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The Final Four Intel Report

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Joey Rodriguez

Joey Rodriguez and VCU will look to put the heat on Butler in the Final Four. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Four doses of Final Four knowledge, on the morning of the semifinals:

I. Understanding “HAVOC”: How VCU’s press will attack Butler

Butler would prefer not to play a fullcourt game. The Bulldogs are the 270th-slowest team in the country, at 64.6 possessions per game, and 90.4 percent of their offensive possessions this season were halfcourt sets. The fact that they struggled with Wisconsin’s impromptu press in the Sweet 16, letting the Badgers whittle a 20-point lead down to four in the final two minutes, leads one to believe that VCU — a team that presses on made baskets with regularity — will bring the heat on Saturday. Coach Shaka Smart has branded the Rams’ style of play as “Havoc,” and as junior guard Bradford Burgess said, “There’s a full court for a reason.”

The 33-year-old Smart received much of his offensive education in the year he spent under Billy Donovan at Florida, but the VCU coach’s biggest defensive influence is the man who hired him at Dayton and Clemson, Oliver Purnell. A major proponent of the press, Purnell’s primary scheme has long been the “Diamond,” or 1-2-1-1 zone. Smart has adopted this at VCU, and it figured prominently in the Rams’ assault on Kansas in the Elite Eight. “We felt like, because the [Jayhawks] didn’t have a true point guard, the press could work,” said assistant coach Mike Jones. Butler’s starting backcourt of Shelvin Mack, Shawn Vanzant and Chase Stigall doesn’t include a true point guard, either; that means Ronald Nored, the starting point during last year’s title-game run, may need to play major minutes off the bench to solve the pressure.

Here are two ways the diamond forced turnovers against Kansas:

• The goal of the diamond, which has a man guarding the inbounder and two defenders spread out on the three-point wings, is to force the opponent to catch the ball in the “coffin corner,” where the sideline and baseline intersect, and then aggressively trap him. That happens to KU’s Tyrel Reed in frames 1 and 2. The weakside defender prevents a pass back to the inbounder, and then the midcourt defender (in this case, Joey Rodriguez in frame 3) comes up to play safety against long passes out of the trap. When Reed tries to find Tyshawn Taylor near the center circle, Rodriguez steps up and snares the ball (frame 4), then converts it into a layup.

VCU Diamond Press 1

• In this second example, the Jayhawks avoid the coffin-corner inbounds pass and hit Markieff Morris (frame 1) near the hashmark. The diamond (formation seen in frame 2) then scrambles to either trap Morris or take away his passing options. He panics while looking for Taylor near the center circle, throwing it over his head because Rodriguez has stepped into the passing lane. The backline defender then steps up to gather the loose ball, and looks to score in transition.

VCU Diamond Press 2

The Rams also use a “run and jump” man-to-man press on occasion, and this too was borrowed from the Purnell playbook. The example below is from their second-round win over Purdue; you can see that in this case, they don’t pressure the inbounder, but they attempt to deny the easy inbounds pass (frame 1). The jump defender, who had been guarding one of the Boilermakers’ big men, starts lurking, looking for a trap opportunity (frame 2). Since VCU is playing 5-on-4 in the backcourt, it allows E’Twaun Moore to get free on the opposite wing, and tempts Purdue into throwing a long, upcourt pass. The back of the press recovers in time to pressure Moore soon after the catch, and forces him to throw the ball away.

VCU Man Jump Press

II. Where Kentucky failed the first time

Awful, awful first question to the UConn press conference on Friday, by someone who apparently wasn’t aware of the existence of the Maui Invitational:

Reporter: “Kemba [Walker], have you faced a defender this year like DeAndre Liggins, a guy much taller than you with long arms? What kind of problems does that present to you?”

Kemba Walker: “We actually played against them already, so I faced him already.”

This happened on Nov. 29, when Walker had 29 points in an 87-64 rout in the Maui title game. As Liggins, who guarded him for most of the game, said on Thursday, “Kemba killed us.”

Liggins, whose rep as a defensive stopper has improved since then, would surely like another shot at the guy who killed him in the season’s first month. The promising thing, for the Wildcats, is that while Walker made a few absurd shots in that game on soundly defended possessions, they also had a number of easily fixable lapses that led to Walker baskets. Here are three areas they’ll no doubt address in their UConn scouting report:

Ballscreen defense. The frames below show how UK defended UConn’s first ballscreen of that game. It wasn’t pretty. While Liggins tries to fight over the screen, freshman forward Terrence Jones, playing in just his fifth college game, hedges tentatively, and not nearly long enough for Liggins to recover. Jones’ early retreat from Walker’s path essentially gave him a clear lane to the rim for a floater. Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats double Walker off of ballscreens this time around.

