How to build an offensive machine at an engineering school in the Denver suburbs
Let’s craft a challenging job for a potential basketball coach. You’ll be the head coach at a school known for being possibly the best school in America for future engineers. The average ACT at your school is 31; your school’s acceptance rate is just above 36%. You’re essentially restricted to recruiting players with ACT Math scores at a 30 or higher. While we’re at it, most people not in your state would know you athletically because your football program employed a memeable head coach. One last thing: you redshirt every freshman, regardless of talent level, to make sure they can handle the academic load.
This job exists, and the head coach in question is named Pryor Orser. Despite all of the restrictions and challenges above, he’s taken his team – Colorado School of Mines – to a #1 ranking in 2012, 339 wins across his 18 seasons in suburban Denver, and 149 wins over the last six seasons. It’s all on the back of an offense that’s ranked in the top 25 of Division II offensive efficiency for six straight seasons:
What Orser and the Orediggers are doing isn’t terribly complicated. “We’re mainly a 4-out, 1-in motion offense team. Within our motion, we play through the post,” Orser says. However, what they’re doing is pretty unique. Colorado Mines goes to the post on every possession in some aspect, whether it’s an entry pass that gets the post player to the rim:
Or a design for the post player to draw a double team, which leads to a kickout opportunity:
“I’ve had D-1 coaches and many D-2 coaches tell me that no one plays the post quite like we do,” says Orser. “The post doesn’t have to shoot it, but all of the actions and cuts come out of that.” Mines is sort of a hyper-realized version of a traditional 4-out motion offense, one reliant on a lot of interchangeable parts and relatively positionless basketball. Think of Belmont if the Bruins weren’t quite as committed to posting up just the big guys.
What Mines does is terrifically unique, and unusually frustrating for defenses that see a team full of not-quite-D-1-athletes. They can crush you in the post with a stringy chemical engineer and not think twice about it:
“Our students are highly sought after by a lot of companies, but that’s a reason why we can get involved with kids who want to go into engineering,” notes Orser. I mentioned it in the intro, but Colorado Mines is possibly the best school in America for future engineers. Orser mentioned a job fair at Mines in August that would host around 340 companies. When I attended the University of Tennessee, we were lucky to hit triple digits. It’s not easy to recruit to a place like Mines, but Orser knows the players that come are fully committed.
Plus, you can sell results to these players, just like you could to a five-star recruit. Mines had zero NCAA Tournament appearances prior to Orser’s 2001 arrival; they’d won two conference regular season titles in the previous 88 years. Since 2011, Mines has won the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference regular season crown five times, the conference tournament twice, made nine of the last ten NCAA Tournaments, and made their first-ever Elite Eight appearance in 2017. Great designs make for great results:
Plus, it helps when you can tell potential players how well you hold your own against the Division I competition in Colorado. Last season, Mines led Colorado at halftime and led the game for 30 minutes before falling short at the end. Orser also tells me that Mines has beaten Denver University of the Summit League several times in scrimmages. “It’s a good system to play against bigger teams, even though we lose warm-ups most nights,” he laughs.
Lastly, Mines is unique in one more way. For all their smarts and massive amounts of attention paid to analytics – Orser rattled off the program’s points-per-possession numbers for various scenarios with ease – they’ve yet to give up on the mid-range jumper:
“We shoot a higher percentage from mid-range than we do from three, so why not shoot the mid-range? Plus, we don’t give up transition opportunities off of those shots nearly as much as threes,” says Orser. He does have a point, and it helps when you hit the shots as well as Mines does. The Orediggers made 45.6% of their non-rim two-point attempts in 2018-19, which would’ve been the fourth-highest hit rate among D-1 teams. If you can hit it, why not take it?
What Orser’s built in Golden, CO seems pretty sustainable by now. Even a team that ended the year playing multiple walk-ons in its rotation still got to 25 wins and a 21-1 conference record. Mines returns seven members of their nine-man rotation from said team, and I could tell Orser was excited at what’s to come. Even with his admission that he doesn’t have the most athletic team on the planet, he’s clearly doing something special and it’s working out well for him and his program. And they’re all incredibly smart. It’s kind of unfair, no?