In our game story on the long-ago VCU win, Karl Hess noted that "Faced with a long, aggressive defense, UVA spent much of the game in traditional Blocker-Mover Sets" and that "[b]uilding on their experience against the Hoos last year," VCU aggressively defended the screens and cuts of the Blocker-Mover, resulting in few open shots and a hotly-contested game. Karl pointed to the game last year against Florida State as an example of how another long, aggressive defense had jumped the BM cuts enough to gain a big halftime lead and UVA had responded by spreading the floor and attacking with the dribble to storm back for the win. He pointed out that dribble attack had been the key against VCU. Analysis of the game video shows that Karl was spot on with his comments, and the numbers bear out his observations.
The pattern of the game harked back to the Dayton and Wisconsin games, where the Hoos varied their sets more in the first half than the second, getting more conservative as the game progressed and Coach Bennett protected his lead. However, in this game there was no lead to protect with the conservatism, and the offense was predominantly Sides from the beginning. In the first half, the Hoos ran Sides on 13 halfcourt possessions, compared to 6 with spread sets. On six other possessions, the play ended in transition or before a recognizable set was established. One possession ended on an inbounds play after a transition out-of-bounds. Even more striking than the predominance of Sides sets was the absence of ball screens. In previous games, even Sides sets had featured a heavy reliance on ball screens, but this game saw a reversion to previous seasons, as only 4 of the Sides possessions saw ball screen action. All six of the spread sets featured ball screens.
In the second half, the Hoos ran Sides on 23 of 25 halfcourt possessions and spread the floor on only two, using ball screens on only three Sides sets and neither of the spread sets. Despite a 5-point possession in the less diverse second half and going 4-4 on end-of-game free throws, Virginia was slightly more efficient in the first half, tallying 29 points on its 27 possessions compared to 28 points on 29 possessions.
After the game, Coach Bennett said that they "tried some things" in the first half, then went back to "who we are" in the second. His post-game comments indicate that as in past seasons, early season innovation will give way to putting the offense on the Sides rails. The results indicate that this will be the aging, slow, expensive rails of Amtrak, not the Chinese high-speed rails that move billions of people around the country efficiently. With another long, athletic, physical defense coming up this evening in South Carolina, the ability to score enough against that kind of defense is of major concern - especially without the Mong00se there to initiate the defense. It also has implications for the ACC schedule and the NCAA tournament, where an opponent aggressively pressured the ball and jumped the Sides cuts and took the offense apart.
In the first half, Virginia only scored 6 of the 29 points in Sides sets without either using ball screens, post-up action or getting an offensive rebound. In the second half, that number rose to 16 of the 28 points. Taking a look at the vanilla Sides possessions that produced scores, one first half possession involved a non-traditional action as Jack Salt flashed to the top of the key and posted up as a receiver, and Kyle Guy used him as a screen to get an open look; and the other involved multiple dribble drives and fabulous ball movement resulting in a Ty Jerome corner three. Seven second-half Sides possessions without ball screens, post-ups or offensive rebounds produced 16 points. Five of those scoring possessions resulted from dribble drives for 8 points, and two possessions produced the other 8 points because of bad screen defense by VCU.
The Hoos scored exactly 3 points out of the traditional Sides action absent defensive mistakes. Other than that one fabulously-executed possession with strong dribble drive attacks leading to a scrambling defense, player creativity saved the play by essentiall chucking the offense at the end and simply taking the ball to the hoop - or launching long-range bombs when the defense failed to aggressively attack the screen. Click here for the data regarding each offensive possession.
Examples of Success
How, then, did the Hoos find success on offense? The following videos show a succession of possessions in which Virginia created good opportunities in both Sides and spread sets. On one of them, the Hoos did not score, through no fault of design or execution, but it gives an example of design and creativity resulting in a good opportunity. At the end, we will sum them up and argue that the offensive game plan for VCU - as adjusted at halftime - was fatally flawed and should not be a model for the season going forward.
Play 1: Driving off the Post
Mamadi Diakite is setting screens on the right side of the lane. After Guy flashes from the baseline off his screen, Mamadi posts up. Dre is on the other side of the lane screening. As Guy puts the ball on the floor to drive down the lane, Mamadi's man hesitates because Mamadi has presented as a receiver. Dre's man doesn't want to leave Dre because, well, he's Dre. So the help is half-hearted and Guy is able to turn the corner and attack the rim, getting the call and 2 free throws.
Play 2: The Side Ball Screen
We will see another example of this play from the second half, but now watch Mamadi. He sets the off-ball screen for Braxton Key, who curls off it and gets the pass. His drive draws the defense into the lane while Mamadi steps out to the arc and is wide open. But by spinning, Key gives the defender time to react and recover to Mamadi, so the pass is simply a reset. No matter: Here comes Ty Jerome. Mamadi passes Ty the ball then sets a ball screen.
