TitleTown, USA is home to Valdosta State’s quick-strike offense
In the summer of 2008, ESPN ran a program called TitleTown USA for a month or so. I can’t imagine many people remember this, but somehow, I do. ESPN, and SportsCenter, would go to various American cities, searching for a place they could bestow the much-honored title of TitleTown, USA onto. You had some fairly well-known finalists: Boston, Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, etc. Down the list, you had a place that few readers would be easily able to spot on a map: Valdosta, Georgia. They held an online poll to select the winner, and in a true pre-Twitter polls era, it came down to word-of-mouth votes and whoever had the most energy to win the, uh, award.
You know how this ends: Valdosta, Georgia, was selected as ESPN’s TitleTown, USA by the populace. If you Google this now, you’ll see countless articles decrying it as a bad choice, that they don’t play Division 1 sports, that high school football isn’t that important, etc. 11 years later, long after anyone outside of Valdosta has bothered to care about this, I’d like to defend the choice. Why? Because Valdosta State’s basketball team is on this list and there’s very few offenses in America that are more fun to watch:
Mike Helfer, the architect of Valdosta State basketball for the last 14 seasons, orchestrates something delightful in Southeast Georgia. The Blazers have won 20+ games in seven of those seasons, including the program’s first Division II Elite Eight run in 2010. After a 76-18 record over the last three years, including a 53-9 record in conference play, I thought it might be a good time to pick his brain. After all, you don’t get looks like this that often in college basketball:
Helfer owns seven of the Blazers’ 15 20+ win seasons, owns the program’s single-season scoring record (92.8 PPG in 2017-18), and, in general, offers one of the most consistent styles of basketball out there right now. He’s even got his own page on the team site titled Blazer Records Broken Under Mike Helfer. For Helfer, it’s all about starting fast and ending fast: “We want to put pressure on you every possession and it starts with transitioning the ball quickly.” Helfer’s last three teams have all topped at least 73.8 possessions per game, which would’ve made them one of the 20 fastest teams in Division I basketball in each season. Speedy looks create speedy shots:
When I first came upon Valdosta State this past season, one thing jumped out to me, as it would anyone: their 39.4% hit rate from three, which ranked in the top 60 of over 1,300 college basketball teams in America. They broke the school record for three-pointers last year with 368, but 45.4% of their shots were from three. That may have been a little much for Helfer, so his team dialed it back ever so slightly this year: 40.2% of all shots from three. The hit rate was almost the exact same: 39.4% this season, 39.8% last. When you get shots this good, it’s not a surprise:
Also not a surprise: Helfer believing in a system of keeping things simple. “We believe in sharing the ball to the open guy. It makes sense. If you want open shots, then look for the open man,” he says. Valdosta State posted a 56.1% Assist Rate this year, well above the national average of 51.9%. When you continuously look for the open man, you get good opportunities to take advantage of.
Helfer’s last three years, aside from overall record, are proof that such a simple system works. From 2016-17 onward, he’s posted 1.171, 1.205, and 1.215 PPP offensively. While Helfer would like to see those results turn into D-II NCAA Tournament wins, you’d be excused for thinking he’s knocking on the doorstep of something special.
In terms of efficiency, though, it’s actually Valdosta’s transition offense that has to catch up to its half-court prowess. The Blazers’ half-court O ranked in the 99th-percentile of all college basketball teams last season, per Synergy. “In the half-court, we believe in a system where players can make plays and create,” says Helfer. “Our motto is ‘one more’, and that refers to making one more pass whenever possible.” You can see this on a quality swing-around:
However, you can also see this on plays heading to the rim:
“It’s important that our one more pass motto is ‘blind,’ in that we never consider who is catching the next pass,” notes Helfer. It’s more important how the ball gets there than who is there to get it. “We trust everyone on our team to make the right decision, such as a non-shooter driving it instead of shooting it.” A good statement, obviously, but here’s a problem: Valdosta State has a lot of good shooters, including one of the very best in college hoops.
Above, you see Beau Justice, who started out at West Liberty before transferring to play for Helfer. Justice started all 94 games he played at Valdosta, shooting 40% or better from three all three seasons. Just seven players in Division 1 since 1993 managed to do what Justice did across three years for the Blazers: score 1700+ points in 100 or fewer games and hit 250+ threes. (A couple names you may know that are on that list: R.J. Hunter and Markus Howard.) Having a player like Justice on your team certainly opens up the floor for everyone else, but having a guy that does things like this is a luxury:
Justice wasn’t the only great shooter, however. Three of the Blazers’ starters made 42.7% or more of their threes last year, and seven members of the eight-man rotation attempted at least one three per game. Chief among them was Winston Morgan (101 of 228, 44.3%):
And Clay Guillozet (40 of 108, 37%):
This helps with scouting which players you should probably cover on the perimeter, but it doesn’t help if the entire team can shoot from deep. “It’s a fine line between taking shots and passing up shots,” says Helfer. “Our team understands that our best shooters will rarely get wide open shots and will have to make shots that are contested to a certain degree. [To prepare for this,] we do many shooting drills in practice live and announce the results.” Much like the Kelly Graves Red Light/Green Light game from the last installment, “this allows for players to understand who our best shooters are on a daily basis,” per Helfer. Practice makes perfect, and Helfer wants shots like this to be perfect:
However, a lot of these threes and these quality attempts don’t happen without quality offensive rebounds. Helfer believes in crashing the boards like there’s no tomorrow. “We believe in an unprecedented effort on the offensive glass to create more scoring opportunities for our team,” he notes. This is backed up by the data: Valdosta State’s last three OREB% seasons came in at 36.9%, 31.9%, and 34.2%. All would’ve ranked in the top 60 of Division I teams last season, with the bookends ranking sixth and 24th.
“Selective offensive rebounding is not acceptable,” says Helfer. “This means you can’t go to the offensive glass when you only believe that the shooter is going to miss. This mentality must be emphasized every day, every drill, every time for your team to be successful.” When you crash the boards, you get good looks.
In retrospect, Valdosta was a pretty solid pick for TitleTown, USA. Valdosta, as a city, owns 35 state high school football championships. Valdosta State has won four national championships in football, as well as a pair of Division II tennis championships. While Valdosta State’s basketball program hasn’t passed the Elite Eight just yet, they’ve won 76 games in three years and have made three straight Division II NCAA Tournaments. Making it in the first place is the key; wins will come. Those tournaments have all ended in single-digit first-round losses, but an offense like this breeds success, and the pattern of success is clear. Having an efficient and fun and fast offense that wins games…well, you simply wonder why more people haven’t found out about it yet.