Program Reviews: North Florida and the Birds of Trey

Program Reviews is an offseason series where the writer and owner of this website interviews college basketball coaches across all levels about their previous season, their program as a whole, and other things. Today’s subject is Matthew Driscoll, head coach of the North Florida Ospreys men’s basketball team, which won a share of the Atlantic Sun regular season title, their third in six seasons.

Generally, any sort of open-ended experimentation in basketball is at least interesting to watch. Whether it works or ends up being efficient is often just icing on the cake. As described to me by Pat McKenzie of St. John’s (MN), many coaches are copycats, which means you don’t often see a ton of originality in college hoops. When something original and unusual does occur, it’s not often that it ends up being as successful as we’d like, which reinforces simply choosing to do the thing that is more likely to work.

I’ve had an appreciation for North Florida for a while simply because they take the three-pointer more seriously on both ends of the court than any other program in Division I. This year, the Ospreys took 52.2% of their shots from downtown – #1 in the nation – and limited opponents to taking just 24.5% of their shots from three, #2 behind Northern Colorado. From 2014-15 onward, every North Florida team has taken at least 41.7% of their shots from three and has allowed opponents to get more than 29% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc just once. Many programs are able to combine one or the other, but no other Division I program has pushed the extremities of what the three-pointer means on both sides of the ball.

Obviously, as a statistics nerd, this is beyond fascinating to me. It seems like the offensive and defensive endpoints of Moreyball, going as far as UNF forcing opponents to take 38.1% of their shots as non-rim two-pointers, the least-efficient shot in basketball. That’s nice and all, of course. But in a year where teams retreated back inside the arc somewhat thanks to the three-point-line extension, North Florida embraced the three more than ever.

Again, it’s one thing for a team to embrace this strategy. It’s another thing entirely for it to work repeatedly. As their coaches call them, the Birds of Trey made 37.8% of their threes (12th-best), the second-best mark in school history. Only 12 teams posted a better eFG%, and this particular offense finished 31st, UNF’s best offensive mark in their time in D-1. (Getting into unadjusted efficiency can get a little fishy, simply because schedules do matter, but UNF did finish eighth nationally in raw offensive efficiency.) This offense is and has been wildly successful, as North Florida now owns the Atlantic Sun’s two best offenses (2015-16, when they finished 36th) since Belmont’s departure after the 2011-12 season.

Given all of these statistics, I figured you might want to hear from the architect behind it all. Matthew Driscoll is a great resource of offensive concepts and career stories, and we got to discuss both in our Zoom call last week.

The below interview is lightly edited and shortened. At the end of the interview, you can find highlights of some of North Florida’s best plays this season.

WW: Describe your offensive philosophy in a few sentences. (Editor’s note: this ended up being more than a few sentences, but it was a pitch-perfect response about program history and philosophy.)

Matthew Driscoll: “We say all the time in our program that we want makers, not takers. Let me show you something.

Driscoll shows me the game ball from his first career victory. It reads North Florida, 57-46.

MD: “When recruits or current players come in the office and talk to me, they’ll be like, ‘Coach, that’s what we get in a half now.’ When we got into the league, we still had success, but the way in which we went about things, we weren’t like we were now. Belmont, East Tennessee State, and Mercer were all in the league, all really, really good coaches and systems. As I was watching them, I thought Belmont’s different, East Tennessee State’s different, Mercer’s different. All three would recruit to their systems. I thought, man, we gotta do something.

We always had a good three-point shooter – Parker Smith and Beau Beech both were great – and I thought to myself about how I loved the way Belmont and Davidson played. I loved how they spread it and shared it. Then I had to think: who wants to come here, and how can we get those guys, and can we be better going in that direction? When we signed Beau Beech in 2012, he was 6’6”, but he was a guard that could play the stretch forward. He played in what we call our Hybrid position, which is essentially a fourth guard. We knew that getting him would take us in a different direction. At that time, we had to commit to going super, super heavy on three-point shooting. We had forwards that could make a stationary three just good enough – 35-37% – but could also deck it and finish at the rim. Having these hybrids that are 6’7”, 6’8”, 6’9” has helped us find our niche.

The next year, we got Dallas Moore, a scorer that was the first lead guard we ever had who could make threes. Next thing you know, the spacing on the floor was going through the roof. It’s all layups and dunks, wide-open threes. If you ask our guys, they’ll tell you that that’s all we talk about, all the time. . . . We’ve really, really started to recruit specifically [to our system]. Let’s just look for round pegs and keep putting them in round holes.”

WW: Who are your main influences as a coach?

MD: “Coach Rick Barnes, I came in as a JV high school coach from Pennsylvania driving 13 hours with our varsity coach to Providence’s team camp. Subsequently, that helped me meet Coach Larry Shyatt, who is my mentor and took me to his coaching jobs at Wyoming and Clemson. He’s still one of my best friends to this day. Scott Drew is a master at envisioning the future, too.”

WW: You spent 12 years as a Division I assistant before getting your first D-1 head coaching job at UNF. What excited you about coming to North Florida in the first place?