Watch the defense's reaction to Ty's drive. Both Mamadi's man and Braxton's man react to Ty, leaving the two of them free as receivers.
Play 3, Part 1: The Split Screen
In another variation of the side ball screen, Braxton Key sets a down screen. Marco Anthony sees the space and dribbles straight through into the lane, drawing help. Jerome is open and the defense is in scramble mode thanks to the ball screen. Jerome kicks to Guy for a great look from the corner. The shot misses, but Key is in rebound position and resets the offense for Part 2.
Play 3, Part 2: All High
Key resets the ball up top then follows it out to the arc. A second later, Diakite comes up to the arc on the weak side. With all five Hoos above the foul line, the defense is flattened out. Guy's man is on the wrong foot, giving up baseline perhaps in the assumption he has help. But because of the defense being high, there is no help - especially when Diakite's man steps forward as Guy starts his drive.
Play 4: The Nice Try
This play was unsuccessful, but showed another nice use of the ball screen by Marco Anthony. UVA has run this play several times, usually with Kyle Guy working with either Ty Jerome or De'Andre Hunter on the weakside. A ball screen is set on one side. The dribbler comes off the screen and reverses the ball to the other big who then reads the other two movers screening for each other on the sideline. In this case, Anthony comes off Guy who then goes baseline to the weak side. Diakite passes to Anthony then sets a ball screen. Watch how close we get to a wide open Guy three in the corner.
Play 5: The Slip and Drive
This play shows how the slip screen can work and what having shooters on the floor does. Jay Huff slips a high ball screen for Guy, which draws the help over to the right side of the lane. Huff wisely sees that he is cut off from the basket and his man is closing, but Kihei is wide open in the corner as his man had the help. The rotation goes for a steal and takes himself out of the play, leaving the baseline wide open. Jerome's man does not want to leave him, and neither does Guy's. Hunter's man has to cut off the drive, and that leaves Hunter wide open.
Play 6: Salting the Game
Sides with Salt and Hunter as the bigs, Hunter is at the top of the key and Jerome posts up. When Jerome goes for the shot, Salt's man comes over to double, and Hunter's man drops into the lane. Ty misses the shot, but a guard is trying to box out Jack "If He Dies He Dies" Salt. Jack taps it back to Hunter for an easy rebound and reset. On the second chance, watch when Jack flashes to the key as if to receive a pass. Guy uses him as a screen, and when he sees his man go under the screen, he cuts back for an easy shot. Here Guy's guile takes advantage of the defender's confusion. This is not the ordinary screen action he has seen on film, and he falls back on habits rather than the scouting report.
Play 7: Quick Striking Mong00se
When the play freezes, notice the VCU big men in the lane. They are facing away from the ball, completely caught up in the action on the weak side. Kihei sees that the help is unaware and his man is too high, and makes the quick decision to strike.
Play 8: Keystone Kops Rams
The one first half scoring play that could be said to be traditional Sides did feature the trademark curls off screens away from the ball, but it was aggressive dribble drives that disadvantaged the defense and forced them to chase wildly. You see Jerome and Guy come off Diakite screens tagged hard by their defenders, but Jerome continues his run and Guy attacks the lane from the high wing, drawing the attention of Jerome's defender. Jerome gets space, and the defender runs into Hunter who has slid up the lane to backscreen him - taking out his teammate as well. The rotation closes hard on Jerome, knowing he's deadly on that corner three. Ty takes baseline with a hard drive, and it forces Kihei's man to crash into the lane, leaving Kihei WIDE open. Jerome continues his run into the corner, and because Diakite's man has to honor him and take a step that way before closing on Ty, Ty has the good look, which he buries.
Play 9: Post Attack
Over three minutes in, the Hoos have not scored after 4 bad possessions. Mamadi posts up left side of the lane and gets his man on his baseline hip. Turn to the middle is wide open. What really makes the play is that Dre's man does not want to leave him, so his help is late and half-hearted.
Play 10: Over the Top
Here, Mamadi works a two-man game with Kihei. First he sets the off-ball screen for Kihei and posts up as soon as Kihei uses the screen. When he does not receive the ball, he comes out and sets a ball screen away from the basket then rolls. His man hedges, and Kihei drops the pocket pass to Mamadi in the flat. Dre's man now has to leave him and come over to cut Mamadi off from the basket, but he's not big enough to bother Mamadi's shot and it's an easy basket. Side ball screens.
