Embracing the Break

-Jim Root

One of the beautiful parts of college basketball is the variety in style – from the Citadel to Virginia, teams hoop in completely different ways, emphasizing vastly disparate factors. Perhaps most important among these contrasts is the tempo at which teams choose to play. Although the 30-second shot clock seemingly pushed the game towards more homogeneity, tempo-wise, the spread between the slowest and fastest teams in the country has remained nearly the same. However, the flexibility for each team to change its own tempo is a luxury – great coaches adapt to their personnel, even those that lean heavily one way.

While looking at tempo trends for this year, three teams stand out as having truly taken advantage of their ability to speed things up. All three boast skilled, athletic personnel that can thrive in the open court, and despite their coaches’ historical trends, they’ve seen the value of removing the restrictor plate and occasionally hitting the NOS.

Miami (FL)

First, a look at some numbers comparing Miami’s transition frequency and efficiency to last year. Obviously, there are some caveats due to the numbers only containing non-conference play, but the they don’t lie: Miami has been ruthless in the open floor while making an even greater effort to attack immediately:

Jim Larranaga has long favored a grind-it-out offensive style, preferring to let his players execute his spread pick-and-roll offense in the halfcourt to create shots. However, with two potential lottery picks in the backcourt (Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker) and several other potent weapons (JeQuan Newton, the electric 5’7 Chris Lykes, and a gunner in Dejan Vasiljevic), the former George Mason coach has acknowledged the danger his team can pose in transition – and so have his opponents.

After Miami took Navy to the woodshed on the season’s opening Sunday in November, Midshipmen coach Ed DeChellis talked about how dangerous Miami could be:

“Their speed, they have really good speed,” he said. “They really get down the floor. I mean, it takes them three steps. It takes us five or six steps to get to the same spot. . .”

Larranaga has built upon that fear, giving his team a green light to take quick shots when available. With so many skilled guards, the attack is by committee – whichever guard grabs the rebound or receives the outlet gets the ball up the floor quickly, and I was particularly impressed with Vasiljevic’s persistence in advancing the ball with the pass. ‘The ball moves faster than people do,’ as my old coach used to say, and watch as the Australian sniper bypasses three Boston U defenders with one pass to get Walker an open 3 (New Zealander Sam Waardenburg (#21) sets a great screen amidst the break, too):

That shot didn't go in, but the point stands - getting the ball ahead often bears easier shots.

Beating the opponent down the court is obviously the best way to get transition points, but sometimes simply attacking before they’re fully set can be a great avenue for easy points  as well. Especially early in the season, communication and rotations may not be as sharp, and it helps when you have NBA-caliber guards who can do this:

One other reason for the rise in open floor opportunities: the ‘Canes’ defense. They ranked 188th in the country in forced turnover rate last season, but that rank has risen to 81st this year. Turnovers often lead to run-outs and secondary break chances, and Miami is taking full advantage so far. 


Texas Tech

Like Miami, let’s start with the stats – they aren’t running as much as the ‘Canes, but the year-to-year increase in frequency and efficiency is just as impressive:


Most known for playing the extremely distinct Pack Line defense popularized by Tony Bennett and Virginia, Chris Beard has largely eschewed transition offense in his first two seasons as a Division I head coach. However, he’s shown the ability to adapt throughout his career, amassing a 75% winning percentage as head coach with stops in junior college, Division II, the American Basketball Association, and finally Division I, so it should come as no surprise to see him molding his style to his current roster.

Texas Tech has one of the nation’s most underrated players in lead guard/maestro Keenan Evans, and in his capable hands, the Red Raiders’ attack has successfully put the pedal to the floor (relative to last year, at least, when they essentially played in neutral). Unlike Miami’s stable of creators, the ball is almost always in Evans’s hands. With shooters like Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti spotting up on the wing and “holy shit”-level athletes Zach Smith and Zhaire Smith running the lanes (no relation apart from their gargantuan vertical leaps), the floor has often opened up like the Red (Raider) Sea. Evans is constantly finding gaps to the basket, using his speed to get quick lay-ups:

Additionally, his driving and finishing ability has forced defenses to panic and devote major attention to his presence, and his decision-making in these situations has been nearly flawless. He finds cutters and shooters and hits them with precise passes, making their jobs (sink it or dunk it) much easier:

Like Miami, many of Texas Tech’s transition opportunities stem from their incredibly opportunistic defense (9th in the country in defensive steal rate); Beard’s defensive intensity is permeating through the team’s identity, and an NCAA Tournament berth could be in the future.


Rhode Island

Dan Hurley’s squad was a popular pick to crack the Top 25 before the 2016-17 season, featuring a star-studded frontcourt in Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson plus the return of star guard EC Matthews from a knee injury. After some struggles early in the year (some related to injury), the Rams made the NCAAs and nearly knocked off eventual Final Four participant Oregon to reach the Sweet 16. Both Martin and Iverson graduated, though, and Hurley realized his roster might need a new way to create easy points.

The deep backcourt of Matthews (who has missed six games to a broken wrist and should return in the next 2-3 weeks), Jared Terrell, Jeff Dowtin, Stanford Robinson, Jarvis Garrett, and recent breakout star Fatts Russell has given Rhody all kinds of weapons in the open floor, and to his credit, Hurley has let them run far more this year:

Terrell and Matthews are the “thunder” in the backcourt, physical forces who can carve out room on the way to the rim and draw contact. Russell is more the “lightning,” a blur with the ball who uses his speed to beat opponents to the rim (pretty gorgeous vision and pass here by Dowtin, as well - off a Brown made basket, no less):

As a slightly-built freshman,  Russell is still learning to finish through/over bigger bodies, but as he gets more and more used to the game, Fatts looks like he’ll be a devastating weapon in the open floor.

The Rams' true ace, though, has been Robinson running the wing. For all of last year plus the early part of 2017-18, he’s been in the national elite at finishing in transition, and it’s easy to see why – with his length and explosive leaping ability, he can finish over or through most challenges at the rim. He’s also been surprisingly adept with the ball in his hands, showing some shake in the open court to earn straight-lines to the bucket (this will not be in Collin Sexton’s defensive highlight reel, to be sure):

The Rams will have an embarrassment of perimeter riches when Matthews (an A-10 POY candidate) returns, and already Hurley has almost exclusively turned to four-guard lineups with Robinson or Terrell as the nominal 4-man. I had my doubts about Hurley early last season, but his willingness to adapt his lineups and scheme to the strengths of his roster has me back on board. In a down year for the A-10, Rhode Island should be the standout squad, and they could once again pose a major problem for foes come March.