Every Top 25 College Basketball Team's Bread-and-Butter Play
College basketball teams love to be able to mix up their offenses and keep the other team off balance, but sometimes they need an option they can count on to settle things down. When nothing else is working or when the team has to have a basket, you'll usually see it default to a favorite play that keeps producing points game after game.
At Kentucky, it's no surprise that the Wildcats keep on feeding freshman Julius Randle. Every opponent knows that the big lefty is going to pound the ball inside, but he still manages to muscle in his share of points every night.
Herein, a closer look at the go-to option for the 'Cats, along with staple plays for all the rest of this week's USA Today Top 25 teams.
25. UCLA: Off-Ball Screen for Jordan Adams
Moving without the ball is a vital skill for a shooting guard, and few collegians do it as well as Jordan Adams. Whether it's Norman Powell or Kyle Anderson setting him up, the Bruins sophomore loves to curl off a down screen to set up opportunities on the wing.
Once Adams makes the catch, the .365 three-point shooter often fires away, but he's also a serious threat to drive.
Even better for UCLA, he doesn't get locked into a must-score mentality when he puts the ball on the floor, and he has the passing touch to back up his court vision.
24. Gonzaga: Kevin Pangos Pull-Up Trey
With Gonzaga's half-court offense not boasting last year's collection of frontcourt scoring machines, the fast break has become a much bigger part of the attack.
Kevin Pangos isn't the Zags' primary ball-handler anymore, but he's still the team's most dangerous weapon in transition.
Pangos' speed forces opponents to protect the rim at all costs, opening up frequent chances to stop at the arc for an open look. He can also bluff the drive in the half court for a similarly open look, though he gets plenty of catch-and-shoot chances there, too.
23. Cincinnati: Post Up Justin Jackson
Sean Kilpatrick is the most dangerous weapon on the Bearcats roster, but he's rarely the first look when the team sets up its offense. Instead, Cincinnati loves to find big Justin Jackson in the post (high or low), where he can draw the defense's attention.
Often enough, the burly senior will find his own shot, scoring or setting up an offensive rebound opportunity. However, he's also a skilled passer who can punish opponents for double-teaming by finding shooters like the explosive Kilpatrick.
22. Colorado: Pick-and-Pop with Josh Scott
A season-ending knee injury to leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie is going to put a huge dent in Colorado's offense, but it will also give Josh Scott even more chances to shine.
The soft-shooting sophomore has done a lot of growing up since last season, and he's been putting up 13.6 points per game as Dinwiddie's sidekick.
Askia Booker will likely take over most of the ball-handling chores, and he'll rely on the same two-man game that helped Dinwiddie so much, starting with a steady diet of high picks from his 6'10", 245-pound center.
Although Scott will sometimes slide to the rim off this look, he's more likely to step out for a mid-range jumper, a move that also keeps his own defender (usually a shot-blocker) from challenging the guard on the drive.
21. Pittsburgh: Pick-and-Roll
At the college level, the pick-and-roll often serves as a way to free up an elite scoring point guard (see: Burke, Trey). However, Pitt's version of the play is tough to guard precisely because the Panthers don't have to rely on a single ball-handler.
Either James Robinson or swingman Lamar Patterson can initiate the offense equally well, either finishing in the paint off the dribble or (just as often) kicking out to a perimeter shooter.
Similarly, the Panthers have an ample supply of physical post players (led by Talib Zanna) to set the initial screen and turn it into a dunk if the defense fails to rotate effectively.
20. Duke: Perimeter Cross Screen
With its lack of traditional big men, Duke wants to keep the focus of the offense on the perimeter. Its primary weapon in that effort is a series of screens away from the ball, with four players exchanging positions along the three-point arc.
Not only do these screens free up Duke's wealth of three-point shooters, but they also set up opportunities for a two-man game.
Slashers like Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker can converge from opposite directions for a dribble handoff or pick-and-pop, all set up by the wheel action going on away from the ball.
19. Creighton: Off-Ball Screen by Doug McDermott
There's no player Creighton wants to have the ball more than Doug McDermott. Paradoxically, the best way the Blue Jays have found to get him his shots is to send him away from the ball.
After McDermott sets a screen away, he dives to the basket while the man he freed up sets a pick for the ball-handler.
If McDermott gets open immediately, he gets the pass for a backdoor layup, but if not, he just sweeps back out to the three-point line, waiting for the defense to bite on the drive and leave him open for a jumper.
18. Kansas: Wing Isolation for Andrew Wiggins
Andrew Wiggins isn't just a tremendous athlete—he's also a versatile scoring threat who can knock down jump shots or take his man to the rim. Kansas gets the most out of his varied skill set by spreading the floor and leaving his defender on an island.