Kentucky Kemba Pick and Roll

Late closeouts. In the left frame, Liggins isn’t vigilant enough about staying tight with Walker in a spot-up, halfcourt situation, and Walker rises up for an easy three without as much as a hand in his face. In the right frame, the Wildcats allow Walker to get loose in transition, and the closest defender to him, Darius Miller, chooses to sag back and protect the lane rather than pressure the ball. He, too, gets burned by a three.

Kentucky Kemba Closeouts

Risky over-plays. Later in that game, Liggins tried to start denying Walker the ball when he’d cut to the perimeter to receive passes. The strategy wasn’t all that successful, as Walker countered by back-cutting while Kentucky had no one protecting the rim. In the frames below, he and Shabazz Napier execute a perfect back-door play that leaves Liggins flailing out beyond the arc:

Kentucky Kemba Overplays

III: The statistical abnormalities of VCU-Butler

Thanks to some excellent research from Tourney Blog collaborator David Hess, the man behind The Audacity of Hoops, we can examine each Final Four team’s tournament performance across 20 categories, and see how much better or worse (in terms of percent) it is in relation to their regular-season numbers.

VCU, as we’ve mentioned before, is playing well above its season-long identity in a number of categories. Most of the talk has been about the Rams’ superhuman three-point shooting, but Hess reveals that we should be focusing on their three-point defense instead. They’ve had almost a 40 percent improvement in their defensive three-point percentage during the dance:

VCU Stats

Butler, meanwhile, has strayed from its traditional profile in one big way: Instead of controlling the defensive glass, as it did much of the season (and in last year’s tournament as well), the Bulldogs are giving opponents over 20 percent more offensive boards. Butler has compensated for this by experiencing a 10 percent surge in its own offensive rebounding, in large part due to freshman Khyle Marshall, their glass-crashing “energy guy” off the bench:

Butler Stats

IV: The statistical abnormalities of UConn-Kentucky

More from the Hess Files: The Huskies’ seven-year reign over the national defensive block percentage standings came to an end in 2010-11, with Syracuse stealing the title. If it’s any solace to UConn fans, at least they’re not getting any of their own shots blocked in the NCAA tournament; 60 percent fewer of their shots are getting swatted in the dance than the regular season. Somehow they managed to not let Arizona’s Derrick Williams record a single block in the Elite Eight.

UConn Stats

Our charts show that Kentucky’s defense is surging in three categories: blocks, free-throw rate, and three-point percentage allowed. Considering the ugly images we showed in section II, this is a good sign. The Wildcats have figured out ways to contest three-point shooters while not fouling as much on drives. They should make life tougher on Kemba than they did in Maui, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop him altogether. There’s no formula for that. The tapes of his past nine games make for one horrific scouting-report reel.

Kentucky Stats


  • Published On Apr 02 2011 by lukewinn
  • Inside The Final Four Offenses

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    Josh Harrellson

    Driving, dishing Josh Harrellson: Kentucky's point center? (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

    Consider this your ultimate Final Four study aid: The Tourney Blog breaks down a critical part of each team’s offensive attack, in its full screen-grab glory.

    Kentucky: The Harrellson Hub

    Forget the Dribble Drive Motion; although the Wildcats have the most efficient halfcourt offense* left in the tournament, what they’re running now is the Jorts Special. Senior center Josh Harrellson’s handoff and ball-screen service has become a primary method of freeing up shooters and drivers on the perimeter, and UK coaches add new wrinkles to Jorts’ attack for each game. Below are five different Harrellson-initiated scoring attempts from the past two rounds:

    Example No. 1: Drive Right, Handoff

    At the beginning of this set against Ohio State, Harrellson calls for the ball at the top of the key, receives it, and then drives right to initiate a handoff and screen for DeAndre Liggins. Liggins takes the handoff and drives in a curl pattern around Harrellson to the rim.

    Harrellson 1

    Example No. 2: Drive Right, Handoff (with a twist)

    This is a similar set from the Sweet 16, except that it starts with Brandon Knight feigning setting a screen (frame 1) for Darius Miller in the right corner. Knight drops below Miller, and then uses Miller’s screen (frame 2) and Harrellson’s handoff (frame 3) to ditch Aaron Craft and get an open look for a three.

