How Northwest Missouri ball screened their way to a 38-0 season
The odds are fairly decent that, if you follow me on Twitter and knew I was writing this article, you were looking forward to the Northwest Missouri State section with joy. Hey, I would be too: all the Bearcats did was go 38-0, complete the first undefeated season at any NCAA level since 2008-09 Findlay went 36-0, and set records (on Synergy) for the most efficient offense in the database. Also, they did this:
I went to see the Bearcats play in person for the Division II Championship against Point Loma in Evansville. The game itself wasn’t the prettiest – NWMO was held to their second-lowest point total of the year with 64 – but they were still efficient enough (1.122 PPP) to carry themselves over the top on a just-okay shooting day. The actions they were running frequently got them open looks from the perimeter. They were set on driving to the rim at all costs, and they completely controlled the pace of the game. It was beautiful basketball despite the ugliness, and my fascination has yet to cease.
Basically, Northwest Missouri’s ball-screen offense can give you this:
Or even this:
Head coach Ben McCollum, who’s 100-5 over the last three seasons and 241-75 overall, defines his strategy with two words: no patterns. “We try not to follow the book”, he notes. To McCollum, this is how you beat the best and be the best: do it differently than everyone else. Unsurprisingly, he’s not really a fan of the 11-second Twitter videos showing the continuity ball screen that many teams in America are running right now. “They see it on TV and put it in. They don’t understand angles or how to set the screens or who’s setting it or how to properly space or who to set it for,” says McCollum.
It’s hard to argue with McCollum if you can’t beat his results. Northwest Missouri’s coming off their second Division II National Championship in three seasons, with five Sweet Sixteen runs in six years. The Bearcats have won the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Assocation – sorry, MIAA – regular season title six straight years; the conference tournament, four. McCollum might be a defense-first coach, as he tells me, but Northwest’s offense has ranked first, fourth, third, and fifth nationally in PPP the last four seasons, per Synergy. Yes, that’s across all levels of college basketball.
Northwest is doing this without the most-used play in college basketball: the continuity ball screen. There’s a ton of motion, of course, but they aren’t running this to an empty side. The goal is to get to the paint for layups, and Northwest does it often:
With these drives, players are able to position themselves for wide-open shots. Ryan Welty, a 47.2% three-point shooter, was a quality beneficiary:
Asked to define his offensive philosophy, McCollum keeps it pretty brief: “Be good at less and great at more.” Again, it’s hard to argue with results: Northwest tossed up the 1.269 PPP number mentioned earlier this year, but it comes after three years of 1.207, 1.239, and 1.227 PPP performances. Per Ken Pomeroy’s database, there’s only been six D-1 seasons of 1.2+ PPP in the last 18 years. That’s pretty good, and made even crazier by the fact McCollum considers himself a defense-first coach.
As with any successful team, you need quality personnel on the court. While Northwest benefits from being 90 minutes from Kansas City and two hours from Omaha, they aren’t exactly in what you’d call fertile ground for high-end recruits. Given what McCollum preaches, though, you don’t need high-end recruits to get plays like this:
McCollum’s reasoning for his offensive success is two-fold: psychology and talent. “We find their individual strengths and get them to play towards those as often as we can get them to. (Allowing players to believe in themselves) is the main reason shots go in, in my opinion.” On the talent side: “Our guys that were setting the screens were very versatile. They could switch, post up, pick and pop for a shot. We set them so many different ways that it creates a lot of confusion for the defense.” Here’s how you see this unfold in real time, with star player Joey Witthus:
Witthus, a 6’7″ force that can play three different positions, started out at Minnesota State-Mankato and transferred to Northwest halfway through his college career. While his first three seasons were solid, averaging 12.5 points per game and starting every game, few could’ve imagined the giant breakout season he’d have this year. It culminated in a shot that’ll go down in Bearcat lore:
Having someone like this on your team is obviously pretty nice. Even so, it’s another hallmark of McCollum’s player development. “I think when you speak from a positive tone, I think kids get a lot of confidence in what they should do. It naturally eliminates what they shouldn’t do. I’ve found that’s the best way to get kids to play without fear and with confidence.” It sure showed with Witthus this season, and few would be surprised to see it play out again this coming year with a different player.
If you’re looking to copy what Northwest does, this next sentence may scare you a little bit: they’re one of the slower teams out there. I calculated Northwest at just 64.9 possessions per game this season and was surprised to see it that high; their final three games of the season went for 57, 62, and 54 possessions. By no means are they threatening to turn into Whitman anytime soon. And yet: slow, patient basketball clearly works:
Here’s McCollum, uninterrupted, on why ball screens are what he does. “Our whole offense is ball screens, for the most part. It’s kind of a motion ball-screen offense. It’s not predetermined, guys can essentially do whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want. The only time we’ll run in patterns is to control tempo every once in a while or to break a defense down to create some space. Outside of that, we run down into a ball screen, doesn’t matter where. We do a variety of different things. Once we pass that, we’ll slow into a ball-screen motion.” Slow and steady wins the race:
It pleases McCollum to stand out in any way possible from the sea of similar offenses. “People see these objective continuity offenses and think “this is it.” I’ve just never been a big fan,” he says. He credits his inspiration directly to the Moe family, specifically Doug and David: “Doug Moe, who was the head coach of the Spurs and Nuggets, he ran a freelance pass, cut, and move offense. I worked for his son (David Moe) at Emporia State and he was completely anti-patterns. When I played in college, we were more patterned and had a lot of success with it, then he opened my eyes to not liking those patterns.” McCollum’s message to young, aspiring coaches: don’t be like everyone else.
Considering just how popular the continuity ball screen is, it could be tempting to disagree with McCollum. However, when his pattern-free system creates looks like this:
For four straight seasons (and then some), he becomes a seriously inspirational case for many. It’s worth remembering his reasoning for why he runs this offense in the first place: the ball screen, as a play type, may be the most difficult to defend. “You can do them so many different ways,” notes McCollum. Per McCollum, running a true motion offense with lots of cuts and down screens “requires a lot of practice work.” With ball screens: “you can be really good at them and work on them 25% of your practice.” Must be nice. I find it a little crazy that plays as good as these don’t require all that much practice time, but that’s basketball.
It would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the other half of the Northwest dynasty: the defense. McCollum is a defense-first coach, after all, and it’s worth remembering the Bearcats have held opponents to 0.951 and 0.959 PPP the last two seasons. (Both of those would rank in the top 30 this year in KenPom.) Yet it’s the offense that destroys all oncomers. “I’ve found that if you’re great offensively, it sets the tone for your defense,” says McCollum. Being historically efficient can set the tone for an undefeated season, too. Just make sure you color outside the lines and try something different.