Bellarmine basketball: the other Louisville powerhouse
If you like success stories, I’d like to direct your attention to one of the most remarkable ones I know of. It takes place in Louisville, Kentucky, one of our nation’s greatest cities. (Yes, I’m serious.) Here, we start with a program that experiences mild here-and-there success in the 20th century. Around once a decade, they’ll pop out and win 20+ games, but they don’t really register much nationally. Generally, it’s a team that’s always fine and rarely bad, but never that notable. In the three years before The Turning Point, this program will go 28-54 and miss their own conference tournament each season. Then, the Turning Point: this program hires a local assistant with a track record of winning at all levels.
It takes the assistant a few years to get the ball rolling, but when he does, the wins come quickly. By year four, he sets a program record for wins in a single season with 26. In year six, he simply goes out and wins the Division II National Championship. After a 43-40 start, he goes 301-61 over an 11-year span. A program that’s never been truly nationally relevant is suddenly a three-time Final Four participant and a one-time national champion. This is the story of Bellarmine University, head coach Scott Davenport, and an impressively selfless emphasis on quality passes:
Bellarmine came in as the 12th-most efficient offense across 1,400+ college basketball teams by my calculation. By Synergy’s numbers, they were third overall. The 2018-19 season marked Bellarmine’s sixth straight in the 95th-percentile of higher of national offensive efficiency. When you get opportunities like this for a decade straight, it isn’t all that difficult to see why:
Davenport relentlessly preaches selflessness in his program, a concept that can be borne out through data. Bellarmine’s team this year posted a 62.3% Assist Rate (assists divided by made field goals), which would’ve been a top-five rate in Division I. All those quality passes allowed Bellarmine to make 71.2% of its attempts at the rim. As Davenport told me, that’s an outlier for one particular reason: “we’re not doing it with a lot of dunks.” Per Synergy, Bellarmine did have a few dunks, but only 26; their Dunk Share (yes, a real stat) of 2.6% of all two-point attempts would’ve ranked 301st in Division I. No team at 3% or lower in Division I finished with a FG% at the rim better than Richmond’s 67.8%, and only one other team topped 65%.
Most interestingly, Davenport rarely credits a specific set or concept for his team’s success. To him, there are four building blocks of his perfect offense: “player movement, ball movement, attacking inside-out, and ball reversals.” Off-ball player movement is a specialty of Bellarmine’s offense; watch how quickly they cut and move and screen and suddenly there’s a wide-open three in the corner:
“The end result is avoiding challenging shots to take open shots,” says Davenport. Certainly seems simple enough. Obviously, instilling that in your team takes a lot of hard work over the course of several years, and Davenport is more than happy to start young. At the time I talked to him in late July, Bellarmine was about to host a camp of 265 7-to-13-year-olds. Davenport, ever the teacher, provides homework for these campers: “It’s 2019, they all know how to use YouTube. I will have them watch San Antonio Spurs: The Beautiful Game. It’s seven minutes long, and it’s all their passing and unselfish plays.” It will not surprise you one bit to hear Davenport’s main 2010s-era influence is Gregg Popovich.
