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

Looking for the best shooters in America? Try St. Joseph’s College in Maine

College basketball can present itself to be a pretty strange sport to the new fan. The best Division I basketball programs are in secondary cities in North Carolina and Kentucky; the best defense in America is found in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you want to see some of the best offenses play, you travel to Spokane, Philadelphia, and Nashville to watch three private schools, not the more well-known state schools. It’s a strange sport with a national footprint. The message: the best of the best aren’t found where you’d normally expect.

In 2018-19, that theory is how you end up with an offense shooting 53.2% from the field and posting a 62.7% eFG% – as far as I’ve found, the best eFG% in college basketball history. It’s an offense that scored 93 points per game just three years after scoring 62 per game. They shot 43% from three, the best rate by any team in America at any level of the NCAA. (College of the Ozarks’ 43.5% hit rate was the best in NAIA and the best in all of college basketball.) Oh, and by the way, this is a sub-3,000 student private school in a town of 10,000 in Maine. Hello, Saint Joseph’s:

The Monks of St. Joseph’s College were, bar none, the best-shooting team in basketball. It was a long time coming. Head Coach Rob Sanicola has been with the Monks since 1995, when he began playing basketball for the team. He’s one of three players in school history to mess around and drop a triple-double. He took over the head coaching gig in 2003 – at age 26! – and has merely won 261 games in his 16 seasons since. The road hasn’t been easy for the Monks, as they’ve won the GNAC just twice in Sanicola’s tenure. However, think about how difficult it is to recruit in Division III in the first place…and then factor in Maine not exactly being a hotbed for high-end basketball talent.

Despite all that, Sanicola has cobbled together a roster heavy on underrated Northeastern talent, along with players from Florida and Japan. (Yes, Japan.) You have to get creative at places like SJC, and it’s worked out beautifully on offense:

I wasn’t able to get an interview scheduled with Sanicola, but in an email, he credited former player Noah LaRoche for helping elevate the Monks to something entirely different. LaRoche, a 2006 St. Joseph’s graduate, is a now world-renowned shooting coach. He’s worked with Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo, and more. In the last couple of years, Sanicola asked LaRoche to help his former team out. The results have been better than anyone could’ve imagined:

The stat I posted above is no joke: St. Joseph’s is scoring 31 more points per game than they were in 2015-16. This is despite adding just ten additional possessions per game. That’s an insane step forward for a program that was in the dumps at the time. Imagine your team going from those levels of desperation of offense to regularly getting looks like these:

Sanicola’s decision to speed things up has paid off handsomely. The switch occurred after last year, when Saint Joseph’s went 16-10 and 11-15 in conference but only averaged 73.2 points per game. It wasn’t terrible, obviously, but no coach loves the idea of having an eight-man rotation with three decent outside shooters. On the fly, Sanicola retooled for something impressive. This year, the Monks went 19-8, which is nice, but all eight members of the rotation made at least nine threes. Six of them shot 40% or better from three. When you push it down the floor quickly, you get better looks:

Inside the arc, things got way better. A team that traditionally struggled to score was suddenly blessed with a massive spacing advantage, and the Monks converted 65% of their attempts at the rim. When everyone on the floor can shoot, no one is allowed to pack themselves into the paint, which leads to buckets like this:

And opportunities like this:

The offensive turnaround at St. Joseph’s should be a massive inspiration to struggling coaches reading this. It wasn’t like the Monks made a wholesale change to the roster; five of the members of the 2017-18 rotation returned, though Jae Johns was hurt early in the 2018-19 season. In fact, Sanicola’s ability to be humble and bring in an outside expert, even if they are a former Monk, is pretty admirable. A lot of coaches struggle to admit their need for outside help; as one coach earlier in this series said, “a lot of us are control freaks.”

I noticed more on-and-off-ball movement from St. Joseph’s this past season, but it wasn’t night-and-day different. It was just a coach understanding his players’ strengths and working to erase their weaknesses in the offseason. To accomplish that anywhere is immense; to accomplish that at a Division III school in Maine is even more impressive. Rob Sanicola now has the best-shooting offense to show off to onlookers, and his former player Noah LaRoche gets to add yet another bullet point to his resume. That’s a win-win.

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