Once Wiggins gets a pass on either wing, he's happy to hoist an immediate trey if the defense gives him too much room.
More often, though, the threat of the quick jumper forces the defense to close fast, where he can beat his man off the dribble for a layup or a sleight-of-hand assist in the paint.
17. Memphis: Shaq Goodwin to the High Post
No Tiger has grown as much on offense since last season as big Shaq Goodwin has. Memphis has taken advantage by letting the sophomore power forward set up shop in the high post, where he has a wealth of opportunities to put points on the board.
The most mundane of them, before he ever gets the ball, is to set hard screens for the Tigers' abundance of penetrating guards.
However, he's just as likely to be the one making the play, either by attacking the rim off a power dribble or by flicking a high-low pass to running mate Austin Nichols.
16. Iowa: Drive-and-Kick to a 3-Point Shooter
One of many reasons Iowa is so tough to guard is its abundance of three-point options: five players with at least a dozen treys made so far. Add in a solid collection of penetrators, and this is a team that puts a lot of pressure on opposing perimeter defenders.
When any Hawkeyes guard gets a one-on-one opportunity (often in transition), he can take his defender off the dribble to force the D out of position.
If the defense collapses, the ball-handler then finds Roy Devyn Marble or Jarrod Uthoff or another gunner spotting up for an easy three-point look.
15. Massachusetts: Ball Screen for Chaz Williams
When you've got a point guard averaging 15.4 points and 7.5 assists per game, you keep the ball in his hands as much as possible. UMass takes that lesson to heart with Chaz Williams, sending a stream of picks his way to give him room to operate inside the three-point arc.
Once Williams has the defense's attention, he'll often get the chance to lob an alley-oop for a teammate on the baseline.
Otherwise, he'll usually slither into the paint for a runner of his own, the major source of his team-leading point production.
14. Louisville: Ball Screen for Russ Smith
Now that Louisville has the offensively gifted Montrezl Harrell in the starting lineup, the Cards are more inclined to run pick-and-roll looks than they were a year ago. However, Louisville's preferred option is still to free up Russ Smith and then stay out of his way.
The senior guard has been a much more effective passer this season, finding his teammates on the baseline while the defense's eyes are on him. However, he's still a safe bet to attack multiple defenders for a circus layup a couple of times a night.
13. Baylor: Pick-and-Pop with Isaiah Austin
With Baylor's overwhelming corps of offensive rebounders, one can argue that the Bears' real go-to play is the missed shot.
However, when the Bears want to put the ball in the hoop the first time around, they'll frequently take advantage of Isaiah Austin's distinctive skill set.
The 7'1" Austin is far more comfortable lobbing jump shots than banging on the low block, so when he sets a high pick, he'll usually slide across for an open jumper.
Of course, that's assuming that the guard receiving the pick—often Kenny Chery or Brady Heslip—doesn't launch a three-pointer or drive to the basket himself.
12. Kentucky: Post Up Julius Randle
Even on a list of go-to plays, few are as predictable—or as hard to stop—as Kentucky's favorite offensive look. Julius Randle is extremely left-handed, and he's going to get the ball on the left block no matter what defensive scheme an opponent throws at him.
Randle's combination of power and post moves make it all but impossible to keep him from getting his points down low, even against multiple (or bigger) defenders.
However, he's also an underrated passer from the block, meaning that opponents who double- and triple-team him are taking a risk of a different sort.
11. San Diego State: Pick-and-Roll with Xavier Thames
The dunk-happy Aztecs prefer getting their points in transition off a defensive stop. When they're forced to play in the half court, though, they lean heavily on senior point guard Xavier Thames.
Thames' three-point touch (.470 on the year) makes him a major threat to step back and shoot after receiving a high ball screen. However, he's also a weapon off the dribble, barreling into the paint or finding the roll man for a strong finish at the rim.
10. Iowa State: Pick-and-Pop with DeAndre Kane
Iowa State would just as soon not have to run any kind of offensive plays, using its uptempo approach to rack up fast-break baskets instead. When the game does slow down, though, the Cyclones can turn to veteran DeAndre Kane to spearhead the attack.
Kane is surrounded by three-point shooters, so when he accepts a ball screen, the screener is almost always a threat to pop out for an open look.
The senior point guard loves to take it to the rim himself—using his 6'4", 200-pound frame to maximum advantage—but he also deals out his share of alley-oops off this play, especially with acrobatic Melvin Ejim on the receiving end.
9. Ohio State: Ball Screen for Aaron Craft
As their last two losses have shown, the Buckeyes themselves are still trying to figure out a reliable way to generate offense. One of the better options they've found is to keep the ball in the hands of steady point guard Aaron Craft and let him go to work.