Play 11: Taking Baseline
Nothing fancy, Dre thinks he can beat his man to the baseline, and he does. When the help comes over, Dre chooses a contested jumper. Shot is blocked but Dre is fouled and hits the free throws.
Play 12: Making Space
Focus is on Dre on this play. Simple Sides curl off a high pindown screen by Dre, but instead of rolling to the hoop, Dre steps back to the arc. As a threat, he keeps his man's attention, thus the immediate help off the screen is half-hearted, and the helper abandons quickly to scuttle back to Dre, giving Ty a lane to the basket.
Play 13: Make It Rain
VCU defensive discipline was breaking down as the game got late, and here the defender commits the cardinal sin of going under the screen.
Preparing for South Carolina
After the game, Tony Bennett explained what VCU was doing on defense and what his team had to do to combat it:
As we saw, VCU defended by chasing the screens except when we made them scramble and have to go off script. Attacking on the dribble was what produced most of the points. Late in the game, they made a couple of mistakes on screens, and Jerome killed them.
Then he went on to say:
"I just thought we got more to who we had to be offensively in the second half. I was kinda scanning around trying a few too many things in the first half. Well this wasn't looking good, so we tried different little actions and sets, and I thought we just needed to become more who we were and give those guys a chance to move and get shots."
In other words, we just needed to run Sides, have our bigs set screens and cut to the basket, and our guards run off screens trying to get open shots.
But is that who this team is?
As we already saw, the offense was actually less efficient in the second half than it had been in the first. Take out two possessions where VCU deliberately fouled in the backcourt trying to get the ball back and the Hoos buried the free throws, and it looks worse. First half: 29 points on 26 possessions. Second half: 24 points on 27 possessions. Twelve of the 24 points came on free throws, primarily caused by dribble drives. Virginia shot worse in the second half from the floor both overall and from three. Just how did getting conservative "give those guys a chance to move and get shots"?
For the season, Virginia's halfcourt offense is producing 0.985 PPP, ranking the Hoos at 94% for "Excellent" on Synergy Sports. Breaking it down, Virginia scores 1.089 PPP (92%) on "Spot Up" plays; 0.99 PPP (65%) "Off Screens"; 1.133 PPP (50%) on "Cuts"; 0.92 PPP (89%) on "P&R Ball Handler"; 1.333 PPP (94%) on "P&R Roll Man"; and 0.732 PPP (40%) on "Isolation". [Other categories don't apply to the current argument, but let's say we're bad at post up scoring and excellent in transition].
The prototypical scoring plays of the Sides offense are the "Off Screen" and "Cut" plays. These are when a wing flies off an off-ball screen, catches the ball and hits the long jumper; or when the mover curls into the lane off a screen after catching the ball and hits the screener cutting to the basket when the screener's defender helps on the drive. In 2017-18, the Hoos were "Excellent" at these things, scoring 1.028 PPP and 1.303 PPP, respectively, on those plays. This year's team is significantly less efficient - particularly relative to D1 teams - in both areas.
The 2018-19 Cavaliers are, in fact, best at Spot Up and P&R Ball Handler plays, at both of which they are better than more than 90% of D1 schools. Dig into it a little deeper, and you see that in "Pick and Rolls Including Passes" - which includes plays that have "transitioned from the original play type to a secondary play type (including spot ups ...) as a result of a defensive commitment that causes a distortion in the defense from which the defense cannot recover to normal match-ups" - the Cavaliers are scoring 1.016 PPP (92%), or above their overall halfcourt average. A lot of those Spot Up plays for the Hoos are coming off of P&R.
These numbers support a hypothesis that THIS Cavaliers team is a team of playmakers who thrive in an offense that calls on them to make plays, to force the defense into scramble situations and capitalize. The offense has worked best when it has included a lot of ball screen action. Ty Jerome and Kihei Clark excel at P&R Ball Handler (Hunter is 2.0 PPP in those plays, but he only has 1 so that doesn't count). Mamadi Diakite, De'Andre Hunter and Jay Huff have done extremely well at P&R Roll Man. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, De'Andre Hunter, and Jay Huff are killing it on Spot Ups (and Braxton Key is doing surprisingly well given his career numbers).
South Carolina has long athletes who play hard and play physical. You can expect them to play the Sides cuts the same way VCU tried to do, the same way our better ACC opponents do. If they maintain discipline and always obey The Golden Rule of Defending Sides ("Thou Shalt Not Go Under the Screen"), Virginia won't score 50 points with a conservative Sides approach. A blend of spread sets with 4 or even 5 players working from above the free throw line and Sides sets featuring heavy use of Lane-Wide and ball screen actions will put maximum pressure on the South Carolina defense and put Virginia's playmakers in better positions to make plays.