    Harrellson 2

    Example No. 3: Pick & Pop into Handoff & Roll

    Here, Harrellson begins without the ball, setting a low-side ballscreen for Knight on the right wing (frame 1). Knight drives right off the screen, and Harrellson pops to the wing, where he receives the ball. Rather than reversing it or looking for a three, he immediately initiates a handoff play with Knight, driving at him down the right sideline (frames 2 + 3). When Harrellson’s man, Jared Sullinger, hedges to prevent Knight from shooting an easy three, Harrellson rolls to the rim (frame 4) and receives a bounce pass from Knight, which is converted into a dunk.

    Harrellson 3

    Example No. 4: Top-of-key Handoff

    Harrellson only needs to take one dribble to make this play happen against North Carolina. He waits at the top of the key, with the ball, as Knight cuts up from the left block (frame 1), running his man off the back of Tyler Zeller (frame 2) and then curling around Harrellson to take the handoff (frame 3). With Harrellson’s backside sealing off the play, Knight can rise for a clear attempt at a three.

    Harrellson 4

    Example No. 5: The Keep ‘Em Honest Drive

    If defenders — like Zeller — press up too far against Harrellson to prevent his side-to-side handoff drives, he now has the green light to take them off the dribble to the rim. Here, he simply rips the ball from left to right and gets a step past Zeller, with an open lane to the rim. Zeller recovered to block Harrellson’s shot in this instance, but Harrellson succeeded with this play against West Virginia, and could break it out once in the Final Four.

    Harrellson 5

    * Thanks to Harrellson and its brigade of quality long-range shooters, Kentucky averages the most halfcourt points per possession and highest effective field goal percentage, according to Synergy Sports Technology data:

    Halfcourt Offense Efficiency

    Rk. Team PPP eFG% TO%
    1. Kentucky 0.942 51.1 13.4
    2. Butler 0.936 50.3 14.6
    3. VCU 0.915 50.2 15.1
    4. UConn 0.878 46.5 14.0

    UConn: Freeing Jeremy Lamb

    Huskies star Kemba Walker creates so much offense from scratch that while he’s a joy to watch, he’s not exceptionally interesting in terms of Xs and Os. What’s worth examining is all the effort UConn puts into freeing the Robin to Walker’s Batman, Jeremy Lamb, for open jumpers and floaters in halfcourt sets. Late in the Elite Eight win over Arizona, Walker was even demanding that plays be run for Lamb, telling coach Jim Calhoun, “Let’s run circle for Jeremy.”

    Example No. 1: The Circle of Screens

    This play is what I assume Walker was referring to: Point guard Shabazz Napier slowly dribbles on a left-to-right diagonal path as Lamb (purple arrow, frame 1) gets his first screen, from Walker, at the left elbow. Lamb proceeds to move in a circle around the pack of Huskies gathered in the lane, getting a second screen at the left block (frame 2), and a third screen at the right block (frame 3). He curls off of that, receiving the ball just inside the free-throw line, with enough space for a mid-range jumper.

    Lamb Circle Play

    Example No. 2: Baseline Misdirection

    It looks, at first, like this set is being run for Roscoe Smith, who’s coming off the right block (frame 1) through a double screen on the left block. Walker is simultaneously dribbling off a ball-screen from Charles Okwandu, heading to the left side of the floor. But as soon as Smith clears the double screen, Walker stops in his tracks, and Lamb, who was on the left block, sprints right (frame 2) off a pick from Okwandu, who had rolled to the right block. Lamb curls off of this and receives Walker’s pass with plenty of room to shoot another mid-range jumper.

    Lamb 1

    Example No. 3: The S-Curve

    This is another baseline set for Lamb, in which he begins off of the right block (purple arrow, frame 1), and runs on the high side of a screen from Okwandu. Rather than flash up into the lane, Lamb curves back toward the baseline to run his man under a second screen from Alex Oriakhi (frame 3). Walker hits Lamb with the pass just as he clears Oriakhi, and it results in a swished baseline floater.

    Lamb 3

    Butler: Solving the Zone

    The success of the Bulldogs’ zone offense could be critical to them advancing to the title game. Florida surprised them with a 2-3 zone for 16 of the 73 halfcourt sets in the Elite Eight, according to Synergy Sports’ possession logs, and Butler only scored on five of those 16 sets, as opposed to 27 of 57 against man-to-man D.

