 32.9% on guarded ones. If we are to assume nearly all of these are three-point attempts, that’s 1.143 PPP on open looks versus 0.987 on guarded attempts. If you’re getting 15.6 points more per 100 possessions and you’re getting those open looks 14% more often, odds are you’ll want to get out in transition.

I asked Williams about this exact thing, and if it plays into why he likes to play fast. His response: “We’re trying to wear the opponent down by running 94 feet hard every time. We’re looking for the first good shot available, whether that’s a lay-up, post-up, mid-range pull-up, or a three-pointer. If you’re a good three-point shooter, an open shot for you is great for us.” No wonder Williams likes to push the pace: 63.2% of West Virginia Tech’s transition three-point attempts were open, per Synergy, which is well above the D-1 average.

Over the last three years, Tech has averaged 77 offensive possessions per game, a refreshing, speedy flash in a sea of sludgy offenses. While transition doesn’t carry them to the shockingly speedy heights of a Whitman, it made them the most efficient team in the River States Conference by over 0.05 PPP. For reference, that’s the same gap from 5th-ranked Tennessee (1.165 PPP) to 28th-ranked LSU (1.115 PPP) in Division 1. Williams’ offense was fast and furious and efficient this year:

This stems from excellent rebounding. I don’t advise using rebound margin for anything other than a small curiosity, but if you’re into it, note that Tech outrebounded opponents by 9.3 per game this year and has posted +8, +11.9, and +11 outings in four of the last five seasons. Those rank as the four best seasons in Williams’ tenure at Tech and offset a less consistent turnover margin. If you want percentages, Tech’s OREB% was 35.7%, their DREB% 24.3%. Only three Division 1 teams posted a better gap than +11.4% this past season, and from my viewing, Tech got a lot of quick baskets off of opponent misses:

The rebounding principles of Tech greatly inform Williams’ strategy in transition. It’s pretty simple: “you can’t run if you don’t rebound defensively, you know?” Williams’ teams take a different approach to rebounding, regularly sending four into the paint to crash the boards instead of the traditional three or, from some teams, two. This allows Tech to build out their fast break much more quickly, as it did in the GIF above.

It’s easier to run out of misses than it is makes, so rebounding is a big part of where our fast break begins,” notes Williams. This can be backed up statistically, of course. The average Division 1 team in 2018-19 got 57.4% of their overall transition attempts after missed shots, per Hoop Math. Being able to rebound as well as Tech does helps massively. It’s an even bigger accomplishment considering Tech didn’t start a player taller than 6’4″ in 25 of their 34 games. Williams sees this as a positive: “We aren’t that big, but we work so much on boxing out and we have a very athletic team. . . . That allows our rebounders to instantly take the ball up as opposed to looking for a point guard for the outlet pass.” When everyone’s a well-rounded inside and outside scorer, you’ve cracked the transition code.

As for specific sets, Tech runs the same drill and a similar style for nearly every transition possession: three defined lanes, with the ballhandler up the middle and two wing players to the corners. I’ll let Williams take it from there: “Our 2s and 3s are our wing runners, so they’re interchangeable – they can run in either the left or right lanes. Their job is to get to the left or right lane and run as fast as they can. They look over their inside shoulder for a pass ahead to them, and if they don’t get a layup on those looks, they head straight to their respective corners. If we don’t get a look there, they come up to the foul line, which sets us up for our half-court offense. The 4s and 5s can either take the ball out and be the trailer or they can be the rim-runner. If the rim-runner doesn’t get anything, he’ll work his way back out for a quick ball screen as part of our early/half-court offense.” Here’s this in real time:

It certainly helps that Williams’ personnel were more athletic than ever, in his words. Elisha Boone, who is 6’4″, grabbed 11.4 rebounds per game, which would be historically great numbers for a player 6’6″ or shorter in Division 1. That said, I’d imagine just about any team that faces size issues could steal a lot of inspiration for Williams and the Golden Bears. It’s a team full of guys that run for 40 minutes, happily looked forward to the next play, and continued to hammer in a play-to-play philosophy all year long. You don’t necessarily need a 12-man rotation, but you do need players that won’t be selective runners. If you’re looking for something like this:

Call Coach Williams. He’s a pretty nice and talkative guy.

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