Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 6: Attacking a Zone

Charleston – the one in West Virginia – is busting defenses with ease

I’ve always known something unusual and remarkable was happening in the state of West Virginia. No, I’ve never visited, but it’s always been fascinating, as it seems like an in-between state of America. It’s not truly Southern by geography; it’s not really Midwestern by populace; it’s obviously not an East Coast state. Its largest university plays in the Big 12, a largely Great Plains/Southwest-based league. For me, an outsider, it feels like a state I know everything and nothing about all at once. Obviously, I grew even more fascinated when the state of West Virginia produced three of the 11 best basketball offenses in my ranking earlier this summer.

One of those resides in Charleston (not that Charleston), West Virginia.

Of West Virginia’s incredible basketball offenses, only one is coached (to my knowledge) by a Tennessean. Dwaine Osborne, head coach of the Golden Eagles for six seasons, is a Dayton, TN native that went to college in Florida, was a head coach in Texas, and is now on his second stint as the head coach of a West Virginia university. (He was Glenville State’s head coach in the late 2000s.) Osborne and Charleston are part of a particularly powerful offensive conference: the Mountain East Conference. On Synergy’s database, 1,386 teams registered at least 1,000 possessions in 2018-19. The MEC alone is responsible for five of the 85 best offenses in America.

It’s a very offensive-driven league,” says Osborne. He’d know, as this is his second stint in the MEC after his time at Glenville State. The flip side of this is saying that the defenses must not be very good, but Osborne told me it’s simply that the conference is loaded with quality offensive coaches. Charleston had to win games 88-87 (West Liberty), 86-81 (Notre Dame College), and 99-81 (Glenville State) this past season. They lost games by scores of 99-96 (Fairmont State), 101-93 (Shepherd), and 106-100 (Concord). Fun fact: all six of those games combined for zero overtimes. When you need to score every possession, you’ve got to be great at everything. Charleston, for years, has been particularly excellent at shredding zones:

This year’s offense as a whole ranked in the 98th-percentile of college basketball, with the Golden Eagles’ zone offense ranking 85th. That may not sound elite, but it’s pretty darn good considering so little of Charleston’s game was built upon outside shooting. The Golden Eagles took barely a third of their field goal attempts from three (their attempt rate would’ve ranked 302nd in D-1), making 36.4% of them. “The natural tendency when you say ‘man, they are really good and efficient offensively,’ you’d think they shoot the ball really well. We weren’t a great shooting team this year,” says Osborne. “We didn’t shoot it great, so most people say “let’s pack in a zone.””

Opponents did. Over 25% of Charleston’s offensive possessions were against zone defenses, the most in the Mountain East Conference and more than 328 of the 353 D-1 teams. However, there’s a problem of doing this to a team like Charleston: they were absolutely lethal at the rim.

49.3% of Charleston’s attempts on the season came within four feet of the rim, where they made 65.7% of their shots. This isn’t a coincidence. “I think if you study the numbers, so to speak, as it relates to points per possessions and what shots typically grade out the best, the three highest-graded shots are free throw attempts, layups/dunks, and threes,” says Osborne. “That’s where we really try to focus our shot attempts from.” Obviously, it worked:

In a year where Charleston couldn’t really be relied on to do much from the perimeter, they still slashed and penetrated and dominated inside the three-point line. It aided the Golden Eagles in numerous ways, including racking up 23.7 free throw attempts per game. “Shot selection is a huge part of what we do. We have really unselfish dudes, and it makes it a little easier for them to buy in,” Osborne notes. If you have guys that can be dominant inside, it’s pretty hard to defend:

That’s how you still manage to win 20 games after a year in which you lose six seniors from an 18-win team. Being able to adjust your program’s offensive system to new players with new talents helps. Osborne’s one of the most open, adjustable coaches I’ve talked to, partially because he’s willing to hear advice from anyone he talks to. “If a lady at the Rite Aid has a good idea, I’ll listen to her,” says Osborne. While I couldn’t find out for certain, I’m choosing to believe that Mrs. Rite Aid has designs in her head like this:

From a historical perspective, Osborne is trying to build Charleston back up to what it was during the days of Ajamu Gaines. Gaines was the 2000 D-II Player of the Year for a Charleston team that won 54 games in two seasons and dominated the then-West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Since then, Charleston has come close to representing their turn-of-the-millennium success, but it’s been difficult to sustain. Osborne believes the path towards getting there consistently again is building the program around sustained pressure: “We’re just trying to keep pressure on the defense and be prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they arrive.” Charleston can do this in several ways offensively, whether it’s from outside:

Or inside:

I think when that’s typically said, the thought someone has is that we try to play as fast as possible. There’s times we want to do that, but there’s times where that pressure is different than pace,” says Osborne. He wants to build a flexible program that can beat you in any way imaginable, and it feels like he’s closer than ever. Next year’s Charleston team returns five members of its seven-man rotation, with new players joining the fold. Osborne told me he feels like it’s his most-experienced team to date, and he’s hoping for something special to come to town. He already has a quality offense that’s rolling over most opponents:

It’s now all about sustaining that against every opponent.

To close, Osborne noted the difficulty of recruiting, even at a D-2, in a state where most players have grandiose dreams. “At Charleston, most people dream of going to West Virginia or Marshall or Kentucky or Pittsburgh, etc. Most people don’t dream of going to various D-2s, D-3s, JUCOs,” he notes. However, this almost allows him more flexibility in selecting the players that are the best fit for his program. “We get the best players we can get and build a system around those players. If that means we run the same system each year, so be it, but if not, that’s fine, too.” It’s that sort of malleability that’s allowed Charleston to become a dominant offense against both man and zone. As someone simply rooting for a fellow Tennessean to succeed, it would be nice to see this program become dominant on both a regional and national scale.

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