Bellarmine passes the ball like those prime Spurs teams do, and they can do it in a variety of ways. Davenport doesn’t name specific sets, but most of what Bellarmine is running is based out of a motion offense where it seems like nobody ever stops moving. Check out this possession, using five passes in nine seconds, a ball reversal, and inside-out movement to get Adam Eberhard an easy layup that breaks a second-half tie versus Drury:
Or this possession later on, with seven passes in 14 seconds, a ton of off-ball movement, a reversal, and yet another Eberhard cut to the basket:
Davenport believes these plays don’t happen without tons of practice, repetition, and – yes, here’s that word again – fundamentals. “You teach them to be basketball players, you don’t teach them plays. We run a lot of sets, but you teach them to play basketball first,” says Davenport. “It’s a very chaotic game. You must learn to be a basketball player, not a play-running robot.” No comment on how robotically efficient his players are, of course. Throughout the season, Bellarmine tore opponents to shreds in the paint off of their cuts, whether it was this look-alike Spurs play:
Someone being in the right place at the right time:
Or using the vertical space above them to their advantage via a screen in the paint to the rim:
Davenport credits a book titled The Open Man, from 1970, for most of his basketball inspiration. “Dave DeBusschere wrote a book, and I was in junior high school and had to do a book report. It essentially talked about passing, but it was written like a diary. And I think that, at 13, being nothing but a basketball junkie and keeping stats off the radio and off of TV, it just ingrained in my mind the beautiful game of passing the ball.” This background story, 45 years later, leads us to one of the reasons you may know the name Bellarmine: they were featured in the New York Times as part of a 2015 series titled Not The Knicks. “I thought it was a gag within the department,” says Davenport. “There’s no way the New York Times is calling Bellarmine basketball!” Yet he was proven wrong: “This writer flew to Louisville and spent a day with our program. On a Friday in January on the front of the Sports page in the New York Times, there’s an article on Bellarmine basketball.” Even now, you can tell that Davenport is tickled pink at the attention his program has drawn for its success.
For six of the last eight seasons, Bellarmine has led Division II in field goal percentage. You don’t need me to tell you why. Davenport can help: “The game has evolved, but the highest-percentage shots are still the same – they’re at the rim. If you get into a situation where you literally have five people on the perimeter, you have no spacing at all.” While nearly every Bellarmine player to hit the floor last year made at least one three, Davenport clearly understands the importance of the inside-out game. In a clear nod to Belmont’s 4-in-1-out system, Bellarmine ran more post-ups than all but ten teams in Division II in 2018-19. Among the teams that ran them at least ten times a game, they were the most efficient team in D-2:
Davenport is quick to limit the use of “post players” when referring to his offense, though. “We teach post skills to everybody, not just big guys,” he says. “We play to our strengths and attack others’ weaknesses. You have to be a complete player today.” It reminds me a lot of what Ben Howlett at West Liberty said a few weeks back; basically, recruiting guys that can’t at least be competent at every aspect of the game is a fool’s errand. That’s why it’s nice to have guys that can hit threes:
And make the right cut off of a screen for two:
When I asked what he wants from his team next season, Davenport was quick to say he wants every player on his team to at least have some semblance of a post presence. “The numbers when we’re inside-out are just unreal,” he notes. “When I say post presence, that’s getting it in there on a pass, off the dribble, or an offensive rebound.” To his credit, the data backs it up. Bellarmine’s goal is to get the ball in the paint as much as possible, because that’s where the points are. There’s a ton of different ways to do it, but their style works for them, and we’re lucky to see it unfold:
I mean, even the simpler plays are as fun as they come. This is posted above, but let’s revisit this variant of a backdoor cut that I’ve seen Belmont run several times:
Beautiful! Basketball at its finest, honestly.
Davenport knows he’s unusual. He has to be, because the situation Bellarmine is in isn’t a normal one. They share a town with the University of Louisville; very few Division II schools can say that they share a city or even a county with a multi-time Division I national championship basketball team. Yet it’s clearly a mutualistic relationship: Davenport mentioned that his players frequently scrimmage those of Louisville’s to get better, and Louisville themselves scheduled Bellarmine for their home opener exhibition last season.
Thinking back on his own time at Louisville, Davenport remembers it fondly, then laughs about what his mentors would think of him. “In all honesty, if Coach Crum and Coach Pitino came to our practice, they wouldn’t say a word to me to my face. They would get in their car and laugh, because of the emphasis on fundamentals day in and day out, possession after possession.” They may laugh, but Bellarmine’s opponents certainly aren’t. Given the frequency and the quality of Bellarmine’s passes, screens, and cuts to the rim, they’re spinning around, dizzy, unable to truly grasp what just happened. Sounds like good fundamentals to me.