Fast and Furious (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday February 12, 2008 12:10PM; Updated: Monday February 18, 2008 5:12PM
Walberg's invention shares some elements with European-style drive-and-kick formations and the fast-paced spread offense of Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, parts of which are being used by Duke, Texas and UMass. But Walberg is sui generis. Since '97 he has added myriad phases, wrinkles and -- perhaps most important -- an elaborate set of competitive practice drills (with names such as Blood, Cardinal and Scramble) that hone the fundamentals necessary for the offense. "Have you seen Vance at practice? Oh, man," says Brown. "His drills are all building blocks to his offense and defense, which is the key to coaching."
In fact, Calipari says he now does far more coaching in practice than during games, when he used to bark out play calls nearly every trip down the court. "The biggest strength of this offense," Walberg says, "is I feel we're teaching kids how to play basketball instead of how to run plays."
Dribble-drive is tailor-made for today's high school and college teams, which favor speed in the absence of classic back-to-the-basket big men, but it isn't for everyone. It requires quick, smart and talented guards who have a feel for the game. (See: Memphis point guard Derrick Rose.) It requires agile big men who can shoot from the perimeter and race downcourt. It requires deep benches and three-point shooters who can punish sagging man-to-man defenses and the inevitable zones. Not least, it requires complete commitment from coaches, who have to give up the control that comes with offensive play-calling and conventional half-court defenses.
Indeed, Walberg is so committed that he might need to be committed. He's still disappointed that Memphis's swarming defense -- the nation's best, holding opponents to 0.83 points per possession -- hasn't adopted his gambling full-court press, which Walberg's California converts contend is even more Promethean than his offense. "Vance believes so much in what he does," says Brown, a disciple of Dean Smith and Henry Iba. "The first time I met him we were talking about defensive principles, and everything I said, he'd say, 'No, no, no, you can't do it that way.' I'd say, 'Well, Coach Smith and Mr. Iba taught me this.' And he'd still say, 'No, no, no.' Is he not a character?"
Walberg may have been a mad scientist, but he won games at an astonishing rate, usually with less talent than his opponents had. In the five years after it adopted his offense, Clovis West went 159-18, and during Walberg's four seasons at Fresno City College (2002-06) the Rams went 133-11, winning the '05 state juco title and regularly averaging more than 100 points a game. Nuggets assistant John Welch constantly observed Clovis West practices during his days at Fresno State under Jerry Tarkanian. He recalls, "People used to think it was funny: Why is a college assistant always over there with a high school coach? But I've been around some unbelievable coaches -- Tark, Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, now George Karl and Tim Grgurich -- and I've learned as much from Vance as from anybody else."
By the summer of 2003 Welch had joined Hubie Brown's Memphis Grizzlies staff. One day he called his friend Calipari. "I've always respected Johnny Welch," says Calipari. "He's a basketball Benny, knows coaches, studies the game. He says, 'Look, I've got a guy coming in here, and I want him to spend some time with you. You ought to look at his offense.' "
Why change? It may seem obvious now that they're coaching the nation's top-ranked teams in college and high school basketball, but Calipari and Hurley didn't need to overhaul their systems. Calipari, 49, had won 336 games in college and the NBA and had reached three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and a Final Four when he and Walberg sat down for dinner that night at Cal's Championship Steakhouse. During his first three seasons at Memphis, however, Calipari had coached in only one NCAA tournament game. "It's like you're a teacher, and you're teaching for 15 years, and your lesson plan never changed," he says. "This has been invigorating for me because it's gotten me to think, to study the game again."