SAN ANTONIO — At a key juncture in a Big 12 quarterfinal game four years ago, Kansas’ opponent unwittingly played right into the Jayhawks’ hands.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford called the same quick-hitting late-game set that has been Bill Self’s go-to play since it produced Mario Chalmers’ iconic last-second 3-pointer against Memphis in the 2008 national title game.
“I was so focused on my team in the moment that it probably didn’t occur to me we were using their play,” Ford said. “I doubt I even thought about that we were running the play they made famous.”
The sight of a team using Kansas’ signature play against the Jayhawks is symptomatic of one of the unexpected legacies of Chalmers’ classic shot. Dozens of opposing coaches poached the design of the play from Kansas, transforming an innocuous set that Self drew up himself into one popular throughout college basketball.
Creighton’s Doug McDermott sank a game-winning 3-pointer with two seconds left against St. John’s in Jan. 2014 after his dad ran the Chalmers play to get him the shot. Syracuse used the same play to try to free Trevor Cooney a month later, but the sharpshooting guard’s game-tying 3-point attempt against Boston College fell short.
The most unlikely thief is Kentucky coach John Calipari, the man whose Memphis team Chalmers victimized 10 years ago. When the Wildcats trailed North Carolina by three in the dying seconds of last year’s South Regional final, Calipari drew up the Chalmers play and star guard Malik Monk buried a game-tying 3-pointer.
“I’m not surprised to see everyone doing a version of it because coaches are always picking stuff up from each other,” Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said. “When Grant Hill threw the pass to Christian Laettner, you saw everyone running that. And when Bryce Drew hit that shot for Valparaiso, everyone started running that.”
While the Chalmers play has different names at every school, at Kansas it’s known simply as “Chop.” Self named it for the hand signal he and his staff give when they call for the play from the bench.
The beauty of the play for late-clock situations is that it unfolds quickly, it creates multiple options and it can be used to produce a layup or 3-pointer. A point guard initiates the set by zooming down court as fast as he can and handing the ball off to a wing, who can shoot a 3-pointer if he has space or curl around a ball screen set by the trailing big man.
That alone often creates enough confusion to produce a clean look, but the wing has options if a shot isn’t there. The weak-side big man sets a flare screen for the remaining guard and the point guard runs to the corner in case the defense loses track of him.
“There’s a lot of movement to it, and then probably the hardest part to defend is that it’s all downhill. It all happens fast,” Ford said. “There’s a natural reaction to try to help on the drive. That’s what gets so many people.”
When Self first conceived of “Chop” during the 2006-07 season, he had no idea the play he had just drawn up would win Kansas a national title or become a favorite among coaches from coast to coast. Self was merely trying to find a reliable late-game option for the Jayhawks at a time when they were struggling in such situations.
On the first day Self installed it during practice, Kansas ran it over and over and over — a couple dozen times at least. The Jayhawks practiced it once or twice a week for the rest of the season before unveiling it in hopes of erasing a three-point deficit against Kevin Durant’s Texas team late in the 2007 Big 12 title game.
Rick Barnes surprised Self by switching to zone out of a timeout, but Kansas still managed to execute “Chop” well enough to get a clean look. Chalmers took a dribble handoff from Sherron Collins, curled around a ball screen from Julian Wright and buried a game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime and pave the way for a Jayhawks victory.
Kansas ran “Chop” for Chalmers again the following season at Texas, but this time the Jayhawks botched the play. That was all Self talked about during Kansas’ next practice.
“When we screwed it up, we probably practiced it ample times,” Self said. “It certainly got our guys to believe that if we needed a basket we were going to get a great look running that one way or the other.”
The possibility of using “Chop” to get Chalmers a look at a 3-pointer remained lodged in the back of Self’s mind during the national title game two months later as Kansas attempted to claw back from a nine-point deficit. When the Jayhawks pulled within three in the final seconds, Self didn’t waver on what play to call.
Kansas again didn’t execute the play flawlessly because Collins tripped before making the handoff, but Chalmers bailed out his teammate with the shot of his career. The Jayhawks dominated the ensuing overtime period en route to ending a 20-year national title drought.
“The momentum that shot gave us really helped us in overtime,” former Kansas assistant coach Joe Dooley said. “You could just see the calm and the confidence in our guys eyes in the huddle at the start of overtime. We fought it off and fought off, and now here we are, we’ve got another five minutes to play. That obviously gave us a lot of momentum.”
“Chop” quickly became Self’s go-to late-game play in the years following Chalmers’ dagger 3-pointer. He ran it so often at key moments in big games that Big 12 teams often knew when it was coming.
Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart broke up the dribble hand-off late in a 2013 victory at Allen Fieldhouse after Ford warned his team Kansas would run “Chop.” Fred Hoiberg also told Iowa State to expect “Chop” on the Jayhawks’ final possession of regulation earlier that same season, but Tyrus McGee didn’t switch a screen quickly enough and Ben McLemore forced overtime by banking in a game-tying 3-pointer.
“His hesitation gave McLemore enough breathing room to get a shot off,” former Iowa State assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We should’ve fouled, but we had gotten beaten fouling up 3 a few months earlier, so Hoiberg decided we were not going to foul in that situation.”
While Kansas back in the Final Four and the even back in San Antonio for the first time since 2008, the Jayhawks are hoping not to have to try to recreate Mario’s miracle this weekend. “Chop” is still a weapon in their arsenal, but they don’t want to have to use it.
Said Townsend, “We’re hoping we’re not in a situation where we need a 3 at the end of the game.”
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