    VCU broke out a 2-3 zone in the CAA quarterfinals against Drexel, and has been using it sporadically ever since. Synergy’s logs show that the Rams played eight zone possessions (of 57 total) against USC, two (of 57) against Georgetown, 10 (of 71) against Purdue, 13 (of 81) against Florida State, and three (of 73) against Kansas.

    While the Bulldogs didn’t fare well at penetrating Florida’s zone in isolation, they did find a few other ways to score:

    Example No. 1: Center / Spread

    The beauty of the new-and-improved Matt Howard is that he’s just as dangerous from the perimeter (he’s a 42.6 percent three-point shooter) as he is in the paint. So, against a 2-3, the Bulldogs can place center Andrew Smith in the middle of the lane, and then stretch out the back line by putting Howard in one corner and Zach Hahn in the other. In this case, Shelvin Mack fed Smith on the left block, and then he played a two-man game with Howard on the left side, kicking the ball out once Alex Tyus (the left-corner defender) dropped down to help in the post.

    Howard 1

    Example No. 2: Screen and Seal

    Here, Butler runs Smith out to the perimeter to set a right-side ballscreen for Shawn Vanzant, the Bulldogs’ best zone penetrator. As the screen is being set, Howard, who’s on the left block, steps inside of Tyus and seals him off from the basket. This means that once Vanzant comes off the screen, he can lob a post feed to Howard, pass to Smith on a basket cut, or shoot a jumper with Howard in prime offensive rebounding position. Vanzant opted for the jumper in this instance, and Tyus fouled Howard while trying to climb over his back for the rebound.

    Howard 2

    Example No. 3: Getting Lost

    Howard is the Bulldogs’ most efficient spot-up shooter, averaging 1.24 points per possession in those situations, so it makes sense to get him open looks in the middle of the zone. Butler does so here by misdirecting the attention of Florida’s defenders. First, Howard sets a screen against the top-left defender (frame 1) as Mack reverses the ball to Vanzant on the left side. As the ball goes left, Howard begins running right in a slow circle, almost touching the top-right defender (frame 2) before coming back to the right elbow (frame 3). The back-line defenders, at this point, are concerned with preventing a post feed to Smith, and the top-line defenders are pressed out on the guards. This creates a perfect pocket for Howard to shoot an open, free-throw length jumper (frame 4).

    Howard 3

    Example No. 4: Backdoor ‘Oop

    Had this play worked for Crishawn Hopkins, the sub who changed the momentum of the Florida game, he would’ve been an even bigger star. The Bulldogs reverse the ball to the right side, from Vanzant to Mack (frame 1), and Smith flashes to the right elbow as Howard sneaks behind Tyus to set a backscreen on the left block (frame 2). The purpose of this is to clear a path for Hopkins to run from the left wing to the rim for an alley-oop, but Tyus is agile enough to spin around Howard and prevent it. Howard then launches into a secondary action, running up to screen the top-left man of the 2-3 (frame 4) and free up a three for Vanzant, who makes a fade cut to the left wing.

    Howard 4

    No matter what defense Butler faces on Saturday, it’ll be important for it to avoid settling for long twos and pound the ball inside. Using Synergy data, I compiled the following table of jump-shooting splits, showing each Final Four team’s efficiency on short shots (17 feet and in), deep twos (between 17 feet and the three-point line) and long-range shots (threes). Butler is by far the least efficient team at mid-range jumpers … and it’s by far the best team when it’s close to the rim:

    Jump-Shooting Efficiency Splits

    Rk. Team ShortPPP MidPPP LongPPP OverallPPP
    1. Kentucky 0.734 0.760 1.156 1.010
    2. VCU 0.698 0.711 1.121 1.028
    3. Butler 0.858 0.525 1.089 0.972
    4. UConn 0.704 0.792 0.985 0.887

    VCU: Skeen In Space

    The Rams aren’t a great offensive rebounding team, ranking 217th in OReb%, mainly because their starting big man, 6-foot-9 forward Jamie Skeen, reacts to dribble penetration by floating away from the basket. He does this because he’s the team’s second-best three-point shooter, at 40.2 percent, and tends to get wide-open looks as defenses compress to stop drivers.

    Example No. 1: Push & Pull

    As pint-sized point guard Joey Rodriguez drives into the lane from the left side against Kansas, Skeen’s man, Markieff Morris, slides over to help. Seeing this, Skeen (purple arrow, frame 1) fades to the top of the key, where he receives a kick-out from Rodriguez (frame 2) and has about 18 feet of space between him and the closest defender to catch and shoot.

