Josh Merkel and Randolph-Macon have built a monstrous defense

If I told you that the best defense in American college basketball resides in the state of Virginia, probably very few of you would enact real surprise. Everyone already knows that Virginia and Tony Bennett have been a purely dominant defensive program for the last decade, and it’s what got them their first national championship in nearly four decades. However, I do have a surprise for you: this article is not about the University of Virginia. Rather, it’s about a different, even better defense in Division III just 75 minutes to the east that allowed 0.842 points per possession this year:

Randolph-Macon College, located in Ashland, enters tomorrow’s Division III NCAA Tournament with a 26-2 record. Outside of a pair of slip-ups, both by single digits, they’ve been just about unbeatable this season. All but one opponent of their 29 this season, including an exhibition against D-1 Richmond, has been held to 70 points or less, with 10 showings of 50 points or fewer. It made it that much more surprising that head coach Josh Merkel’s initial reaction when I asked about his defense was the following: “I think our defense stinks right now!”

When I reached Merkel in January after a 28-point road win, he elaborated a little more. “Usually, I like being under the radar. I don’t even think that highly of our defense, but I know the numbers are good and we’ll take it.” Scoring against Randolph-Macon this season has become more stressful than watching Uncut Gems. The Yellow Jackets enter the Tournament forcing opponents to shoot 37.4% from the field and 29.2% from three. That eFG% of 43.1% would rank third-best in D-1 – one spot behind UVA, I might add – but shot defense isn’t all that Randolph-Macon does. The Yellow Jackets forced turnovers on 23.8% of opponent possessions this year, blocked 12.2% of two-point attempts, and rebounded 73.6% of opponent misses. If your shot even made it to the basket, much less went in, it was a mild success.

It’s no shock that Merkel finds inspiration in what happened last season in Charlottesville. “We model some of what we do on Virginia,” he notes, though he’s also quick to say it’s not a true pack-line defense. “We want to force shots over a contest, limit everyone to one shot, and do it as a team. I say ‘guard your yard, but cover for each other.’” It’s a brutalizing, tough defense that has made life miserable for nearly every visitor. Even Richmond, in their November exhibition, got out-rebounded by Randolph-Macon and barely topped a point per possession.

The Yellow Jackets can run out different defensive looks based on the opponent. Per Synergy, they ran a press on 217 possessions and a zone defense on 283 more. Continually pushing the opponent to find new, inventive ways to not turn the ball over is Merkel’s specialty. “We pressure the ball and shrink the floor. We try to keep the ball outside of the paint,” he says. In particular, his strong, rooted guards are a bother to get around. “We’ve seen how effective it can be when you have strong players defensively,” says Merkel. For a team with zero players taller than 6’7″ and no players heavier than Noah Lindsay’s 216 pounds, Randolph-Macon is reliant on a quality strength + conditioning program to get them over the top. It works, I’ve gotta say:

We get really good guard play because our guards are committed to staying down and keeping the ball in front of them,” says Merkel. “They are not going to let that ball get to the second level of the defense as much. We don’t put a skinny guard out there, as we don’t want them to get bumped off their spots.” It’s a big part of why Randolph-Macon succeeds each night. Not only do the Yellow Jackets win the turnover battle most nights (by the old standard of turnover margin, Randolph-Macon averages a +6.3), they also don’t allow many, if any, open threes. This is just quality, tough perimeter defense:

It’s all about closing out hard and making an opponent know you’re there. Merkel tells me that on-ball pressure is what sets players apart. “A lot of it is air time, moving as the ball moves, and being there with a hot hand on the catch so no one feels comfortable shooting a rhythm three,” Merkel notes. “It needs to be a heavy contest with a hand and being there when he lands.”

This strategy has been wildly successful. As I’ve noted in the past, Ken Pomeroy studied three-point percentage and found that defenses have very little control over it for the most part. And yet: I think Randolph-Macon is really onto something. Over the last three years, the Yellow Jackets have held opponents to 31.9%, 30.1%, and now 29.2% from downtown. Considering that Divisions II and III haven’t moved the three-point line back yet like Division I has, this makes it even more impressive in an era of maximum three-point shooting.

