The high stakes and high competition level of the Sweet 16 mean that one or two possessions can make the difference between moving on and going home. In that environment, it’s more important than ever for a team to have a go-to offensive play that it can count on for the points that could save its March Madness hopes.
As the NBA game exerts more and more influence on college hoops, the pick-and-roll has become a staple for a number of top teams. That’s especially true in a Sweet 16 packed with superstar point guards such as Michigan’s Trey Burke, who runs the play as well as many pro floor generals.
Herein, a look at Burke’s success story and the rest of the offensive keystones for the 16 teams still fighting for the 2013 national title.
Not that Florida Gulf Coast doesn’t make plays in the half-court as well, but no team has lived off its transition game more in this tournament—or been more impressive doing it.
Slender but speedy forwards Eric McKnight and Chase Fieler love to beat their defenders down the floor, and sophomore PG Brett Comer knows how to make those chances count.
Emotional leader Sherwood Brown is another prime target for Comer’s fast-break feeds, though he’s just as good a candidate to spot up for three as he is to rock the rim.
Either way, the Eagles have been able to feed off the excitement of their fast-break game better than any team in the Sweet 16.
The best of the Explorers’ many perimeter weapons, Ramon Galloway loves the catch-and-shoot three-pointer. When he sets up on the wing, he will not hesitate to pull the trigger if the defense gives him an opening.
However, Galloway is just as dangerous putting the ball on the floor from his favorite shooting spots, as Butler learned to its chagrin. Trailing by one, the senior guard got the ball outside, only to drive to the rim for the game-winning layup.
No team in the Sweet 16 has a less star-driven offense than the Ducks.
Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis or E.J. Singler might take over the primary role on any given night, and those interchangeable leaders can all be found in either role in the team's favorite half-court look.
When Oregon triggers its half-court offense from the top of the arc, it’s not looking to go straight to the basket. Instead, the ball-handler of the moment will dribble one direction to set up a lateral cut the other way by an off-the-ball target.
Sometimes the feed is a direct handoff, but a lateral pass to a wing cutting to the middle serves the same purpose: forcing the defense to move side-to-side and keep up with every potential driver and cutter on the floor.
With Malcolm Armstead at point guard, Wichita State has gotten a fair amount of mileage out of the high ball screen.
Unlike many teams that use that approach, the Shockers are particularly fond of having a wing player (especially scoring leader Cleanthony Early) in the screener’s role.
Early’s ability to spot up off the pick was put to especially good use against Illinois State, where he drained a game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds.
Of course, as WSU showed against Gonzaga, Early is far from the only three-point threat on the roster, with Ron Baker and the rest of a deep backcourt also more than able to contribute on this look.
Few teams in the country are more predictable in the clutch than Arizona. That fact makes the Wildcats’ late-game success this season all the more extraordinary, but then, Mark Lyons is an extraordinary player.
The Xavier transfer is guaranteed to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, and any one of the ‘Cats’ mobile forwards might supply the pick to get him started.
Once Lyons gets into the paint, there’s no more dangerous college player in crunch time, as Florida and others have been sorry to learn in 2012-13.
Like Arizona, Michigan isn’t exactly loaded when it comes to big men who can score. Unsurprisingly, that usually makes the “roll” part of the Wolverines’ go-to play irrelevant, but the pick that frees up Trey Burke more than makes up for any other problems.
The high-scoring Burke has generally called his own number in the final minutes of games, but one of the factors that makes Michigan’s version of this play so devastating at other times is the trio of players who aren’t directly involved.
Because the Wolverines feature so many three-point shooters, Burke gets a healthy proportion of his assists by driving off the pick only to kick out for (what else?) an open trey.
Compared to many of the top PGs in the Sweet 16, Michael Carter-Williams is a remarkably poor shooter. When the game is on the line, though, Syracuse makes sure it’s Carter-Williams’ to win or lose.
The Orange’s impressive collection of frontcourt finishers (led by C.J. Fair) makes the “roll” part of the play especially likely to end in an exclamation-point alley-oop.
Carter-Williams often has the angle for such passes, not only because of his 6’6” height but because he’s far more likely than most point guards to pull up at the three-point line if he sees an opening.
Florida’s favorite offensive option can take a few different forms, depending on the matchup faced by PF Erik Murphy.
If the 6’10” senior has the size advantage down low, the Gators are happy to run straight post-up looks for him, but that’s far from their only way to get him the ball.
