Like he is every offseason, Buzz Williams spent all four months as a student. He meticulously studied a different aspect of the game for one month, each month, to improve as a head coach. He said he wanted to focus on “things that I know the essence of the game will always come down to,” he told reporters at the team’s media day in October.
His list of subjects included studying zone offense in May, press offense in June and transition defense in July. And as he does every August, he said he finished the offseason studying ball-screen coverage.
And whatever Williams absorbed in that final month of study, and what he subsequently passed on to his team, will be key in Marquette’s Sweet 16 matchup with Miami on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Jim Larranaga’s Hurricanes–who defeated 15th-seeded Pacific and 7th-seeded Illinois to get to this spot–have made a living off ball-screen action on offense, and their incredible efficiency has been a large reason for their 29-6 record, their outright ACC regular season title and ACC Tournament Championship.
Much like an NBA offense, the Hurricanes begin almost all offensive sets with a ball screen at the top of the key, most times for point guard Shane Larkin or shooting guard Durand Scott. From there it’s a two-man game where the ball handler attacks the basket, hoping to get to rim for a layup, hit a trailing forward for a jumper or layup or find an open shooter once the defense rotates to help.
Admittedly that’s about as vanilla as one could get about the intricacies of Larranaga’s offense–ranked 15th in the country in efficiency, per KenPom.com–but for purposes of time, we’ll work with that and go from there.
In 2012-’13, Miami has run pick-and-roll sets using the guard (as opposed to the roll-er) 16.9 percent of the time, the second-highest mark in the country (minimum 580 attempts). Ironically Illinois was the only team which used the set more frequently, doing so on 18.7 percent of occasions.
And not only do the Hurricanes set a high number of pick-and-rolls for their guards, they do it nearly as efficient as any team in the country. On 436 possessions, Miami is averaging 0.878 points per possession, the fifth highest number in the country. And of those attempts, primarily Larkin and Scott, the Hurricanes shoot 43.4 percent from the floor, the 10th best mark in the nation.
The Hurricanes have built an efficient offense around these sets, and it’s something Marquette is sure to see often on Thursday. The Golden Eagles saw pick-and-roll offense at times against Butler, and rarely against Davidson. Here are those numbers:
After Marquette’s win over Butler, Williams was asked on two different occasions if he did anything different against Bulldogs sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke in the final 15 minutes–when Clarke scored failed to score on 0-for-5 shooting and two turnovers–than he did the first 25 minutes, when Clarke scored 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
Williams refused to answer when asked about the Marquette’s defense on the second-to-last possession, when Clarke was denied the ball, saying “we’re getting the same test we’ve gotten the last two years [attempting to win a Sweet 16 game], and I want to pass it this year. And I’m not being a jerk, but, no, I’m not gonna tell you.”
Whatever Williams did against Clarke, it certainly worked. And now that the Hurricanes are set to go up against that same Marquette defense, perhaps Williams’ reasoning can be seen. Williams likely knew his team would play one of Illinois or Miami, meaning pick-and-roll defense would be crucial.
Like the Hurricanes’ Larkin and Scott, Butler’s Clarke made the most of the pick-and-roll sets he used in Brad Stevens’ offense.
Whatever Williams did against Clarke, he’ll likely have to do it against Larkin and Scott, too. Point guard Junior Cadougan, who guarded Clarke a majority of that second half, gave his take on what Marquette may have done different.
“Second half, me and Derrick Wilson did a great job of gearing him down and knowing what to do on the ball screens, contesting his shots and trying to wear him out,” he said, “so he could make the other guys beat us instead of him. We did a great job in the second half of wearing him down.”
There’s more to Miami’s offense, and there’s more to how Marquette will attempt to shut it all down, but how Williams decides to defend the pick and roll when Larkin and Scott receive them will go a long way toward a win.