In a true victory for a blog that has “stats” in its title, Merkel also let me know that he and the Randolph-Macon coaching staff are big on making sure they win three of KenPom’s Four Factors every night on the court. “We have three big stats – differential in field goal percentage, rebounding margin, and turnover margin,” says Merkel. For each of those, he wants to be +10%, +5, and +5 on any given night. On the season, they’ve actually come pretty darn close to hitting all three. Randolph Macon is shooting 8.7% better than opponents, out-rebounding opponents by +2.2 per game, and winning the turnover battle by +6.3.

Last year, we were 2-4 when we lost two of those three stats. We were 25-0 when winning at least two of three,” says Merkel. “There’s hundreds of things that go into every game, but analytics and numbers are easy for our guys to see and understand at halftime so they know what needs to improve.” (A quick side note: Merkel and staff do not use Free Throw Rate as one of their main factors, because, in Merkel’s words, “we might be the worst in the country at it.” True to his remark, Randolph-Macon actually would rank dead last in Division I in offensive Free Throw Rate. You can get away with this when you are 26-2.)

As the Division III Tournament begins, Randolph-Macon is staring down what might be its best-ever shot at a national championship. The Yellow Jackets rank #3 in the poll, are a host team for the first two rounds, and are ranked higher than every opponent in their bracket but one (Wittenberg). When I asked Merkel what had to happen for his team to win a title, he said he wanted the offense to be much more loose and free, though not at the cost of sacrificing their defensive principles. “I think that’s what we’re striving for is getting to a point where everyone we put into the game is playing with utmost confidence,” says Merkel. It’s a noble goal to strive for. When your defense is putting every opponent in a figure-four leg-lock:

I’d say you’re pretty darn close.

The teams I most want to make the NCAA Tournament from each conference

These next 12 days or so are among the most fun days of the season. Conference Tournament Week(s) are exciting, sad, happy, and a wild ball of emotions all rolled into a two-week cycle. Some of your faves don’t get to make the Tournament, while others come out of nowhere to become nationally beloved squads. As best as I can, I’ve tried to find the most interesting or exciting team from all 32 NCAA conferences that people should be rooting for to make the NCAA Tournament. Several of these from the Big Six + high-end mid-major conferences are already locks to make the field, but others need to win their tournament to get in. Consider it a rooting guide of sorts.

The teams are listed in alphabetical order by conference. The number in parentheses next to a team is their odds of making the Field of 68, per Bart Torvik’s website. I know it’s not a perfect metric, obviously, but it’s reasonable and worth working with.

Atlantic 10: Dayton (100%)

Like some other teams on this list, I wrote about Dayton back in mid-February, and most of what I wrote still holds true. However, the Flyers have somehow been even better offensively lately. They had a mild hiccup at George Mason last Tuesday, posting their first sub-1 PPP game of the season, which is insane. Other than that, it’s been smooth sailing. Dayton is now shooting 63.1% from two, which would be a Division I record, and hasn’t lost since before Christmas. The A-10 has a couple other fun offenses, namely Davidson, but Dayton stands far, far ahead of the rest of the pack. If you like basketball, you should root for them to make the Final Four.

ACC: Duke (100%)

I’ll admit that this one has become tough to defend lately. The Duke offense has struggled as of late, posting 0.794 PPP against Virginia and 0.866 PPP against NCSU. However, those efforts were interspersed with games like a 1.245 PPP against Notre Dame and 1.213 PPP over Virginia Tech. The fact of the matter is that there’s no runaway great offense in the ACC this year. I considered Louisville for this slot, and they may yet overtake Duke…but no Louisville player is as singularly thrilling as Vernon Carey, Jr.

America East: UMass Lowell (0.5%)

This one requires explanation. Like any lover of 12/13 seeds, I want Vermont to win the America East conference tournament with ease. I’m not that silly. But, in the event Vermont doesn’t win it, I’d love for UMass Lowell to be there in their place.

Pat Duquette, despite coaching at a school with just about zero positive athletics history outside of hockey, has crafted an offense that’s finished in the top 50 of 2PT% in three of the last four years with a great shot at a fourth year in five. Few teams out there get more of their points at the rim. If only they could play defense – they gave up 92 and 94 to Vermont.

