Barton basketball: more than 45 seconds of memories, with a true Bulldog mentality on the boards
Unless you pay some amount of attention to Division II basketball, your extent of Barton College basketball likely extends to one game: the 2007 Division II championship. In this game, Barton played Winona State. It was a back-and-forth game between the Bulldogs and the undefeated Warriors, but with 45 seconds left, Winona State took a 74-67 lead. What happened next is a moment in history:
It’s been described by some as the greatest comeback in college basketball history, and considering the context of it – a national championship game, featuring a heavily-favored undefeated team holding a seemingly insurmountable lead late – it’s a pretty believable statement. However, head coach Ron Lievense would like for you to know that Barton Bulldogs basketball is more than that one moment in history. In fact, Barton kept winning lots of games after that, with six 20+ wins seasons in the last 11 years. It’s built open an offense that unleashes a torrent of shots on their opponents:
And owns the boards unlike nearly any other program in America:
Of the teams I covered back in April among my 20 most-efficient offenses, Barton had the second-highest Shot Volume, just behind West Liberty. They also tied West Liberty for the highest offensive rebound percentage among these 20. The Bulldogs recovered 37.4% of possible rebounds on offense, a rate that would’ve ranked fourth in D-I (the same as Cincinnati). It’s been that way for a long, long time: 33.6% in 2016-17, 34.9% in 2015-16, 37.7% in 2014-15, etc. That’s simply the backbone this program is built on.
Above is Bobby Stenborg, a relatively normal 6’5″ forward that demolished the offensive boards. Stenborg’s overall 6.2 rebounds per game might not jump off the map, but when you consider that nearly 2.8 of those were on offense, you’ll take notice. He was just one of just 18 players in D-II at 6’5″ or shorter to average 2.75 or more offensive rebounds per game, a pretty impressive achievement. That’s pretty good! Here’s something else that’s pretty good: Barton had two other starters average two or more offensive rebounds per game, making them one of a slight few D-II teams to do so.
“Two-thirds of our practices are devoted to defense and rebounding,” Lievense was quoted as saying last October. It shows up in the stats, unsurprisingly. Barton posted a +5.4 rebound margin this year (#32 in D-II), grabbed 13.1 offensive rebounds per game (#28), and got 258 points from putbacks this season, per Synergy (#14). They own the boards, and it’s the quickest way to getting more points offensively. John Gasaway has been writing about the idea of shot volume for a long time, and Barton is perhaps the D-II Duke: dominant on the boards and very solid at not turning it over. Plus, they even gave UNC a heck of a game two years ago.
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing about this team if all they could do was rebound. Barton’s half-court offense is a really artful thing; there’s tons of off-ball motion, hand-offs, basket cuts, and a lot of quality spacing that leads to unguarded shots. It’s an offense that gives you nearly every type of look coaches prefer to see plus the ability to rebound the shots that don’t go down. For instance, watch this excellent possession that leads to an open Zach Grant three on a pass from Stenborg:
Ball movement and quality spacing are what leads to a 41% hit rate from three, making Barton the eighth-best three-point shooting team in D-II. This also isn’t that uncommon (Barton shot 40.4% from three in 2017-18) but this team in particular gravitated more towards the perimeter, taking 22.4 three-point attempts per game. Here’s another one. This one develops from a Belmont Abbey turnover, which turns into a quick possession for Barton that ends with an open Michael Boykin three:
Barton’s best attribute out of a lot of great ones, though, is their ability to score at will at the rim. The Bulldogs took nearly 42% of their shots at the rim, per Synergy, and they were mighty successful at getting some good looks. Here’s another one after a Belmont Abbey turnover, where Isaiah Reddish cuts to the basket and gets an and-one off of a Zach Grant pass:
Later in that same game, Barton slows the game down a little, using about 20 of their 30 allotted seconds to get their half-court motion rolling. For whatever reason, Belmont Abbey falls asleep for a split-second, and suddenly Stenborg gets a pass from Boykin for – you guessed it – another easy two.
There’s no one perfect formula to turn an offense from good to great, but it seems to me that upping your shot volume really can’t hurt. There’s several different ways to do this. If you’re a smaller team, you can focus on making sure you avoid turnovers by making smart passes and taking good shots. If you’re a little larger, you probably don’t have ball handlers that are as skilled, but you can crash the boards after every shot and threaten a 35+% recovery rate, which is elite. If you can do both, you could have an offense that’s just average at making shots and still be pretty good.
Now, for a second, imagine having a very good turnover rate, an elite offensive rebounding rate, and several great shooters. At its best, that’s Barton basketball, and it’s more than just one game. They’ve been doing this for over two decades now, and Ron Lievense and company seem pretty happy to keep doing it.