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Looking at the Texas basketball offense, Part 1: Overview and wing ball screens

The first part of our series exploring the structure and problems of the Texas attack.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Texas Tech v Texas William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-2018 Texas Longhorns basketball season had its good moments, and its bad moments. I think it is safe to say that many of those bad moments took place on the offensive end of the floor.

The performance of the Texas offense has put a pretty hard limit on team prospects over the past two seasons. After what could only be described as an unmitigated disaster during the 2016-2017 season (when the team scored a horrific 0.97 points per possessions in league games), the Texas offense was improved this year (1.03 PPP in the Big 12), but still not anything worth getting excited over. No one will dispute that getting better as a program is going to require significant improvement on the offensive end of the floor.

I want to come to some sort of understanding of what was going on with the Texas offense in the last season; what went well, and what went poorly. This turns out to be a pretty involved task, and is the sort of thing that will take multiple posts to cover. We will still probably only scratch the surface; hopefully those scratches will be instructive.

Setting things up

A good starting point will be to take a detailed look at the major actions of the Texas offense. We need to answer questions such as: what are the Longhorns running? Do the approach and actions that the Longhorns use on offense suit the team? Why are particular possessions succeeding or failing, and in particular why do things seem to bog down so often?

Doing this properly would be impossible. I cannot watch every possession of every game at a pace that allows me to document everything that is going well and going poorly; there just aren’t enough hours in the day for that.

Instead, my goal with this series is to walk us through many of the major sets and actions of the Texas offense; most of my examples are drawn from the first half of a late non-conference win over Alabama. I have selected this game because it is one where Texas used a broad range of different offensive actions; it is also a game that the Longhorns managed to win despite a lot of shaky execution in the half court.

A number of different problems emerge from this sort of look; there is no single problem that was holding the Texas offense back. Rather, the Longhorn attack suffered a slow death from many tiny cuts.

The structure of Shaka Smart’s half-court offense during the 2017-2018 season

When the Longhorns took possession of the ball, they would either attempt to push the ball up the floor, or they would bring the ball up slowly and call a set play. Most of Texas’ set plays would progress through a sequence of actions, which I will detail in future articles. But a particular possession might go like this:

Step 1: Texas runs a combination of screens to try to create a look into the low post. These will be the subject of a future article.

Step 2: After trying to put the ball inside, Texas runs a high ball screen. High ball screens will also be the subject of a future article.

Step 3: If nothing happens with the high ball screen, the four-man (usually Dylan Osetkowski) would end up with the ball, and would pass to a wing and follow his pass to set up Texas’ wing ball screen continuity pattern.

(Note: For the purposes of discussing positions on the court, I am going to number the players one through five, with the one-man being the primary ball handler and the five-man being the center. In truth, the way Texas plays is not necessarily so rigid — the one, two, and three-men are frequently interchangeable — but I have to have something to call everyone. The most rigidly defined role for Texas is probably the four-man, which is ideally a big guy who can shoot and do things on the perimeter.)

Transition possessions are simpler. If the Longhorns wouldn’t get a look in transition, the ball would reverse to a trailing big man, and again things would revert to the wing ball screen continuity game.

If we are trying to understand the Texas offense, it probably makes sense to start with this fall-back option first, since it was the potential end point of every single offensive possession. Wing ball screens were among the most common actions that Texas executed. For all practical intents, the 2017-2018 Texas Longhorns were a team that ran a continuity ball screen offense.

What the hell is a continuity ball screen offense?

Let’s stop and explain a little jargon here. When we use the term “continuity” when describing a basketball offense, we generally are referring to an offense where a set of actions are repeated over and over on alternating sides of the floor. We usually use the term continuity to distinguish from other styles of offensive sets, such as set plays/sequenced actions, and “motion” offense (where play is mostly unscripted and players read the floor and follow a set of loosely defined rules).

Continuity offenses have been around for a long time. Some of these have quaint names from a different era — the Shuffle, the Wheel, the Flex — but continue to play a role in college basketball. The idea behind a continuity offense is to run the same action over and over again until the offense gains enough of an advantage to get a good shot or make some sort of decisive attacking play. You aren’t fooling anyone with this style of play; the idea is to run an action that the defense cannot stop multiple times. In the Big 12, Oklahoma State is probably the team most reliant on continuity offense.

The term “ball screen” is more widely known among basketball viewers; it refers to an action where the player with the ball receives a pick set by his teammate. Ball screening is currently the dominant action in modern basketball; if you wanted to call this the era of the ball screen I wouldn’t fight you on it.

So when we combine “continuity” with “ball screen” we end up with something that means running ball screens over and over until a scoring chance emerges. It is a style of play that makes a lot of sense; ball screens are difficult to defend, and it gets really hard for the defense when there are multiple ball screens in a single possession.

Like a lot of the currently popular offensive ideas in basketball, continuity ball screen offenses likely first emerged in European basketball and eventually worked their way over to the States. At this point, continuity ball screen offenses have morphed and evolved, and show up at every level of American basketball. They are widely used at the college level, with Gonzaga, Baylor, and Duke being some of the more prominent and effective practitioners.