American: SMU (4.2%)

There’s no super-lovable AAC offenses this year, but SMU comes fairly close. This isn’t a great team, but they take a lot of threes, get off a lot of good passes, and knock down nearly 55% of their twos. For no reason at all, here’s them dropping eleven threes and a 67% hit rate on twos on the Memphis Tigers:

Atlantic Sun: North Florida (18.4%)

I think this is the single most fun offense that literally no one has seen in 2020. North Florida operates out of Jacksonville, and head coach Matthew Driscoll has stayed the course there for eleven seasons, making the NCAA Tournament once in 2015. For most of his tenure, they’ve been well ahead of the curve on three-point attempts, but this edition of the Ospreys is unhinged: 52.3% of their shots are from three. The Ospreys make 38% of these shots, meaning that almost 46% of their offense comes from the three-point line. Here’s my North Florida sell: on any given night, they could lose to anyone (Ls to #250 Tennessee State, #304 NJIT). Also, on any given night, they can shoot their way to a victory (win over #69 Liberty).

Big Ten: Iowa (100%)

Has Luka Garza, plays fast, everyone shoots threes and passes the ball effectively. What more do you need?

Big 12: Kansas (100%)

The best team in America is also the Big 12’s most enjoyable offering this year. In general, major-conference basketball is a bit more restrictive and on-the-whole less enjoyable than, say, the Ohio Valley, but Kansas has two of the best players in the nation in Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. They’re also flawed in a fascinating way, struggling to hit free throws to put away easy victories and having turnover issues that lost them games against Duke and Baylor. A very talented, interestingly flawed squad.

Big East: Creighton (100%)

Prior to a horrifying beatdown at the hands of St. John’s this past Sunday, this was the fastest-rising high-major team in the nation. This is the best Creighton squad since Doug McDermott was running off of screens for open threes, and this group hits threes and twos at fairly similar rates. Ty-Shon Alexander (39.3% from three), Marcus Zegarowski (39.1%), and Mitch Ballock (43.3%) are all a blast to watch, and when this offense is cooking, as it was in an 81-59 win over Butler on February 23, it seems particularly hard to slow down.

Big Sky: Northern Colorado (37%)

This could be a stretch, but hear me out: this is maybe the most fascinating mid-major offering of the year. Northern Colorado does the following things:

  • Ranks 20th in eFG% and 11th in TO%
  • Makes 36.8% of threes (33rd), 53.7% of twos (28th), and takes 45.2% of their shots from downtown (26th)
  • Takes fewer non-rim twos (13.4% of all shots) than all but three D-1 teams
  • Opponents have taken just 23.7% of their shots from three against Northern Colorado, the lowest rate in America…
  • …and have also posted an Assist Rate of just 33.2%, easily the lowest rate in America.

They offer such an intoxicating combination of pros for analytically-minded viewers that I can’t imagine not rooting for them to go as far as possible.

Big South: Radford (50.1%)

This one was between Radford and Winthrop, the two best teams in the Big South, but I ended up riding with Radford. The Highlanders have the 36th-best eFG%, the 6th-lowest offensive Steal%, own a Quadrant 1 win over Richmond, and have a coach named Mike Jones.

Big West: Cal State Northridge (4.4%)

If you haven’t heard of Lamine Diane, you have got to hear of him immediately:

Affectionately named Cocaine Diane by NBA Twitter user @Cosmis. Diane averages 25.5 PPG and 10.1 RPG, owns a usage rate of nearly 37%and plays 36 minutes a night. He is a long-lost article of a different era: a high-usage shooter that takes lots of long twos, is recklessly fun to watch, and single-handedly propels a team’s fortunes either upward or downward. CSU Northridge is tracking for a 3/4 seed in the Big West conference tournament, but you really should watch every Lamine Diane game you possibly can.

