Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 5: Cuts

Cuts, by and large, are the easiest way to score points in basketball. By their Synergy terms, they’re downhill actions that can come in a variety of ways: backdoor, off screens, curls, flares, basket cuts, flashes, etc. To borrow a phrase from several different coaches, there’s a million different ways to run a cut. However, there’s also a few select ways that should work best for you and your team.

This past season, the Cuts play type on Synergy was the most efficient play type on average. It’s been the most efficient play type since Synergy has existed. And yet: it’s the fourth-most used play type in college basketball. Why don’t more teams run cuts? Is this simply Synergy designating a “cut” as a different action at times? Are teams not as influenced by the Golden State Warriors (by far the highest user of cuts in the NBA) as we thought? If Cuts only represent around 8.4% of college basketball possessions, are they really that important?

There’s no one answer, obviously, but we can attempt to provide a few different ideas. First off, it’s impossible and silly to run the same play type for a full game. You’ve got to be diverse, to be creative, and to be unpredictable. The best offenses in college basketball have to have at least two of these three items: 1. Great shooters; 2. A great, unique system; 3. A coach unafraid of switching from a game plan. (Most commonly, they have all three.) The highest-usage cut rate over the 14 seasons in the Synergy database is Grove City’s 20.8% use in 2017-18. 20% seems to be a realistic limit; even Golden State only uses them 11% of the time. (In the Notes section of this piece on the last page, you’ll see some brief work on Grove City’s cuts.)

So: why are Cuts so important if most teams won’t run them more than 8-9% of the time? Because plays ending in cuts aren’t the only ones that count. The vast majority of basketball offenses use off-ball cuts, screens, motions, and more just to set up a potential shot. If a player gets a pass off of a cut and doesn’t shoot it, that won’t go down in the database. Chances are that these teams are using cuts by the technical term more often than the average 8.4%; it’s my duty to show you which ones are the best ones, theoretically.

In this series, you’ll see three teams that run a variety of unique looks offensively, all of which heavily involve cuts. Bellarmine went from going 18 seasons without a Division II NCAA Tournament bid to winning 275 games this decade on the back of Scott Davenport’s backdoor-heavy offense. On the other hand, Notre Dame’s women’s program has made 26 straight NCAA Tournaments and seven of the last nine Final Fours on the back of a routinely great offense. In between, Aaron Johnston’s hard work for South Dakota State’s women’s program has taken them from a Division II power to their first-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance in Division I this past season.

All three programs are impressive in their own way, with each finding a unique, creative way to win games on the back of their cuts. In terms of great college offenses to mine ideas from, this might be one of the better collections you’ll find.

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Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 4: ATOs and OOB Plays

It’s been said for as long as I’ve watched basketball that the plays a coach has the most control over come out of timeouts. It makes sense: that’s the only time of the game where you can draw up a play on the fly or tell the entire huddle at once what to run. Sure, coaches can call sets from the sideline, but they don’t get to draw up the set while the shot clock bleeds away.

In terms of in-game control, this is indeed where the coach has the most influence. Of course, that’s only part of the equation: a coach is made better by his out-of-game control more than anything else. Quality practices, a smart system, informed recruiting, and creativity/innovation help a coach stand out more than anything they can do in a game. That said, being able to draw up a good set for a quick two or three points out of a timeout or an out-of-bounds situation can be the final piece in a coach’s arsenal.

As with the rest of this series, ATOs and OOB plays are meant to be part of your better basketball offense, not the entirety of it. Rare is it that a team is great at both, but not at least good at the rest of their offense. Per Synergy, of the top 15 ATO offenses this year, just one ranked below the 85th-percentile in overall offensive efficiency nationally, and 13 of the 15 were in the 91st-percentile or higher. (Holy Family University in Philadelphia either has the greatest ATO coach or the worst non-ATO coach in the nation, with a 36th-percentile offense.) Generally, the plays are going to work better than most others if you have the players to execute them.

However, this doesn’t discount the necessity of the aforementioned creativity and innovation. If you’re only running a couple ATO sets and haven’t changed things up in a while, an opposing coaching staff can snuff it out pretty quickly. Continuous tweaks and new ideas can allow you to spring a player for a wide-open three or an easy cut off of a screen to the rim. Considering I am not a coach and know next-to-nothing about what makes ATOs work, I figured I should discuss this with experts.