MD: “After we had started to win at Baylor, people are probably thinking ‘Coach D should be able to get a Division I head coaching job.’ 2007, the year before we made the NCAA Tournament, the Robert Morris job opened and I interviewed for it, the one Mike Rice eventually got. The next year, the St. Francis (PA) job opens, and I’m going after this thing hard. This is near Pittsburgh, where I’m from. In my mind, I’m getting this job. I don’t get the job. I’m freaking crushed. I go home, and my wife says, ‘God ain’t ready for you to be a head coach.’

I go back to Baylor, we end up going to the NIT. There was a woman that used to jog with us, and her boyfriend was a volleyball coach at the University of North Florida. I say ‘what’s that?’ She tells me it’s in Jacksonville and it’s beautiful. I went back to the office to look it up and it looked nice. I started looking into the basketball side of it, saw they were in the Division I transition process.

The athletic director at Wyoming the only year I was there became the AD at North Florida. Larry Shyatt, the associate head coach at Florida, decided not to take the UNF job because he wanted to go back to Wyoming. I never even saw the campus. [Athletic director] Coach Moon offered me the job as I’m walking into the pregame meal before we’re playing Penn State for the NIT championship. I took this job, sight unseen, and Coach Shyatt told me ‘don’t worry, you don’t even need to see it.’ I got on the plane and never went home.”

WW: Earlier, I talked about how clearly important the three is to your offense. Your Ospreys took more threes per-possession than any other team in the country this year. However, on the defensive side, only Northern Colorado held a lower rate of opponent three-point attempts. What led you to place this amount of value on the three-pointer on both sides of the ball?

MD: “Because threes beat you. Layups and dunks, protecting the rim, that’s critical. In the last six years, we’ve had three Defensive Players of the Year, all rim protectors. The three is just so significant as a shot – you can be up by eight points and two shots later it’s a two-point game. I thought Gary Williams and Juan Dixon were so, so good at running guys off the perimeter. I’ve always had that in the back of my brain, and we’ve always run people off the line. This year, we averaged 11.8 made threes and 4.8 allowed, that’s +7. That means we’re +21 points to start the game statistically from three.”

WW: I want to ask you about a very specific play in the Liberty game earlier this year.

UNF wins the tip-off directly to a frontcourt player, who swings it to a shooter that immediately drains a three. It takes maybe three seconds and you’re already up 3-0. Where did this come from?

MD: “We lost to Louisville by I don’t know how many a few years back. We did the same thing, won the tip-off, threw it right in front of Pitino’s bench and Trent Mackey buried a three.

Pitino’s postgame press conference was so humbling, because he said so many nice things about us and our system and how much time they had to spend preparing for it. Later that summer, we asked one of his assistants what happened after that play. He turned around and was “mothereffin'” them dudes, cussing at them! We call these plays the game within the game. The opening tip, the first play of the second half, after every timeout, every out-of-bounds play, every special situation, every missed free throw. That’s all the game within the game. It adds up to 20-30 possessions. I got that from Jerry Wainwright in the late 1990s when I was at Clemson.”

WW: Per, this was the highest-rated offense in school history (31st). Why was this particular group so successful offensively, and what set them apart from previous teams?

MD: “This group was able to develop faster because of the groups before making our scheme more simple and less experimental. We have this thing really oiled well with continued talent. We should be tops year in and year out! Don’t forget we played the 22nd-hardest schedule, including three top 10 NET teams that won their respective leagues.”

WW: You’re coming off of what was probably the second-best season in school history and you run one of the most fun, enjoyable offenses in basketball. What’s the next big step for the North Florida program?

MD: “Getting back to the NCAA Tournament and winning a Tournament game. We’ve never done that, and I think that would be huge for us. Winning an Atlantic Sun championship is by far at the top of the list, simply because of what we have to do in non-conference. We’ve got to bring in so much money [for the program] that we have six or seven built-in losses before we even play. We’ve beat Purdue once, we beat Illinois once, but those are few and far between.”

WW: What’s something people don’t know about North Florida as a university?

MD: “What people don’t realize is we’re eight miles from the Atlantic Ocean. We’re eight miles from downtown Jacksonville, which has an NFL team. We’ve got a $5M mall outside our front door. Our school is sitting on 1,300 acres. Plus, we have a lazy river. It’s about as well-kept a secret as you could possibly imagine. Once you get kids here, it’s simple. It’s more about getting them here in the first place. We’re six hours from Atlanta, six hours from Miami, six hours from Charlotte. It’s a unique, unique place.”

WW: Last question: what’s your go-to entertainment, if anything, during the quarantine?

MD: “My wife and son and I watched Knives Out. We also watched the whole Tiger King…scenario. I was disappointed in the exploitation and how they didn’t pay the workers. I told my wife and our staff I didn’t watch it anymore, but my wife got me to watch one more episode and the next one was “did she kill her husband or not.” That was deep! They got me back in. Anyway, I wouldn’t say it was my choice – General Hospital is more important to me than that. My wife and I watch it every night. I just got done watching McMillions and turned my whole staff onto it.”

Here’s 15 of my favorite UNF plays from the games I watched:

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