When my schedule allows this season, I’m pulling back from my Tennessee basketball lens to explore other college basketball programs across America, with a particular focus on those below the Division I level. This is installment #1 of a however-many-parts series about the best college basketball offenses you haven’t heard of yet. This week, we’re traveling up to Rhode Island to check out Synergy’s third-most efficient offense in Division III.
Early in the season, statistics can be a wild game of finding your favorite small-sample oddity. There’s a team making nearly 86% of its free throws? Hello, Pepperdine. The most-efficient Division I offense is…Dayton? Nova Southeastern is shooting a laughable 58% from the field? All of these stats are true, and all of them are incredibly fun. Basketball, in general, should be a fun, watchable sport at all times. It isn’t always that way, with coaches happy to slow the game down to a crawl. (This is partially influenced by watching the team I cover lose a game 51-47 this weekend.)
Thankfully, there are schools in lesser-covered pockets of America that remind me why this is the beautiful game. Hearing about their influences – specifically one that I’ve covered already – makes it an even more enjoyable experience. Meet the Roger Williams Hawks, the most fun team by a mile in the Division III Commonwealth Coast Conference:
The Hawks, an always-very-good offense, have shot into the stratosphere in 2019-20. They’re scoring 84 points per game as Synergy’s third-best D-3 offense (19th-best overall, across all levels), making 52.9% of their shots and 41.4% of their threes. They eschew the offensive rebound almost entirely by choice. (Their OREB% of 16.2% would be the fifth-lowest in Division I since 1997.) By the way, they’re doing this in a system that they spent all of six days implementing before the first game started.
Michael Tully, 18-year head coach of the Hawks, explains how this came about. “We just graduated the all-time best player in our school’s history (Austin Coene) who scored 2,200 points. We also graduated three kids the year before him that combined for 5,000 points. I was a little reluctant to go in this direction, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to do,” he tells me in late November. “Six days before our first game, I scrapped what we were doing [on offense] and put this in.”
Tully invited Noah LaRoche to spend time with him over the offseason. LaRoche is responsible for turning St. Joseph (ME) into the best-shooting college basketball offense in 2018-19. The LaRoche System – or whatever you’d prefer to call it – is a 5-out motion that eschews ball screens and leaves the middle open. If you’ve watched much Euroleague, you’ll note the very clear European influences on the offense. It is, perhaps, the very maximum of offensive spacing as a concept. It requires top-tier shot selection to offset potential shot volume concerns.
Luckily for Tully, it’s not far off from what they were already doing in years prior. “We definitely are mindful of keeping the middle of the floor open so we’re not playing with a guy’s back to the basket. That’s been my philosophy for a long time.”
So, how do you turn your own offense up a notch from “pretty good” to “hold the phone?” It starts with a quality push up the court after your opponent’s possession. “Essentially, what we’re trying to do is push the envelope in transition,” notes Tully. “In doing that, we’re trying to get the ball and go and take as much space as we can until it’s not there. Whoever doesn’t have the ball is running into the shape of our offense.” Sometimes this results in a great shot in transition:
Largely, the results have been massively positive. An offense that ranked in the 91st and 93rd-percentiles in Synergy the last two seasons now ranks out as one of the very best in America. May I remind you that large parts of this offense were installed six days before the season opener? As insane as that sounds, Tully offers a reminder that it’s more about small changes than large ones. “I’ve had a lot of this influence for a long time; conceptually, we were probably about 80% of the way there with what we were already doing,” he says.
Basically, Roger Williams has spent several years on the outskirts of Division III basketball. It’s a school of around 4,400 undergraduates, a private liberal arts school in a town of 23,000. Recruiting here, as with most places in Division III, is hard. And yet: Tully’s made it work for a long time. Being in his position of “most successful coach in school history” allows you a lot of leeway with what you’re looking to do on offense.
For coaches attempting to adapt this philosophy, it starts with proper shot selection. You may have a differing opinion on the wave of three-point attempts across college basketball, but Roger Williams has bought all the way in. After taking just 37% of its shots from three in 2017-18, the Hawks have taken more than 48.1% of them from downtown this season. Eight of ten games thus far have resulted in double-digit three-point makes, with the same number of games resulting in 35% or better nights from deep. It’s ridiculously effective:
But it’s also worth noting that no offense, as three-point-loving as they may be, can exclusively take these shots. Tully pointed to a particular early-season game as his example, the one you’re seeing the GIFs from in this article: Coast Guard. “When we played Coast Guard, who is a good team, we were 13-of-18 from three in the first half, which is essentially unheard of,” says Tully. “What really stood out to me is in the second half, they made a conscious effort to take away the threes and we were 2-for-9. A couple of them were tough shots that didn’t go in. In contrast, we were 14-for-17 from inside the line.”
When you have so many driving lines to choose from, it’s almost easy pickings:
Here’s an example of Tully’s team doing similar work in the second half:
“The whole thing is taking what they’re gonna give, and I think that’s what showed up against Coast Guard and in some other games,” Tully says. If, by now, you haven’t seen Coach Daniel (a YouTube channel) break down the St. Joseph offense and everything about it, stop what you’re doing and check this out:
Laughing, Tully sounds quite thankful for the existence of Noah LaRoche and the Monks’ new offense. “It’s literally the same thing we’re doing now,” he says, and I can hear the smile through the phone. If you’re going to copy someone, it’s hard to beat copying the team that shot the ball better than literally everyone else last season. It’s an incredibly hard offense to slow down, because the best-case version of it tells you to either slow down the drives to the rim or the open threes, not both.
For me personally, one of the hardest things to stop are these cuts and rushes through the paint:
Genuinely, if you get beat on these, what are you supposed to you? The continued rushes clear out the paint for a drive to the basket, meaning the on-ball defender has no help behind him. You either foul him before the shot or let him get the easy two. These plays feel like free money:
When I asked Tully what he’d do as an opposing coach to try and slow it down, he says the following with a laugh: “I’m not so sure, because I’m not the one who has to try to do that.” Recently, coaches have come up to Tully before games, complimenting the new-look offense: “One of the things [a recent opponent’s coach] said was “it’s amazing, I look at the stats and everyone on your team is averaging more assists than turnovers.” I didn’t know that, and I don’t know if that’s completely accurate, but I like it.” No word on if he told the coach that this offense had barely a month of implementation by the time they’d played; also no word on if said coach’s jaw then hit the floor.
What’s beautiful to me about this offense is that it promotes nearly everything I love about offense: great spacing, quick ball movement, an up-tempo lifestyle, ideal shot selection, lots of made threes, and lots of easy twos. When you look at it from an objective design standpoint, it’s a very hard offense to beat. So far, Roger Williams is 7-3 this season, concluding its pre-Christmas break schedule with an 80-67 win over Suffolk. Clearly, this team has a bright future; now, it’s up to staff development to see how far they can take it.
Because this offense has had such little time to set in, Tully was appropriately befuddled when I asked what he thought the team’s ceiling was. “When I’m watching us on film, I’m saying ‘hey, we’re doing this, and everybody should’ve been doing this,'” he notes. “We are so far from that point [of reaching our potential]. I think the ceiling is very high, but I’m not sure I can tell you what it is.” Let me be the first to say that I’m extremely excited to see this offense get better game-by-game.