Looking at the Texas continuity ball screen game

Let’s start with an example of how Texas might get into its continuity ball screen game, show you how it looks, and then do a little critique. I am going to show two separate examples.

In the first example, we will look at how Texas falls back into its wing ball screening actions after not finding a good look in transition. Let’s set the action with the image below, where Matt Coleman has brought the ball up in transition and is passing it ahead to Kerwin Roach.

In the next photo, Roach has the ball in the corner, with Dylan Osetkowski establishing position in the post. After scrambling in transition, Roach’s defender isn’t yet on him, but Roach (who has also been scrambling) isn’t set up at the moment to take advantage of that fact. Meanwhile, Coleman is cutting away from the ball to get into position for the continuity ball screen action.

With nothing really going on, Roach reverses the ball to Mohamed Bamba, who is the second big man up the floor and is trailing the play.

Here is a good tip for you when watching Texas play. Every time the ball gets reversed back to a big man at the top of the key, it initiates the same basic action; the big man will swing the ball to the opposite wing and set up a ball screen. This has been a constant in Shaka Smart’s offense for at least as long as I have been watching.

We get that in the image below. After moving to the opposite side of the floor, Matt Coleman is now set up to receive a pass from Bamba. Meanwhile, the other three players on the floor are working to the opposite side of the court.

So now let’s set the action. Matt Coleman has the ball on the far side wing, about even with the free throw line. Mo Bamba is moving to ball screen for Coleman. Meanwhile, the other three players on the floor are getting to position on the opposite side of the floor.

As we get to the next image in the sequence, we see the basic alignment. Dylan Osetkowski (the four-man) and Texas’ two other perimeter players are spaced outside the three point line. Bamba is in position to set the screen.

Before we move on from this image, there are a lot of things going on that are important to discuss. We have to talk about the defensive response to Texas’ action here. The defense is not just going to sit around and wait for the Longhorns to run whatever action they wish; Alabama also has a plan. In the image above, notice how both Coleman and Bamba’s defenders are setting up. They are executing a popular pick and roll defense that is often referred to as “downing” a ball screen, or is alternatively given the more colorful name of “ice.”

The way the defense works is this. On wing ball screens, the offense would like to get the ball into the middle of the floor, ideally into the lane. But the defense does not want this. For this reason there are a whole menu of pick and roll defenses that can be deployed to try to prevent this penetration. It is up to the offensive players to read this defensive coverage and respond appropriately.

In the “ice” defense, the defender guarding the player with the ball aggressively overplays his man and forces him to the baseline, away from the intended screen direction. At the same time, the man defending the ball handler sinks down and blocks the guard’s path to the basket. It can be a very effective coverage against ball screens, particularly when the screening big man isn’t a dangerous perimeter shooter. It also has two additional advantages: it slows down ball reversal and it doesn’t require the big man on defense to cover a ton of ground — it is a great defense for a team that wants to keep its slower big men close to the basket rather than exposing them out in the center of the floor.

Another thing the defense is doing is sinking a lot of help into the paint. Notice where Jacob Young’s defender is — it is a long way away from Jacob Young. Because the ball is being forced to the baseline, in most cases Young is several passes away from receiving the ball. The defense is betting that Young’s defender can recover by the time the ball works its way back to him. This is true in cases where the offensive team is unable to skip the ball; dribble penetration followed by a skip pass could potentially create trouble. In a way, the defense is betting that this won’t happen often enough or that the pass won’t be accurate enough often enough against this defense. That is probably a good bet; most of the guys who can consistently punish this defense get paid to play basketball for a living.

Over the course of the year, teams that played this style of ball screen defense gave Texas a lot of trouble. The Longhorns had mixed results against “ice” all season long.

Back to the action. Below, we see that Bamba has recognized the “ice” defense and has changed the angle of his screen to allow Coleman to attack the big man off the dribble. Meanwhile, Jacob Young is starting to wave furiously.

Coleman will take a few dribbles, find nothing happening, and reverse the ball back to Osetkowski. While it seems like nothing much has happened with this initial ball screen, the defense at least has been forced to do some work, with players having to move around. Note again Young’s relationship with his defender on the floor. This sort of thing is why ball reversal is important to an offense; it creates potential to attack a defense that is moving, or attack players that are closing out.

With the ball at the top in the hands of Osetkowski, the first attempted wing ball screen is done. The next step in this progression is for Osetkowski to reverse the ball and set up another ball screen on the opposite side of the floor.

In the image below, we see how this pattern works. Roach is cutting away moving to the weak side corner. Young is sliding up to the wing to receive the pass. Osetkowski will make that pass and follow with a ball screen.

The image below is the last in the sequence. Osetkowski is running to set a screen, but Young has already decided to take a shot. This isn’t the worst shot in the world. It also isn’t the best shot in the world; it falls someplace in between.

