Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 4: ATOs and OOB Plays

Jim Crutchfield’s new act at Nova Southeastern looks awfully familiar

Just four weeks ago, I wrote this about one of my favorite offenses out there, West Liberty’s. It had a world-renowned architect that built the product you see today:

[Jim] Crutchfield took over a team that hadn’t won 20+ games in a season in 47 years. He did it in his very first season. Then he did it again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. For 13 seasons, Crutchfield took West Liberty to heights they’d never, ever seen before. A 359-61 record, four Division II Final Four appearances, a national runner-up outing in 2014, and more – how could you possibly be expected to top that?

I knew I’d be writing about Crutchfield and his new team, Nova Southeastern, a month later. Crutchfield is the designer and the main founder of the West Liberty offense, but it’s Nova Southeastern’s now. What do we call it, exactly? Controlled Fun and Gun? The Spread Offense? Daytona 500? Whatever you’d like to call it is fine; Crutchfield isn’t much for talking about it. That’s not a criticism; he simply sees the offense as so simple that he doesn’t feel he has much to offer in an interview. Regardless of its simplicity, anyone can agree that a play like this is fun:

Basically, if you know anything about the career of Crutchfield, nothing of what you’re about to read will be of any surprise. Nova Southeastern averaged 80.73 possessions per game this season, which would’ve been the fastest pace in D-1. Considering Crutchfield’s West Liberty teams regularly led Division II in scoring each season, it comes as no shock that he’s producing similar results in Florida these days. You could simply copy and paste plays like this:

And this:

To an article about Crutchfield at West Liberty from 2014. Crutchfield is so well-known, so beloved for his innovations in the coaching community, that Erik Spoelstra – yes, that Erik Spoelstra – spent 5.5 hours at Nova Southeastern in May learning from Crutchfield. That’s correct: an NBA coach with two titles to his name went to a Division II coach to learn from him. You know about Crutchfield, his desire to play fast, and his desire to press on both ends of the court. (Notably, his West Liberty successor, Ben Howlett, has largely kept the same offensive and defensive philosophies, with a few tweaks.) But do you know about his half-court offense?

If you read my piece on West Liberty’s perimeter actions, you’re about to see its core inspiration. Crutchfield’s offense is a five-out, mostly positionless motion offense, with no true post players and a rotation where every single player made at least seven threes this season. The starting lineup, or at least the most common one, went 6’1″/6’1″/6’4″/6’5″/6’6″. What we’re working with here is what you might like to call “undersized.” And yet, it works beautifully more often than not:

Plus, here’s the fun part about recruiting “undersized” guys: all of them are agile and fast.

In half-court, Nova Southeastern was just as relentless at attacking the paint as they were in transition. Nearly 41% of their half-court shots were layups, dunks, or tips. When they couldn’t find the shot they desired in the paint, they’d simply kick it out to one of their many shooters. 38.4% of all half-court attempts were from three, and Nova Southeastern hit 40.5% of their three-pointers overall on the year:

It was a terrific offense if you’re the one running it. It’s a terrible offense if you’re the coach who has to figure out how to stop it. Also, we’ve somehow gotten this far without discussing the remarkable leap for the Nova Southeastern program. The Sharks, prior to Crutchfield’s arrival for the 2017-18 season, had won more than 20 games just once – in 1992. They merely won 29 games running this system this year, and considering the fertile recruiting grounds of Florida, Crutchfield seems closer than ever to achieving the ultimate dream for a coach at the Division II level: a national title.

While the system itself is unique and unusual, Crutchfield also manages to create new wrinkles and innovations in the half-court. A team needs to be great at both, and Crutchfield clearly understands this. Look at this hilariously easy design for his 6’6″ “center”:

And this BLOB design, which turns from a traditional perimeter pick-and-roll to a slip in minimal time:

Crutchfield is a master at getting easy baskets off of these plays. In general, he’s great at any sort of in-game designs or ideas. Nova Southeastern ranked in the 94th, 95th, and 98th-percentiles for BLOBs, SLOBs, and ATOs in 2018-19. As far as I know, they were one of just three teams on the Synergy database this season to rank in the 94th-percentile or higher in all three categories. Even when you’ve forced Nova Southeastern to relatively slow their game down, they still strike and strike hard:

And even when it seems you’ve forced them into a literal corner, the players still have the confidence to take and make the shots they want:

Because of all of the off-ball movement and tight cuts, it’s hard to keep pace with a Crutchfield offense. This isn’t really a design as much as it is Crutchfield’s basic motion offense with a handoff to get it rolling, but it’s something your team can easily employ:

Before we wrap this one up, two more fun and quick designs. Here’s another lob play, essentially the same design from earlier:

And one just seconds later, that’s even more laughable:

Crutchfield thrives on simplicity, and I suspect it’s why he doesn’t do many interviews. The writer Michael Weinreb gathered as such when he wrote about West Liberty, and Crutchfield, in 2013: “People often ask Jim Crutchfield to describe his system, and he has nothing to show them. He does not possess any notes, he has never put anything on video, and the only time he spoke at a coaching clinic, it was because he was trying to angle for an exhibition against a nearby Division I team (a game that has yet to be scheduled, and may never be scheduled).

Every time I thought about Nova Southeastern and Crutchfield when I was struggling to figure out how to write this, I kept returning to a quote from Eric Bridgeland at Whitman. Whitman somehow plays faster and more hellacious on both sides of the ball than Nova Southeastern does, and I’d guess their style of play would make Crutchfield proud. Bridgeland has this to say about his coaching compatriots: “I think coaches are control freaks. I’m a coach, so I can say that.” I’m not a coach, but I think Bridgeland basically nailed Crutchfield’s philosophy.

In Weinreb’s story, he gives a quote from Chris Morrow, who, at 6’6″, was West Liberty’s “center” in 2013. Morrow says the following: “I’ve never had a coach who gives his players so much freedom.” Coaches that trust their players allow their players to trust each other, which can build the team into a greater whole. Having a simple, delightfully fun offense with plenty of creativity and off-ball motion is the icing on the cake.

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