Three seconds left and down by one with the crowd on the edge of its seat working on the last remaining shreds of nails it has left, where does your team turn?
Every college basketball coach has go-to players or plays that he will utilize in critical moments in the 2013-14 season. Read on to see what the go-to play for each national contender should be this year (without access to actual playbooks these are only approximations of what would work best).
Contender was defined for the purpose of this article as one of the top 12 squads in Sporting News’ Top 25 for 2013-14 (because clearly never in the history of college basketball has a team not ranked near the top of an arbitrary summer rankings list made noise during the actual season).
Kentucky’s best play is, and always has been, since the hire of John Calipari just to let its coach loose on the recruiting trail and watch the 5-star studs come flocking to Lexington.
Due to the roster turnover over the past couple seasons, the go-to play on the court has always depended on personnel. In 2013-14 the Wildcats will feature a number of different scoring options from every spot on the floor.
With so many weapons, the best thing Kentucky can do is spread the floor and let point guard Andrew Harrison go to work. Harrison will drive the lane and force the defense to collapse (if it doesn’t, he can just take it all the way to the hole).
Depending on who is the help defender, Harrison can either dump it down to the block for some combination of Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee or Willie Cauley-Stein to finish, or kick it to the wing where his brother Aaron or James Young will be spotting up.
Not a bad list of options.
Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squads have always been known for their physicality and sheer power, and that won’t change in 2013-14 even though Derrick Nix is no longer on campus.
Adreian Payne, who is much more versatile than Nix was, although he is not quite as much of a bruiser, will be the focal point of much of the Spartans’ offense this season, including the critical plays that Izzo draws up in the waning moments. If Michigan State finds itself with the last possession in a tie game, Payne will certainly have the ball in his hands.
Look for Keith Appling to feed Payne at the high block where Payne can utilize a variety of his abilities. If the defender is sagging off he can simply hit the mid-range jumper, or if Payne is facing tighter coverage he can put the ball on the floor or back the defender down.
If a double team comes, Payne is an excellent passer for his size and can find Appling or the underrated Gary Harris spotting up somewhere.
Payne can hurt the opposition in a number of ways, which is exactly what a coach is looking for when designing go-to plays in the critical moments.
“Hero ball” may not be the most efficient form of offense (nobody tell Kobe Bryant this though), but Louisville’s best option in the final moments of a tight game may be to give the ball to Russ Smith and get out of the way.
Smith didn't earn the nickname "Russdiculous" for nothing. No player in college basketball better highlights the risk/reward principle better than Smith, although there has been much more reward than risk as he gets older.
He’s never going to lead the nation in field-goal percentage or assist-to-turnover ratio, but Smith is better equipped to hit a contested shot that looks like it has no chance than anyone on the Cardinals roster (or perhaps any roster).
As Smith has gotten older, Rick Pitino has placed more and more trust in his playmaking abilities. With no Peyton Siva around this year, look for Smith to get the go-to call in crunch time.
It appears at this point of the offseason that Duke will not have the superstar big man in 2013-14 that it can rely on a la a Mason Plumlee like it has in recent years. That could pose as an issue, but there are so many weapons on the perimeter that the Blue Devils will certainly be in the mix for a Final Four and beyond.
Coach K will have uber-talented freshman Jabari Parker (who is ideal for the small forward spot but may have to play some power forward) at his disposal to go alongside returnees Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. Throw in transfer Rodney Hood, and America’s favorite team to hate is loaded with crunch time options.
Duke would be well-suited to institute a handoff-weave type of set on the perimeter as one of its go-to plays. Cook would start with the ball as the point and a various combination of these talented ball-handlers could come up behind him for a dribble handoff, which would also serve as a screen.
If the Blue Devils do this two or three times between these four players, someone is bound to get a first step off the handoff and attack the lane off the dribble.
Last season Mark Lyons was an excellent playmaker for Sean Miller’s Arizona squad, but there was an element of boom or bust when he had the ball in his hands. For as great of a scorer as he was, Lyons was prone to astronomical turnover numbers in some games, which often cost the Wildcats dearly in crunch time.
Although he doesn’t have the scoring potential and explosiveness of Lyons, point guard-transfer T.J. McConnell will provide a more stable hand for Arizona in 2013-14. He is an excellent distributor, and the best way to maximize the offense late in games may be to give him the ball and see what he can create.
Between Kaleb Tarczewski, Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Jefferson, McConnell will have plenty of options from which to choose. Look for Miller to spread the floor and let McConnell penetrate and kick to one of these scoring threats as a go-to play.
Much like Louisville’s strategy with Russ Smith, Kansas will utilize the isolation set in crunch time more often than not if freshman Andrew Wiggins truly is as special as his hype would have you believe.
The hype is there for a reason. He is arguably the best high-school prospect since LeBron James was throwing down dunks in Akron, Ohio and will show the nation why it heard so much Wiggins talk during the offseason.
Look for Bill Self to recognize what he has in Wiggins and let him go to work when the game is on the line. Carmelo Anthony did as much as a ballyhooed freshman in Syracuse, and that only got the Orange a national title. That may be a bit much to put on Wiggins’ shoulders, but the freshman should compete for National Player of the Year honors in 2013-14.