Let’s look at that photograph again. The initial action on the far side of the floor (the Coleman/Bamba ball screen) created a situation where a defender had to close out, softening the defense. If Young hadn’t pulled the shot, Texas would be in much better position to attack the defense with this second ball screen; if nothing else Alabama would have had a very hard time getting into position to cover it the same way as it did previously, and Young would have had good prospects for getting the ball into the middle of the defense.

Young’s shot here isn’t the worst shot; Texas would have benefited greatly if it had been able to knock more of these shots down over the course of the season. But a little more patience on Young’s part here would have probably led to a better chance to score by forcing a recovering defense to guard a second ball screen — something that is really hard to do.

One of the classic challenges of the game of basketball is knowing when to go and make a play, and when to wait. There is a shot clock, and you cannot wait forever; it is not effective offense to pass the ball around and wait for a defender to fall over. On the other hand, sometimes it is better to just move into the next action and see what develops. Offensive basketball is always a delicate balance of control and aggression; falling too far in one direction or the other leads to problems. This is particularly true in an offense like this where the same pattern is repeated over and over. Knowing when to go and and make a play and when to just keep running offense is critical.

On the other hand, none of it matters if you just knock down the shot.

Before we conclude this article, I want to show you one more example of what happens when the wing ball screen does lead to middle penetration.

We pick things up with the situation below. The ball has reversed to Osetkowski, and he is preparing to pass the ball to the far side wing and follow with a ball screen.

Let’s look at the image below. This is a little later in the half, and Texas is spaced a little differently, potentially in response to both the way the defense had been playing (icing ball screens) as well as a response to the different players on the floor. Notice that the wing with the ball is bit higher, a greater distance from the baseline, which gives him more room to maneuver if the defense plays the ice coverage.

The defense didn’t ice; instead it is sort of scrambling, and Osetkowsi sets a quick screen, slips to the corner, and Kerwin Roach is able to drive the ball into the middle of the floor. Now we are talking; the wing ball screen has done its job. Roach drives middle, and kicks the ball out to Eric Davis in the corner.

Before we move on, I want to point out another difference with this possession. In the previous example, the non-screening big man was at the top, waiting for a reversing pass. Here Jericho Sims is not doing that, but instead is along the baseline, in what is commonly called the “dunker spot.” It is called this because if the player in this spot finds his defender overhelping, he can slide in behind him for a lob. Putting a big man in this spot is one of the ways that teams try to space the floor with a big man who doesn’t have the perimeter skills of Osetkowski. Also, if anyone is suited for something called the “dunker spot” it is Sims.

The next photo in the series shows Davis with the ball as his defender closes on him. Davis has the decision here to either shoot the ball, or fake a shot and drive past his closing defender.

Davis chooses to drive, as shown in the photo below. Now the defense is really scrambling. Coleman’s defender is helping on the drive, and Coleman is sliding away from Davis’ penetration.

Davis finds Coleman, how is now ready to catch and attack his scrambling defender.

Coleman takes a couple of dribbles, and then finds Roach in the corner. Roach’s penetration started this sequence, and now Roach gets to finish. With a defender nowhere to be found, Roach drains a wide open three.

The example above that I have just shown is beautiful offense. It might seem like an unorganized free-for-all, but it isn’t. Players are driving the basketball and finding their teammates who are spaced around the driver. After three different players drove the ball and attacked the defense, the result was a wide open three. If you could play like this for 40 minutes you would; Villanova came close and won a national championship in the process.

The broader view

So why can’t Texas get itself into these sorts of defensive breakdown situations more often? There are a lot of different reasons why, some of which we will see over the course of this series. But one issue that is apparent from our first example relates to decision making.

In the first example we looked at, Texas was probably a few moments away from getting into the middle of the defense off of a ball screen. Instead, a shot went up. Conversely, I could also find you examples where Texas guards were not aggressive enough. This stuff isn’t easy, and you don’t get it right every possession, but Texas needs to get it right more often than it did.

Another factor that we should consider is how Texas’ roster and recruiting fit this style of play. The key thing needed in a continuity wing ball screen attack is multiple ball handlers. This is not a style of play for a team with only one guard it trusts to make plays with the ball. This sort of philosophy is why Smart can credibly tell recruits like Courtney Ramey that he can play two point guards together. It is not by accident that Roach and Coleman both shared so much of the playmaking duties this past season. It also tells us a lot about why things could bog down when Jase Febres, who wasn’t comfortable working with ball screens, had the ball.

Wing ball screens work with or without perimeter shooting big men, which is part of why they are so appealing. If one of the big men on the team can shoot the three, then they can display that skill in this arrangement, but if the bigs don’t shoot from outside you can still play this style effectively. This contrasts it with the high ball screens that the Longhorns run, which work best when at least one of the big guys can shoot.

Looking ahead

We are just getting started. Up next, we will explore Texas’ high ball screening sets, and show how they connect with the continuity wing ball screen game.