The three teams in this portion of the series are either very well-known for their ATO prowess or should be. Any coach or fan of the game reading this knows that the Belmont Bruins have possessed insanely good ATO sets for as long as Rick Byrd coached there. You know Jim Crutchfield from his work at West Liberty; now you’ll get to see what he’s doing at Nova Southeastern. Lastly, Scott Heady isn’t a household name, but the Marian Knights had the fourth-best offense in all of college basketball this year and his ATO/OOB sets were a big part of it. Exploration is good, just like innovating is.

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Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 3: Threes & Perimeter Actions

Think back to when you watched basketball games a decade ago. Sure, the players were different, and the jerseys and shorts were quite a bit baggier. Not every game came in HD, and for March Madness, you couldn’t watch four games at once; it was whatever CBS determined was of interest to you at the time. Most importantly, the style of play was a lot different: three-pointers represented 33.1% of all shots, compared to 38.5% now. Plus, offensive rebounds mattered a lot more – the average team’s OREB% was 34.5%, while last season’s average was the lowest in modern history at 28.4%. Teams are more perimeter-oriented than they’ve ever been before, and it’s required both systematic and philosophical adjustments from coaches nationwide.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen this rise happen in real time, not all at once. After the NCAA introduced the three-point line in 1986 at 19 feet, 9 inches, the rate of three-pointers attempted to overall shots rose for 22 consecutive seasons. The NCAA moved it back a foot in 2008-09, and for the next two seasons, it seemed like it had shorted out the rise: a drop from 34.5% of all shots in 2007-08 to 33.1% the next season, followed by 32.6% in 2009-10. And then, it’s exploded: a 6.1% rise in the course of nine seasons, with teams attempting more threes than ever before.

What’s the deal? Why are teams so perimeter-oriented now? And, yes, what happened to the offensive rebound? We’ll answer all of those in this piece, but we need to unlock the keys to the three-pointer’s value first. Here’s why the three-pointer is good:

  • It counts for more than a two-pointer. Duh.
  • More importantly: it’s a more efficient shot than a mid-range attempt. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the Houston Rockets’ impact on basketball throughout America. Daryl Morey’s group was the first team to truly prioritize shot selection above all other metrics, taking exclusively three-pointers or shots at the rim because, simply enough, they were the most valuable shots. 82games.com was one of the first sites to publish this, stating that close shots and threes correlated with more regular season wins. I’d also credit them with popularizing the corner three, the most beloved three-point shot of all, because it was worth 13.5 more points per 100 possessions at the time. Mid-range attempts, well…not so good.
  • It’s the great equalizer. Any coach worth their weight in America will tell you that you can’t rely entirely on threes to win games. Most coaches, in fact, would add that threes still aren’t the first shot they want; that’s a rim attempt. But a hot night from three can open up new possibilities. That’s why eFG% is a much better stat than FG%. For example, let’s say Team A makes 28 of their 56 attempts, but Team B makes 25 of 56. (For ease of time, assume they make the same number of free throws.) In 1985 and prior, Team A wins by six points. However, Team B made 12 of their 25 three-point attempts, while Team A went 5 of 19 from three. Because of the three-pointer, Team B wins by a point in a game where they made fewer shots.
  • Lastly: it can open up the rest of the floor. Each coach I talked to told me just how important spacing was for their offense. No spacing, no shots; no shots, no spacing. If you’re able to hit threes, you’re able to force defenders out of the paint, which gives you easier buckets inside. It’s not a coincidence that, for this piece, all three teams profiled attempted threes, layups, or dunks for at least 80% of their shots. They had excellent shot selection, and it allowed them to open up the entire floor.

However, not all threes are equal. Catch-and-shoot threes, on average, are worth 24.1 points more per 100 possessions than pull-up/off-the-dribble threes. Open threes, per Synergy, are +15.6 per 100 possessions versus guarded ones. Here’s the ultimate question: how do you maximize your number of open catch-and-shoot threes in a game where everyone knows that’s what you’re looking for? That’s for these excellent teams, and their smart coaches, to answer.