Colonial: Hofstra (28%)

There are so many options to pick from in what’s quietly been the most enjoyable conference across the board this season. 2 seed William & Mary offers Nathan Knight, who is like East Coast Diane, and has never been to the NCAA Tournament. 3 seed Towson has plenty of good shooters and hasn’t made the Big Dance in 29 years. 4 seed Charleston offers Grant Riller, a future NBA player. 5 seed Delaware made 56.5% of their twos in conference play. Even 6 seed Northeastern has Jordan Roland, a hilarious volume shooter that makes 40% of his threes and scored 42, 39, and 38 points in games this year.

Even keeping my personal bias aside, I sided with Hofstra, who offers up easily the best offense in the conference. The Pride made nearly 40% of their threes in conference play, and star Desure Buie averaged a line of 20/4/6 in conference play. Also, Hofstra hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2001 and owns zero Tournament victories. Basically everyone in this conference is easy to root for, but Hofstra reigns supreme.

Conference USA: North Texas (38.9%)

Along with Northern Colorado, one of my pet teams for the back half of this basketball season. The Mean Green haven’t been to the NCAAT since 2010, but this edition is a blast. North Texas makes 38% of their threes (14th) and 55.2% of their twos (13th) for a 55.9% eFG% (6th!). They’re quietly a great bet for a potential upset, as they limit possessions to an extreme (350th in tempo), make 77.1% of their free throws, and force turnovers on 20.8% of opponent possessions. Per Bart Torvik, North Texas owns the 11th-best offense in the nation in 2020. They’re currently tracking for a 13 seed. Depending on the matchup, they look to be as good a March value as exists at that seed line.

Horizon: Green Bay (8.2%)

Green Bay is the 3 seed in the Horizon League, but due to the Horizon League’s conference tournament structure, they’re at a disadvantage by not finishing in the top two. They’ll have to win three games instead of just two to make the NCAA Tournament. Still, I’ve admired Linc Darner’s strategy since he took over in 2015-16. The Phoenix will push the pace at all costs (#1 in Avg. Poss. Length in 2019-20), limiting turnovers, and don’t care at all if they give up buckets on the other end. They’ve won games 102-92, 92-89, and 94-90…and lost games 92-88, 98-94, and 90-84. They are insane, and they are a blast. (Also considered: Wright State, who had the actual best offense in conference play and are pretty enjoyable in their own right.)

Ivy: Yale (38.3%)

This one is easy. Yale has the best player in the Ivy League (Paul Atkinson, 17.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG), leads the league in 2PT%, 3PT%, and eFG%, takes lots of threes, and is oddly dominating on the defensive boards (4th nationally in DREB%). They’ve still got to win their league, but they’re better set up to pull off a March surprise this year than they were last time out.

MAAC: Siena (31.2%)

This is a wild turn. For most of the last six years, Siena was a brutal watch. In particular, the last two seasons have been awful. Siena offered up extremely slow basketball with lots of missed shots and a pair of offenses that ranked 316th and 251st. This year, under first-year head coach Carm Maciarello, they’ve sped things up a bit. They hit 37.4% of their threes in conference play, rank #1 in the conference in offense, and have the conference’s best player in Jalen Pickett. None of the MAAC teams are all that exciting to watch, honestly, especially in years where Iona is down, but I’ve got to give Siena credit for a watchable product.

MAC: Akron (36.5%)

Loren Cristian Jackson:

LCJ makes an absurd 45.1% of his threes and offers up a 125.4 Offensive Rating, which is the best I could find for someone with a 26% Usage Rate or higher. The team also has a player named Tyler Cheese (TYLER CHEESE!), gets 37% of their points from threes, plays fast, and hung with both Louisville and West Virginia well into the second halves of each game. Currently tracking for a 13 seed or thereabouts if they win the MAC.

MEAC: Bethune-Cookman (15.2%)

To be honest, this is the worst conference in basketball, largely because these universities simply do not have the level of funding necessary to compete with everyone else. It sucks, and I feel terrible for them. But I do think Bethune-Cookman would be a fun story. Daytona Beach’s premier basketball program has never made the NCAA Tournament and plays a fast, loose brand of basketball built on getting to the free throw line and forcing opponents into bad mistakes. Very nearly beat Georgia Tech in early December, losing 68-65 on a late three.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa (58.5%)

Already wrote about these guys, but they ended up hitting 40.9% of their threes in conference play and posted a 56.1% eFG%. Behind BYU, they’re the second-best deep-shooting team in the nation. They slumped a bit to end conference play, but did recover to blast both Evansville and Drake. Will be a great value pick at the 11/12 seed line if they make the field.