Murphy can also frequently be found running off screens, either from low-post partner Patric Young or on the outside, to set up catch-and-shoot situations.
Between Murphy’s impressive three-point stroke and his long arms, those looks turn into Gator points at an impressive rate.
PG Junior Cadougan handles the ball under normal circumstances, but when the Golden Eagles absolutely must have a basket, they run the offense through scoring leader Vander Blue.
The 6’4” guard came through in a big way last Thursday, when he capped a desperate comeback against Davidson by coming off a pick at the top of the arc and driving for the game-winning layup.
The Wildcats could be forgiven for wishing they’d spent a little more time watching film, because a virtually identical play freed Blue for another layup to beat St. John’s in the final seconds—in a game played just 12 days earlier.
It’s also worth noting that Blue is exceptionally unlikely to pull up for the jumper off this look, as he’s far more effective scoring in the paint than from anywhere else on the floor.
The longer the season has gone on, the more confidence Derrick Nix has developed in his ability to use his 6’9”, 270-pound frame on the offensive end. Michigan State, in turn, has put an increasing proportion of its offense in the hands of its titanic senior center.
Nix’s wide body makes him an untenable mismatch for all but the strongest post defenders, and he’s finishing at a high percentage when he does create openings.
He’s not a black hole down low, either, as he emphasized with six assists in the regular-season finale against Northwestern.
No slight intended against Quinn Cook, but Duke’s offense is at its most dangerous when Seth Curry is running the show. With or without a high pick to start, Curry’s ability to create for himself or others in the paint is the best weapon in the Blue Devil arsenal.
Not only can Curry drop runners in over bigger defenders, but he has the vision to slip a pass around them to Mason Plumlee for a dunk.
Or, of course, the senior can kick out to Ryan Kelly, whose long-range shooting is second to none on the Duke roster.
Most teams don’t use the double-pick option all that often, understandably considering the crowd it creates at the top of the key. Miami, however, has particular reason to thrive on sending both of its big men to free up PG Shane Larkin.
The sheer size of 6’11”, 242-pound Kenny Kadji and 6’10”, 292-pound Reggie Johnson makes it all but impossible for opposing guards to come off their picks in time to make a play.
Larkin, for his part, is equally effective using a ball screen to either hand, and he’s just as happy to find his post players rolling to the hoop as he is to drop in his own shots off the drive.
As much as the Buckeyes love to isolate scoring star Deshaun Thomas, the forward gets surprisingly few touches at crunch time. Instead, Ohio State keeps the ball in the hands of junior Aaron Craft, and good things tend to happen.
Although Craft doesn’t put up many high point totals, he’s an exceptional finisher in the clutch, whether driving to the rim or pulling the trigger from long range (as he did against Iowa State on Sunday after the pick play fell apart).
The Buckeyes don’t usually put much emphasis on rolling off the initial pick, but sometimes Thomas will come out as the screener, and he’s a serious threat to pop out or cut to the basket.
Rather than putting the pressure on freshman PG Yogi Ferrell, Indiana likes to put the ball in senior Cody Zeller’s hands in key situations. Zeller, freed by a cross-screen, slides out to take a pass from his point guard and read the defense.
Given a chance to shoot (as he had at the end of a win over Michigan), Zeller will get the points himself. If the defense loses track of Ferrell, though, the play turns into a give-and-go, thanks to Zeller’s fine court vision.
Very few Jayhawks have the individual scoring punch to scare defenses, but Ben McLemore is the decided exception.
His preeminence on offense means that he routinely draws an opponent’s best stopper, and KU’s preferred solution is to run him off as many screens as necessary.
Once McLemore catches the ball on a pop-out, he’s a deadly three-point shooter who can also blow by an opponent off the dribble. It doesn’t hurt that the athletic guard is also Kansas’ best finisher when he gets to the rim.
Calling Louisville’s half-court offensive preference a “play” is doing it too much justice. More often than not, when the Cardinals need points, they put the ball in the hands of their go-to scorer and hope for the best.
Sometimes, as in the painful ending (and ending and ending) of a five-OT loss at Notre Dame, the strategy goes awry as Smith is unable to create a makeable shot.
More often than not, though, the quickness of the 6’1” junior allows him to improvise some way to put the ball through the rim—hence Louisville’s 31 wins and No. 1 overall seed.