Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 7: All of Our Friends

The other Penn State – Behrend, to be exact – is home to a Beilein disciple’s excellent offense

If you follow along with Penn State basketball at all, you probably know it’s been a program of unfulfilled promise. Under Pat Chambers, a fairly respected coach, Penn State has come incredibly close to reaching the NCAA Tournament…and then just doesn’t. In back-to-back seasons, the Nittany Lions finished 19th (!) and 43rd in KenPom; neither team made the NCAAs. This is at least partially due to some immensely poor late-game luck, as they went 4-10 in games decided by six points or less last season. Swing three of those, and who knows. Anyway, the point of the Penn State basketball brand largely being one you don’t think much about in March holds true.

Let me point you to another Penn State. This one is in Erie, Pennsylvania. They’ve made the Division III NCAA Tournament four times this decade. Their graduating class just won 86 games in four years. They make ten threes per game. They were one of the ten most efficient offenses in all of college basketball, per Synergy. This is Penn State-Behrend basketball:

The other Penn State Lions are mighty successful. They won the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference this past season, their sixth-such title under head coach Dave Niland. Niland is entering his 25th season as the Lions’ head coach, a tenure that’s resulted in 473 wins and zero sub-.500 seasons. It’s almost a shame that this series is hyper-focused on offense, because Niland’s defenses are regularly among the best in D-III. However, his recent offenses have taken a leap towards being some of the most efficient you can find:

If you ask Niland about it, though, he’s characteristically very humble. “We had five seniors, and they played a lot of games. Most of them had started since their freshman year. That helped a ton,” Niland told me over the phone. It’s true: Behrend ran out an all-senior starting lineup for the entire season, which is an increasing rarity in college basketball. It obviously worked to their advantage, as the Lions went 23-5 and won their most games since 2013-14. When you have a starting lineup where every member made at least 18 threes, you are going to be very, very hard to stop:

One very notable thing to me about the Behrend offense is how tight its shot selection was. An astounding 88.4% of the Lions’ field goal attempts were layups, dunks, or threes, which is the second-highest rate (behind Northwest Missouri) that I’ve covered this offseason. “I’m very lucky to have very terrific young coaches that are really into analytics,” says Niland. “We have smart guys that understand the value of a shot.” Niland isn’t just talking about his coaches, but also his players. The Behrend players clearly understood what the most valuable shots were for them, along with knowing how to get to the rim despite being a little undersized:

This is how you continuously win tons of games at a school a lot of people don’t know much about. Niland gives a ton of credit to a certain famous coach that just took his own personal leap: John Beilein. Niland played for and coached with Beilein at LeMoyne College and Canisius, and what he runs is fairly similar to Beilein’s own offense that we’ve seen be so devastating at West Virginia and Michigan. “The biggest thing I took from my time with Coach John Beilein is that you play to your players’ strengths and look for things they do well,” says Niland. It’s clear that Niland knew just how easily his players could devastate an opponent from deep:

It makes it even more impressive when you’re at Behrend’s level of Division III. D-III teams largely don’t give out scholarships, if at all, and Behrend is no different. “Typically at D-III, you can find a guy who’s challenged athletically or isn’t long enough, but his skill set is at a D-II or even D-I level,” says Niland. “We find guys that can shoot and are really skilled, but are smaller.” Considering that Behrend’s lineup featured no player taller than 6’6″ and two sub-5’11” players yet still scored at will, he’s clearly doing a good job of scouting.

Niland brings a similar philosophy to his motion offense as other coaches do in this series: they either want an early or late shot. “Early on, the defense is on their heels, right? Later in the clock, you’ve moved the ball around a little bit and there’s more of a chance the defense might fall apart.” Statistically, this was more true of Behrend than any other team I covered this offseason. The Lions took 11% of their shots in the final four seconds of the shot clock, per Synergy; that’s more than all but three Division I teams, soundly defeating slow-ball heroes Virginia and edging out Saint Mary’s. However, this is not entirely intentional, as Niland told me “I never talk about pace.” Still, it’s nice to see a team take their time and look for their shot:

Even though Behrend did speed it up on occasion:

When you see a team as bent on half-court offense as Behrend is, it’s sort of a look into an old-school basketball that doesn’t exist as widely as it used to. “We want to run our offense fast, but we don’t necessarily want to be in a situation where we take bad shots and don’t get back fast enough,” says Niland. He refuses to give up any transition baskets if it’s at all possible, similar to Pryor Orser at Colorado Mines. A half-court-oriented offense is what his program needs, simply because these aren’t going to be the most athletic players in the world.

I think a coach like Dave Niland is sort of a secret hero. He’s an incredibly humble, smart coach that clearly loves his program and his players, and he knows exactly what fits his program in terms of player personnel. He knows what works. “Year-to-year, our offense changes a little bit. The framework is mostly the same, but we change it based on what we think our players’ strengths are,” notes Niland. This type of mentality is needed in more coaches – one that’s flexible, yet has a base to build on; one that knows how to elevate his program, but doesn’t forget what got him there. Basketball could use more Dave Nilands.

Oh, and before I forget, his son is a really good basketball player.

If you’re ever in Erie, Pennsylvania, go check out the Penn State-Behrend Lions. You’ll see a very well-coached team with a ton of quality motion on offense and smart defense. It’s hard to be disappointed by that proposition.

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