Mountain West: San Diego State (100%)

This one was pretty easy. Malachi Flynn is one of the most exciting players out there, regardless of conference. If there’s a shooting category in existence, SDSU ranks in the top 35 of it nationally. I recommend watching this past Saturday’s Nevada game, where the Aztecs had an unusually weak defensive performance (by their standards, mind you) and Malachi Flynn’s 36 points on 20 shots covered it all up.

Northeast: St. Francis (PA) (28.2%)

A bit out of left field, this one – few outside of the Northeast are paying attention to Northeast Conference happenings, especially when the conference has never won a non-First Four NCAA Tournament game. St. Francis (PA) will be worth your time on a Tuesday/Wednesday evening if they win the NEC, at least. The Red Flash operate easily the best offense in the NEC, play a faster-than-normal pace, have a great volume of shots, and probably should’ve beaten Richmond in early November in an overtime loss.

Ohio Valley: Belmont (50.7%)

Same as it ever was. Like basically every Belmont team before it, this one takes a lot of threes, makes a lot of twos, plays fast and loose, and wins a lot of basketball games.

Pacific 12: Oregon (100%)

Oregon has risen all the way to 7th in KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency on the back of some outstanding three-point shooting (38.4%, 9th) and high-level shot volume (68th in TO%, 43rd in OREB%; one of only nine teams in America to rank top 75 in both). There are points of games where it feels like Oregon’s had the ball for ten minutes straight, and it seems like a potentially devastating offense for March opponents to stop if they can’t beat them on the boards.

Patriot: Colgate (53.4%)

These guys again! Matt Langel’s Raiders are the class of the Patriot League once again, with an offense that generates tons of great looks from downtown and sustains its shot volume by rarely turning the ball over. Every member of the main rotation, including 6’10” center Rapolas Ivanauskas, has hit at least 13 threes this season. They beat Cincinnati in December by way of a bizarre ending, but this is a super-fun offense that could reasonably give a high seed trouble for a while for the second straight Tournament.

Sun Belt: Little Rock (15.4%)

Admittedly, I haven’t thought much about Little Rock since their defeat of Purdue in the 2015 NCAA Tournament damaged the bracket I had with Purdue in the Elite Eight, but hey, here they are. I find this group pretty interesting. They rank 35th in eFG%, get a ton of points at the free throw line (#4 in Free Throw Rate), and are good on the boards. They aren’t the best team in the Sun Belt (Texas State) and might not even be the second-best (Georgia State), but they do have the best offense in the conference.

Southern: Furman (25.5%)

Full disclosure: as a resident of East Tennessee for 8.5 years now, I will not be rooting for Furman to win the Southern Conference. Really, I find myself even more attracted to UNC Greensboro, a team that should have made last year’s NCAA Tournament as an at-large, over Furman. But I’m not going to deny how nice it would be to see this Furman offense on a national stage. The Paladins take over 46% of their attempts from three, making around 35% of them. They make 57% of their twos because of Bob Richey’s creative offense that takes very few bad shots. Most notably, I actually do think they could give a March opponent real trouble. Furman is one of just four teams in the nation to rank in the top 45 in both offensive and defensive Turnover Rate. They’re aggressive and wise – a deadly combo!

SEC: LSU (93.8%)

Talked about these guys back in February, but nothing meaningful has changed – still a top-three offense in America that is an absolute monster on the offensive boards and at the rim. If Skylar Mays was a tiny bit more consistent from downtown and the Tigers bothered to play defense more than one out of every five games, I would trust this team far more in the NCAA Tournament than I do…but it does admittedly make for a super-watchable combination. Certainly worth your time to watch them in an 8/9 game on a Thursday evening as they lose 83-82 to Oklahoma or Xavier.