The Buckeyes' big men aren't scorers, so the man who sets the screen typically doesn't roll to the basket, instead leaving the lane clear for Craft to juke his way to the rim or kick out for a trey.
Increasingly this year, OSU is also using this look to free up Craft's second-in-command, junior Shannon Scott.
8. Oklahoma State: Isolation for Marcus Smart
Oklahoma State is loaded with high-scoring guards who can spread out opposing defenses. That creates all sorts of holes for uber-point guard Marcus Smart to attack as he uses his 6'4", 220-pound frame to overpower smaller defenders.
Smart will frequently take his man off the dribble from an isolation play at the top of the arc, as so many great point guards do, but the Cowboys have another wrinkle to add.
They'll also set up Smart for solo looks in the post, daring an opponent to find a guard with the muscle to handle him with his back to the basket.
7. Florida: Ball Screens by Wing Players
Billy Donovan loves to recruit toughness on the perimeter, and while it always pays off on defense, he's getting more good out of it than usual on offense this season.
Casey Prather and Michael Frazier II set as many picks as any pair of wing men you'll see, creating looks for themselves and for the Gators point guards.
Frazier, a three-point sniper, will pop out after his screens, often getting an immediate pass for a trey. Prather, meanwhile, heads to the basket for dunk opportunities off passes from Scottie Wilbekin or Kasey Hill (if they don't get the bucket themselves).
6. Villanova: Drive-and-Kick to a 3-Point Shooter
Over 40 percent of Villanova's shot attempts come from three-point range. So how do you create long-range looks when the defense knows they're coming? Force the defender to guard the dribble first.
Villanova's committee of versatile guards—led by Darrun Hilliard Jr. and Ryan Arcidiacono—are equally dangerous putting the ball on the floor or launching from deep. As one man attacks the paint, the rest spot up to drain the trey off a jump-stop pass.
5. Wichita State: Ball Screen for Fred VanVleet
As many points as Cleanthony Early generates for the Shockers, they don't run a whole lot of set plays for their senior star. In contrast, you'll rarely see more than a couple of possessions in a row without Fred VanVleet getting a pick up top.
The sophomore has been a revelation after inheriting Malcolm Armstead's point guard spot, dishing out 5.4 assists per game to the likes of Early and sniper Ron Baker.
He's also a serious threat to call his own number if the defense doesn't recover quickly off the pick (12.2 points per game, .429 three-point shooting).
4. Michigan State: Off-Ball Screen for Gary Harris
In addition to being Michigan State's leading scorer, Gary Harris is the Spartans' best pure shooter. Small wonder, then, that they look to get him open at every opportunity, especially coming off a down screen on the wing.
Harris is a deadly catch-and-shoot option off the curl, but he's just as happy to put the ball on the floor and glide to the rim. The Spartans will sometimes combine this look with a ball screen for Harris off the catch, giving the defender even more to worry about.
3. Wisconsin: Pick-and-Pop with Traevon Jackson
Traevon Jackson has been a lot more assertive in taking the role of floor leader than he was a year ago, and Wisconsin has responded by running even more of its offense through its junior point guard.
While Jackson loves to take the ball to the rim, though, most of his Badgers teammates get their points from farther away.
Even if center Frank Kaminsky (or nominal power forward Sam Dekker) is the man setting the pick for Jackson, the odds are that the screener will slide out to the three-point arc to wait for a pass.
The Badgers' three-point arsenal wouldn't get nearly as many open looks without the threat of a driver like Jackson to pull the defense into the paint.
2. Syracuse: C.J. Fair Corner Spot-Up
Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis does a lot of freelancing for Syracuse, but whenever he dances into traffic, he knows where to find his safety valve.
Senior scoring leader C.J. Fair loves to hang back in either corner, waiting for a kick-out to set him up for his own one-on-one opportunities.
Fair is a respectable three-point threat, but he's even more dangerous putting the ball on the floor along the baseline. With his long arms and great leaping ability, he can dunk over slower opponents or hoist the mid-range pull-up over smaller ones.
1. Arizona: Backdoor Cut from Aaron Gordon
With its towering frontcourt, Arizona has a predictably robust pick-and-roll game. However, star freshman Aaron Gordon is rarely the man setting those picks, because coach Sean Miller has another job for him.
The high-flying Gordon lurks along the baseline, sliding into post position or, more often, waiting for the defense to lose track of him before diving to the rim.
At that point, T.J. McConnell or Nick Johnson just has to put the ball in the vicinity of the rim to set up another of Gordon's long line of highlight-reel dunks.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!