SAN ANTONIO (AP)—By nature, coaching is a business of copycats.
That puts John Calipari on the verge of becoming one of the most mimicked men in his profession.
The “dribble-drive motion” offense he uses is among the hottest things going in hoops these days, and his Memphis Tigers show it to the world for the final time this season in Monday night’s championship game against Kansas.
Calipari calls the creation he borrowed from a relatively unknown high school coach in California, “Princeton on steroids,” a bow to the constant-motion, cut-and-backdoor offense perfected by Pete Carril.
He also calls it “dribble-drive motion,” in part because it sounds good, and also as a nod to the idea it does not rely on pick-setters and post men who clog up the paint and sometimes stifle free-flowing offense.
Some say it’s an extension of the penetrate-and-pass schemes so commonly seen in Europe, where big centers with strong post games are few and far between.
The essence of the offense is to keep the middle clear, give the ball to playmakers on the perimeter and let them penetrate for layups or kick out to guys who come open.
It is controlled chaos, indeed, but it takes the effort of a good coach— one who does the bulk of his job in the practice gym, not calling plays from the bench on gameday.
“Sometimes I think we overcoach with certain things we do,” said the offense’s inventor, Vance Walberg, who is in San Antonio this week rooting for Calipari and the Tigers. “All this does is show how simple the game is if you give your best players the ball and open gaps for them.”
Walberg started using it 11 years ago when he was coaching high school in California, struggling to find more ways to get his best player more opportunities by taking him out of clogged-up offensive sets so common in the game. The plan worked and gradually spread, first among the grass roots in high schools, then into the small-college ranks, then beyond.
Calipari was the first major-college coach to take the plunge. He started tinkering with it after a conversation with Walberg in 2003.
“I said, ‘Tell me about what you guys do,”’ Calipari said. “He said, ‘You don’t want to see it because you won’t do it.”’
Walberg had every reason to believe as much, in large part because he figured no big-time, big-money coach would risk his job on a system that a) has very little to do with calling plays and b) puts the players so much in charge of their system that it often looks like an uncoached mess.
“Instead of teaching them plays, you start really teaching them how to play,” Walberg said. “It’s principles of the game. It’s, ‘What happens if you go this way and you stop? What comes open? What happens if you go that way and you stop? What comes open there?”’
Calipari said a coach must commit to a fair amount of letting go to turn his program, and therefore his fate, over to such an offense.
“You have to count on your team to be unselfish, you have to count on your team being able to make great decisions on the run, and you have to understand that what makes it good is they can feel unleashed,” Calipari said.
The benefits can go beyond simply winning games in the present.
“You can go to a kid and say, ‘Do you wanna play a style where we’re scoring in the 50s and 60s every night, or a style where we’re in the 80s and 90s?”’ Walberg said. “It’s a style that gets you ready for the next level.”
Memphis freshman Derrick Rose has thrived playing that style. He’ll probably move to the NBA next year. Chris Douglas-Roberts is also an NBA prospect. He’s averaged 18 points a game in this, his third year of playing in Calipari’s dribble-drive.
“The offense isn’t for everybody,” Douglas-Roberts said. “If you can’t play 1-on-1, this offense will expose you. But for me, it was good. I’ve never lost a game of 1-on-1 in my life.”
The Tigers, of course, augment this style with plenty of good transition offense, trying for easy layups and 3-on-2 fast breaks.
Their opponent, Kansas, is also wide-open, but in a more traditional way, looking to drop the ball into post players—like Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson—in traditional strong-side positions, then kick it out for 3-pointers for Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers if the double teams come.
“The way they run their offense is different than the way we run it, but the philosophy’s still the same: Get the ball to the paint,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said.
Indeed, Memphis does that differently.
The post player almost always will be on the weak side, looking for a backdoor cut if the ballhandler’s penetration sets it up. The other four players will be on the perimeter, and whoever has the ball is urged to take it to the hoop and see what develops. If it doesn’t work the first time, recycle and repeat with a different player handling the ball.
Some believe packing it in with a zone defense is the best way to neutralize this attack. In the regional semifinals, Michigan State tried that and was trailing 50-20 at halftime.
“We play two or three possessions of it a year,” Self said jokingly of the zone that Kansas largely avoids. “Without telling you what we’re going to do, we have to be prepared to guard them in a way that gives us our best chance.”
Which almost certainly means man-to-man.
Nobody has stopped it yet this season, save Tennessee, which handed Memphis its only loss against an NCAA-record 38 wins.
If Memphis makes it 39, Calipari’s gamble will have paid off with the biggest reward—the school’s first national title.
Certainly, that would bring more converts.
There are plenty already. A Sports Illustrated story in February listed a few hundred who have bought in—from high school teams in Colorado all the way up to the Boston Celtics.
“In the typical year, I get 300 to 400 calls from coaches asking me about it,” Walberg said.
Very few of those calls come from traditionalists who Walberg says curse him and “say that’s not the way you’re supposed to play.”
Calipari’s not one of those traditionalists—at least not anymore.
“Obviously, I’m biased, but I’m happy as heck for John,” Walberg said. “He had the guts to see it. He’s got good athletes, guys who can do things. But for him to change, I thought it took a lot of guts.”