Self hasn't even gotten to all the options the Morrii provide in the ball-screen sets Kansas uses in late-shot-clock situations, so he stops the tape, walks to the whiteboard in his office and begins diagramming. When both twins are available as screeners, he explains, the one being guarded by the opposition's most capable hedger—"Most teams only have one," Self says—can slip to the basket, while the other can run a pick-and-pop. Occasionally, Self will make the twin who's being marked by the opponent's biggest post defender his designated screener, which pulls defensive size away from the rim and leaves the other brother isolated against a weaker defender. Self draws up a set in which Marcus pick-and-pops on the right wing and receives the ball just as Markieff has sealed off his defender on the right block. "Now," Self says, "we've got our best passer feeding our best low-block guy." The twins, Markieff will later explain, have a term for these situations, when they're certain they'll score: "Getting your picks"—as in, your easiest route to points. And they'll be getting their picks all the way to the Final Four in Houston.
"Handoffs from my man"
It's the morning of Valentine's Day in the office of assistant coach John Robic, who has worked with John Calipari for 14 seasons, at UMass, Memphis and Kentucky, and directs the Wildcats' scouting and game-planning efforts. Mississippi State is visiting Lexington tomorrow, and Calipari opens Robic's door to pass along a few tactical instructions, the last of which is, "The best thing, I think, is handoffs from my man."
In this case the object of Calipari's affection is SEC freshman of the year Terrence Jones, a 6'9" forward who became the focal point of the Wildcats' offense, as they put together a 25--8 résumé worthy of a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. A long, lefty slasher with perhaps the best handle of any college player his size, Jones uses a team-high 28.9% of their possessions, while averaging 16.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Kentucky tweaked its offense over Christmas break to install a series of handoffs by him and center Josh Harrellson at the start of possessions. Harrellson, for example, will catch the ball near the top of the key, then take one or two dribbles directly into the defender of one of the Wildcats' sharpshooters—freshman point guard Brandon Knight (38.8% from beyond the arc), freshman swingman Doron Lamb (48.4%) and junior wing Darius Miller (45.4%)—who then takes the ball and slips above Harrellson for an open three.
Watching footage of Kentucky's first meeting with Vanderbilt, an 81--77 loss on Feb. 12 in Nashville, Robic points out stark differences from last year, namely the rise in handoffs, pick-and-rolls, three-pointers and isolation possessions. After Kentucky sent John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton to the first round of the NBA draft, then lost an eligibility battle with the NCAA over the school's one elite post recruit, beastly Turkish center Enes Kanter, the coaches couldn't just force the new personnel into the old slots. They had to create new slots and hope it would work.
Calipari is even more adept at branding his offense than he is at adjusting it, so it went mostly unnoticed last season that the Wildcats barely used his celebrated dribble-drive motion, an attack he helped popularize that uses few screens and emphasizes guard penetration and spreading the floor. "We'd really just try to score in transition because of our speed, then run set plays, then look to post the ball," Robic says. "We were the biggest team in the country, and we had to take advantage of that size." Synergy Sports scouting data for the 2009--10 team bears this out, showing possession splits of 20.2% transition, 11.3% post, 6.9% isolation, 4.5% pick-and-roll and 1.6% handoffs. This year's offense, Robic says, features fewer fast-break points, and in the half-court it consists of actions that segue into the dribble-drive much more often. The Synergy splits reflect the change, showing 15.2% transition possessions, 6.0% post, 12.8% isolation, 7.8% pick-and-rolls and 5.0% handoffs.
Calipari and Robic have been entrusting their teams to elite freshman point guards for four straight years: Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis, Wall and now Knight at Kentucky. The pre-dribble-drive handoffs were put in specifically for Knight, who's a better three-point shooter than his predecessors but a less physical player. "He's still fast, but he's thinner," Robic explains, "and he doesn't play through the bump as well as those guys did on the drive." Knight happens to be the best student of the foursome—he had a 4.3 GPA at the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale—and could be the first to not go one-and-done to the NBA. The Wildcats' coaches aren't sure which of the current freshmen will jump to the league, though Jones is projected to be a lottery pick. Kentucky's performance in the NCAA tournament, where it is a dark horse Final Four candidate, could affect those decisions. No matter what happens, the next adaptation cycle will soon be upon them: The nation's No. 1--ranked recruiting class will arrive in Lexington this off-season, demanding new roles and new wrinkles in the offense.
"He doesn't have to look for trouble"