Wiggins can beat defenders off the dribble, hit jump shots over them or even take it down low against smaller defenders. The Wiggins isolation will be the Jayhawks’ bread-and-butter this year.
Michigan lost a lot in Tim Hardaway Jr. and National Player of the Year Trey Burke, but it is a testament to the program that John Beilein has built on the recruiting trail that the Wolverines are still widely considered national contenders.
When it comes to crunch time, Michigan has two options it will likely utilize. No player this side of Luke Hancock saw his reputation bolstered in the NCAA tournament quite like Mitch McGary, while Glenn Robinson III surprised some scouts by forgoing the NBA draft and returning to school.
Look for the Wolverines go-to play to start with McGary receiving the ball on the low block. From there he can either back down his opponent if no double team comes, or hit a slashing Robinson if it does. Robinson’s speed and athleticism will allow him to get to the basket if his defender takes his eyes off him for even a second, especially if the defense is a bit unbalanced because of a double on McGary.
Michigan will utilize a two-man game with its NBA prospects plenty of times in 2013-14.
Variations of the pick-and-roll make a number of appearances on this list because it is such an effective play when a team has a capable ball-handler and big man who can finish around the basket or from mid-range.
That is exactly what Syracuse will have at its disposal in 2013-14 with freshman Tyler Ennis handling the point and versatile forward C.J. Fair playing the role of big man. Fair will likely compete for ACC Player of the Year award honors, and the number of easy opportunities Ennis can create for him will go a long way towards determining if he actually wins it.
Ennis is a heady point guard who will look to set up his teammates before he looks for his own shot. That is music to Jim Boeheim’s ears with a first-year player running the show. Look for Ennis to make the correct decision in crunch time more often than not, especially when teaming up with Fair.
Fair will finish around the basket or hit the mid-range jumper off of this set all season.
Let's work under the assumption that P.J. Hairston will suit up for North Carolina in 2013-14, which is certainly an assumption at this point even though the charges have been dropped.
Hairston is the most dynamic playmaker on the Tar Heel roster, and head coach Roy Williams will undoubtedly use those abilities in crunch time. Throw in James Michael McAdoo, and North Carolina has a two-man attack that it can use in a variety of ways.
While the pick-and-roll would be the obvious answer for how to use these players, the Tar Heels may be better off letting Hairston attack off the dribble in an isolation set and draw McAdoo’s defender toward the rim. That would open up McAdoo near the low block for a simple dump pass.
Of course, the go-to play will be different if Hairston finds himself ineligible or suspended. Stay tuned.
The simple answer when it comes to what Oklahoma State’s go-to play should be in 2013-14 would be to give the ball to Marcus Smart and watch what happens.
Smart is one of the best players in the country and he can create his own shot against a variety of different defensive looks. However, the Cowboys have another weapon in the underrated Le’Bryan Nash who should also be involved in any last second plays that are devised in tight games.
Look for Nash, who is an excellent ball-handler and can get to the rim effectively, to start with the ball at the top of the key. Marcus Smart will set a brief pick-and-pop screen which will give Nash three options. Either he will use his explosive first step to attack the hole, hit Smart on the perimeter or use Smart as a decoy and find Markel Brown in the corner.
Since Smart is arguably one of the top two or three players in the entire country, much of the defensive focus will be directed his way. This will likely open up Brown, another underrated scorer and about the best third-option a coach for ask for, in the corner for a shot.
The Cowboys can’t go wrong with any of these players taking the shot.
The saying goes something like this, if it’s not broke don’t fix it, and that applies to Ohio State’s hypothetical go-to play for the 2013-14 season.
The Buckeyes knocked out Arizona in the most recent Sweet 16 with this exact design. Aaron Craft, the team’s most trusted ball-handler and the player who is most likely to make the right decision in crunch time, starts with it on top and receives a ball-screen from LaQuinton Ross above the three-point line.
Craft either continues to his right on a drive, pulls up for a shot (like he did against Iowa State in the NCAA tournament in a modification of this exact play) or swings it to Ross who spots up from downtown. Ross is expected to be Matta’s best scorer this year and already proved that he can hit this shot in the clutch against the Wildcats.
The beauty of the play is in its simplicity, but it gives either Ohio State’s best decision maker or its best scorer the chance to make the play when it matters most.
Everyone in college basketball runs some form of the pick-and-roll, but Billy Donovan’s 2013-14 Florida squad will have the traditional and stereotypical pass-first point guard and big man with scoring ability to pull it off with Utah Jazz-like precision.
Freshman and former McDonald’s All-American Kasey Hill will be handling much of the point guard duties for the Gators this year. He is an excellent ball-handler and passer who creates opportunities for his teammates with ease.
In other words, he is the perfect pick-and-roll point guard.
As for the roller, Patric Young will be in Gainesville for approximately the 35th season in a row. With his experience, sheer size (which comes in handy when setting the screen) and ability to finish around the basket, the Gators will be in good hands regardless of which player takes the shot.
Look for Florida to unleash an endless combination of screens this season.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.