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Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 2: Ball Screens

Ball screen usage (alternately, pick plays, pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, etc.) has exploded over the last decade. It’s not a perfect number, but we can at least get a solid estimate via Synergy Sports. Per their measurement of ball screen possessions that include passes, the 2008-09 college basketball season saw an average team usage of about 9.8%. In just ten years, this has more than doubled to 24.8%. That’s a crazy jump!

Surely, if teams are using it this much more, this must be because it’s also exploded in efficiency, correct? Well…not really. From that same data set via Synergy, the average team’s PPP has only increased by 0.008 over the last decade. That’s not even a one point jump for every 100 possessions, which is surprising considering the ball screen’s widespread usage. Have we reached ball screen oversaturation? Is this the peak of the pick-and-roll?

Considering it’s the easiest set to run in basketball, we probably have some growth still to go. The rate of growth has slowed in the last half-decade – from 18.9% in 2013-14 to 24.8% last year, with just a 0.2% jump from 2017-18 to this season – but it’s still going up. As teams see the benefit of running these simpler sets and see its frequent usage by recent champions, coaches will likely continue to make ball screens an offensive focus.

Plus, the rates haven’t yet caught up to the most important league of all: the NBA. Their P&R usage has risen from an 18.1% P&R usage a decade ago to 31.1% in 2013-14 and 32% this season. Their curve has flattened, as you can tell. It’s actually dropped from its peak in 2015-16 of 34.8% of all possessions. If the NBA’s reached peak P&R, we can assume college will do so soon enough. However, that time likely isn’t now, and you can continue to tweak and differentiate what you do from others for better results.

The three teams you’ll read about take three very different approaches to ball screens. Northwest Missouri completely eschews the most popular ball screen of all, the continuity. Oregon and Kelly Graves use the wings, and a secondary passer, to their advantage. At Saint John’s in Minnesota, Pat McKenzie runs a tight motion offense with tons of spacing. All this being said, these three teams combined for a 94-10 record this past season, all of them having wildly efficient ball-screen offenses. What they’re doing is working, and it’s worth investigating why it works.

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Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 1: Transition

“I will never, ever play the game the other way. We’re not going to play like everyone else, just because every other coach is doing it. I’d throw up.” – Tim Cluess, Iona head coach

Imagine a world where, at your profession, you control the pace of your work. Sure, maybe you do so right now, but it isn’t true for most of us. The vast majority of what you do is at a plodding pace, one where you’re forced to get creative to hit a goal in an efficient manner. Occasionally, though, an opportunity comes about: a way to get things done that offers a fast pace, higher efficiency, and, generally, a more fun outcome. If everyone else is working at a slower, more deliberate pace 85% of the time and only doing the fun, quick stuff for the other 15%, you’d like to increase the amount of time you spend on the fun and easy stuff, right? Congrats: on part one of a seven-part series, you’ve solved college basketball.

It would be nice if it was that easy. Like most sports, points come at a premium in college basketball. Unsurprisingly, it’s much easier to score in transition than in half-court. The average transition offense in D-1 puts up 1.11 points per shot; average half-court, 0.994 PPS. That’s a difference of eight points in an average D-1 game. Why don’t more teams play fast, then? Because:

    • It’s just about impossible to play an entire game in transition.
    • Unless you have a really, really deep team, you’re going to have to slow the game down somewhat to keep your players from falling over.

However, playing faster and scoring more points is starting to equal better efficiency. The ten fastest teams in D-1 in 2018-19 averaged 1.066 PPP; the ten slowest, 1.03. This has greatly shifted from the 35-second shot clock era. In 2014-15, the last year of the 35-second shot clock, only four of the ten fastest offenses in America ranked in the top 100 in efficiency; five of the ten slowest did, with none ranking below #245.

While it’s impossible to build the perfect offense, even for transition, we can at least look at what ties the best offenses together to form an easier path forward. This series isn’t about building the perfect basketball offense. It’s about making your offense better. This edition includes interviews with Whitman College head coach Eric Bridgeland and West Virginia Tech head coach Bob Williams. If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain team’s section, you may do so here: