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

Briar Cliff is an offensive efficiency dynasty

If you want to go see the best of offensive college basketball but you’d like to see more than one quality team, I have the city for you: Sioux City, Iowa. Somehow, the city of around 83,000 has placed two teams in the top 25 of national offensive efficiency. We’ll be covering Morningside College shortly; now, it’s time to cover the other phenomenal basketball team in the city. We’re not even going outside of the box here: it’s the same conference and both sides of a local rivalry. Here’s the basketball team from Briar Cliff University, merely completing their fourth straight season in the Synergy top 25:

Briar Cliff, before we get rolling, is a university with a fascinating history. Prior to 1966, it was an all-female Catholic school with no basketball program. After allowing male students to attend, the program got started for the 1966-67 season with head coach Jim Deignan. The first basket was scored by Ron Schultz, a freshman who would graduate in 1970. Would you believe it if I told you Mr. Schultz is still a Briar Cliff assistant coach today, now entering his 39th season? Head coach Mark Svagera sometimes can’t believe it, either: “He’s literally been around from the beginning.”

Svagera heads one of the most successful NAIA programs in the Midwest. It’s taken Briar Cliff just 53 seasons to get to 1,006 wins, with an all-time 64.2% win percentage and twelve straight winning seasons. They’ve had a first-team All-American eight times, have made the NAIA Tournament five years in a row, and have won 79.2% of their home games at the Newman Flanagan Center. Coach Svagera nails it on the head with a simple statement: “Briar Cliff’s a basketball school.” Briar Cliff does basketball, and they do offense incredibly well:

https://gfycat.com/informalclassicaustraliansilkyterrier

Amazingly, Svagera has only overseen the program for two full seasons. Prior to his run, Todd Barry and Nic Nelson combined to lead the Chargers to a 276-141 record from 2004 to 2017, with Svagera as a lead assistant for Nelson’s six seasons. When Svagera took the job, he knew it would be a little different, as he’s always been an offense-first coach. “I think if I’d tried to come in and do everything just like Nic did, our players would sense that and it wouldn’t be a good situation,” says Svagera. His offense is all about freedom within structure, one that allows players to make the reads and plays they desire while maintaining their consistent spread motion look:

It’s an offense that has now landed Briar Cliff in the top 25 across all levels of college basketball in Synergy’s offensive efficiency rankings for four straight years. They’re the only NAIA program to earn this distinction, and the three other programs are in Division II: Northwest Missouri, West Liberty, and Bellarmine. “We have an alumni base that loves basketball. We’ve kind of found a niche recruiting-wise. I think that sets us apart from some other programs,” says Svagera. “A lot of the good players we’ve found are small-town kids from our four state region of Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota.” Whatever the case may be, Svagera and his staff keep unearthing elite shooters out of the rural woodwork of the Midwest:

The above clip is of Ethan Friedel. Friedel is a rising junior at Briar Cliff, a 6-foot guard from Tea, South Dakota. Depending on the estimate you find, it’s a town of around 5,000 with a high school of around 400 students. Friedel led said high school – Tea Area HS – to a Class A title in South Dakota. Svagera and his staff found him, determined he was a good fit for Briar Cliff’s offense, and brought him in. It was quite the wise thing to do, considering Friedel hit nine threes against West Virginia Tech in Briar Cliff’s second-round NAIA Tournament game this March:

It’s guys like that that Svagera loves to have on his team. “We just have to put those guys in position to make plays, and it just so happens that those guys are great shooters,” he notes. In general, Svagera loves shooters. Under their new coach, Briar Cliff has taken over half of their attempts from the field from deep, and they’ve been wildly successful (40.5% 3PT% in 2018-19) at hitting them. “It’s stupid math, but three is worth more than two,” says Svagera. “They’re not gonna be the biggest, longest athletes, but they can really shoot and they’re smart players. I’m an analytics guy and have been for quite a while, so I put a lot of emphasis on the value of the three-point shot.” Considering the analytics back up the strategy of overcoming a size deficiency with quality shooting, it lines up perfectly:

It’s also worth noting that Briar Cliff hit 60.2% of their attempts at the rim despite this struggle with size. Check out how good they are at getting a guard downhill off of a ball screen:

And how good said guards are at finding an open man:

While Briar Cliff ran into the Marian buzzsaw in the next round, it was still another great season – 22 wins, the fifth-straight 20+ win season, and the third NAIA quarterfinal appearance in four years for the Chargers. However, despite all their success, Briar Cliff still hasn’t progressed past the NAIA quarterfinals as a program. It’s a great accomplishment, but Svagera badly wants to take the next step to a semifinal appearance, plus the obvious title hopes. “Two of those three losses were tough losses that could’ve gone either way, but went against us,” says Svagera. “When you get to a national tournament, you can throw the seeds and records out. It’s all about the matchups.” As a now-somewhat-biased observer, here’s hoping Briar Cliff gets the matchup they desire this next spring.

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