    Skeen 1

    Example No. 2: Wingman

    Again, Skeen recognizes that the Morris twin guarding him (Marcus this time) has to help contain Rodriguez’s penetration. Skeen steps out to the left wing (purple arrow, frame 1) and receives a kick-out from Rodriguez, who has driven right into Morris’ body.

    Skeen 2

    Example No. 3: Filling the Pick-and-Roll Space

    Skeen starts the majority of VCU’s possessions on the left block, and here, against Florida State, he waits for a screen-and-roll play (frame 1) between Rodriguez and D.J. Haley (No. 33) to occupy defenders’ attention on the right wing and middle of the lane. As Skeen’s defender, Bernard James (No. 5), has to step up to block Haley’s path to the rim, Skeen runs out to the left wing (frame 2). Rodriguez picks up his dribble, pivots, and whips a crosscourt pass to Skeen, who shoots an open three before James can recover.

    Skeen 3


  • Published On Mar 30 2011 by lukewinn
  • Inside VCU’s Game-Winning Play

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    This guest post is from The Mikan Drill, a blog devoted to screengrab breakdowns of college basketball plays and schemes. Mikan Drill’s Saturday topic: Examining how VCU’s game-winning play developed against Florida State in the Sweet 16.

    I’ve examined last-second inbounds plays several times over the course of the season, and found that they often could have been foiled if the defender responsible for the inbounder was positioned in a slightly different manner. That was an issue again in this case, and it cost Florida State a trip to the Elite Eight. Let’s take a look at that final VCU set:

    VCU comes out of the timeout aligned in a box set. In this situation, you have to be aware of a screen-the-screener situation, with the second screener looking for the slip to the rim — and that’s exactly what VCU is trying to do. Focus on the positioning of Deividas Dulkys, who is guarding the inbounder, throughout the play. I’m of the mindset that in this situation, unless you have a player with the wingspan of North Carolina’s John Henson, no ball pressure is fine as long as you position the defender correctly. Instead, have Dulkys right about where he is but with his back to the ball, defending cutters and protecting the rim. In that initial position, he is putting no pressure on the ball and cannot see cutters behind him.

    VCU Play 1

    VCU’s Jamie Skeen starts on the left block and turns to set a screen for Bradford Burgess, who will use it to flash to the corner. Joey Rodriguez (the inbounder) looks at him initially, but I don’t think Rodriguez had any intention of passing him the ball, as he’s waiting for the rest of the play to develop. Skeen sets the screen and immediately receives the screen from Brandon Rozell (the screen is shown in red). Skeen’s path is to the right side of the rim but that is blown up by the help of FSU’s Chris Singleton. More often than not, the initial screener, Skeen, will not be actually be open, but the second screener will get free on the slip to the rim.

    VCU Play 2

    The play looks like it was set up to achieve just that purpose. However, FSU’s Bernard James takes Rozell out of the play by running him over and not allowing him to slip the screen. With Singleton standing up Skeen and not letting him get to the rim, both Skeen and Rozell have been taken out of the play. However, with the chaos created by James running over Rozell, a path to the rim has opened up through the paint. Burgess sees that opening and goes right to the rim. Kitchen isn’t ready for the cut and Burgess is able to beat him easily.

    VCU Play 3

    I don’t think this is quite how Shaka Smart drew it up in the huddle. He was looking for a slip but he was no doubt looking for Rozell to slip the screen — and that option was taken away. FSU defended it well all the way up to the end, where a simple shift in defensive position could have changed the outcome of the play and the game. Look at where Dulkys is positioned below, as Rodriguez is making the pass. He is not pressuring the pass at all, nor is he taking away the cut of Burgess. He is not contributing anything to the defensive effort of his teammates.

    Dulkys may have been able to bother the pass if he was putting strong pressure on the ball, but I’d rather he turn and face the play and take away cutters. If he’s facing the play, he sees Burgess make the cut and he takes the cut away. Rodriguez would have had to make the outlet pass to the safety at halfcourt and VCU would have had to try to get a basket from there with seven seconds left.

    VCU Play 4

    The one thing to be aware of if you choose to position your defender that way is the inbounder passing the ball off the back of the defender for a layup. This is mitigated by taking two steps up the court and two steps toward the basket. This puts the defender far enough away to not encourage the inbounder to try that move, but close enough to still take away cutters. In this case, Dulkys didn’t pressure the ball or take away cutters, and amid the chaos, Burgess was able to take advantage of an opening and cut to the rim, showing great recognition of broken-play situation.


  • Published On Mar 26 2011 by lukewinn