Southland: McNeese State (0.9%)

The only truly good team in the Southland is Stephen F. Austin, and I am obviously rooting for them to go far. That said: McNeese State has had the marginally better offense in conference play. Most importantly, they have Dru Kuxhausen, maybe the single best three-point shooter in the nation. Kuxhausen is 92-for-197 (46.7%) this season as a JUCO product; in McNeese’s last two games, both wins, he made 14 total threes. All the guy does when he’s on the floor is toss up threes, and a lot of them go in.

Summit: South Dakota State (32.2%)

As I wrote last month, these Jackrabbits are both young (#341 in experience) and a total blast. They ended up making 57.4% of their twos on the season, second-best behind Dayton, and made nearly 40% of their threes in conference play. They’re the best team in the Summit League with the best offense in an absurdly deep offensive conference. We’ve got to get these guys in the Big Dance, though I will accept South Dakota or Oral Roberts as replacements.

SWAC: Texas Southern (13.8%)

Similar to the MEAC in that these teams, sadly, don’t have the funding to compete with many on the big stage. That said, you can always get behind Texas Southern, a team that puts up absurd non-conference schedules every year and almost always puts a serious scare into an opponent or two. This year, it was Wichita State and Oregon, two teams the Tigers were massive underdogs against but hung with to the very end. Plus, they play fast and get to the free throw line a lot, which could reasonably keep them in a game with a 1 seed for a little while. More of a First Four curiosity, if I’m being honest.

Western Athletic: New Mexico State (64.8%)

I love that, no matter who the coach is or what stage of life this program is at, they will basically always be there for me in March to bet on again and lose. New Mexico State’s potential in March has haunted me for a full decade now, starting with them nearly toppling 5-seed Michigan State in 2010 and pushing all the way to last year’s extreme near-upset of 5-seed Auburn. Yet again, despite numerous injuries in non-conference play, NMSU is rounding into a terrifying whole. They’ve won 18 straight games, hit a lot of threes, get a ton of rebounds, force lots of turnovers, are senior-heavy, and will almost certainly lose by six points to 4-seed Oregon in the Round of 64.

West Coast: Gonzaga and BYU (both 100%)

This was the only conference I allowed a quote-unquote “tie” for, because this is the only conference that offers up two of the three most watchable teams in 2019-20 college basketball. For 35 minutes or so, the game between these two at BYU last weekend was as fun a game as any I’ve watched this year; I really wish they played five times this season instead of the maximum of three. Nothing I can say at this point sells these teams better than their own product can. It’s a massive win for basketball if we get a WCC tournament championship between these two.

The ten most fun Division I basketball offenses of 2019-20

In the midst of what is on target to be the least-efficient offensive season of college basketball since 2011-12 if not 2002-03, it’s best to find reasons to keep watching. The team where I live, Tennessee, is struggling through a gap year. The rest of the state, minus one notable exception we’ll get to, hasn’t produced a super-watchable Division I team. Schools are slowly adjusting to the new three-point line, but it’s taken the full season to do so. If you tossed on a random college basketball game, you’re likely to see more missed shots than you’re accustomed to.

That said, there are several teams and offenses this season that are worth your time and effort to watch them. In particular, the top two have reached “stop whatever you’re doing and watch this” status for me against any opponent that isn’t totally overwhelmed. (There’s numerous reasons to watch teams in the 101-300 range of KenPom’s rankings, as we’ll touch on, but not all of them are exactly fun to watch when playing a top 25 squad.)

In the post-Super Bowl pre-March area of the calendar, it feels right to give these teams their proper recognition. It’s been one of the least pretty years of basketball in some time, but it’s also been one of the most unpredictable and strange years, too. The closest comparison I have is 2010-11, which turned into an utterly insane NCAA Tournament in a year where it felt like there was no true #1 team. (Ohio State, in retrospect, was probably it…and they lost in the Sweet Sixteen.) So: here’s the ten Division I offenses I’ve had the most fun watching this season.

Honorable mentions: South Dakota, San Diego State, Iowa, Austin Peay, Louisville, Alabama.

NEXT PAGE: Teams 10-6

Michael Tully is reinventing Roger Williams basketball on the fly

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.