Developing Your Program's Playing Style

by Coach Brett Ayers email the author at

I think there is a couple of things to look at when approaching first what a team and program's overriding style should be year in and year out. I also think a coach and his staff need to honestly self-evaluate what they can and can not teach. I think there is a popular misconception out there that all coaches can teach all styles. There are a select few who I have seen who are good enough across a vast array of stylistic spectrums of coaching to adapt rather quickly and easily contingent upon the intelligence level of their teams and those teams ability to absorb things in a short amount of time. A guy who is an example of this is Jay Wright at Villanova. This year he completely played two separate styles against first UCLA then against St. Joes. I watched him take the air out of the ball against UCLA by employing a couple of different things offensively and defensively and against St. Joes they really played an up tempo aggressive style.

If you look at two of the greatest, Wooden and DES, you see two guys with strengths and weaknesses in and around games but with one very common thread and that is that they hand fundamental aspects to their programs and altered and built from there. For example, Coach Wooden was not the kind of coach who made a lot of in game adjustments, even at times when he needed to. He was a diligent preparation type of coach who really was a master of the practice. That was his greatest medium. His kids were so fundamentally superior that in close games, even without the adjustments, this would usually carry them to the victory.

On the other hand you have coach smith us employed the motion offense, versus Wooden's 1-4 high post offense and used a few other different schemes from coach Wooden. But like coach Wooden he also really drilled in the fundamental aspects of the game but chose a more free-flowing offensive medium for which he would have his kids display their talents. One thing Coach Smith did a lot of in his last five years, and it became glarringly obvious in the semifinal game with Arizona, was he relied at times to much on "program". Coach Smith is another coach who did not at times make in game adjustments that cost him. See the Arizona game as a classic example. By continuing to use the 2 low post version of motion, instead of running what I call 1 game with only one big man, it allowed Arizona to clog up the middle and use their quickness to negate the obvious height advantage that Carolina had. Arizona was not a great zone team that year because not only did they not play it aggressively it also made them more passive on the offensive end, which is wont to happen with teams.

I think in looking at the styles that have been employed over the years and are used today there are three major styles of play that bring three separate tempos.

The first style is that of Rick Pitino. Forty minutes of in your face full court pressure and helter-skelter offensive possessions is the result for both the team employing this style and the team going up against it. I think the problem that exists with this style is the poor shot selection that often results from it. See Florida this year. I also think it is a tough thing to replicate in practice with all of its intensity and insanity. You can do it for stretches, but it is tough to have your first team go against the caliber of point guard they might face game in and game out. On the flip side, there are a lot of teams who never see this type of play and it really works to your advantage. I think it is the kind of thing a team with a good set of ball handlers at the two guard spots and a decent three man who can handle it can break and then run their offense with some effectiveness. The reason Patino has been better at using it than has Donavon is that Pitino's kids tend to be much more fundamentally sound as to where Billy D's kids really have some glaring fundamental weaknesses in their games. This style usually means you recruit and procure athletes, long and lanky. 6'3 to 6'10 kids who can run and jump and you condition the heck out of them.

The next style that is out there would be the kind that DES employed and is used to a lesser degree by Lute Olsen and Gary Williams. It is a smart brand of hoops where you need good upper classmen to really have it effectively work year in and year out. The above mentioned style needs athletes more than it does intelligent players. Long lanky athletes. Coach Smith, Coach Williams put in a base continuity offense. In coach Williams case it is flex in DES case it was motion, primarily two game motion. They then build the base of man to man fundamentals with emphasis on block out and rebounding. They put in structured secondary breaks and pressed when the opportunity arises. Their kids are not running all over, they break with purpose and with numbers. You will not see a lot of 2 on 3 breaks with these teams. This style dictates you recruit some athletes and some "basketball" players. You need to have a nice mix of inside/out to make this work. You also need kids who can read. A great point guard is very necessary for this style. A selfless point, not a selfish point.

The last major style is that of John Thompson Jr. at Princeton or Wisconsin, no matter who is there. You get a team that knows it has obvious strategic weaknesses and dictates tempo using half court and three quarter court soft presses and running a very heavy movement oriented offense that really employs a lot of screens and cuts. This style tries to keep the possession numbers down along with teaching the kids to value the possession when they have it. Breaks are only of the solo and or 2 on 1 variety, usually. This also really can frustrate teams that are not used to this style. See Princeton and UCLA in 1996. For this style being athletic is not a necessary, but being in shape is. Also, it helps to have a good passing big man who can step back and shoot the three as well. You need kids who really buy into it and are very good at reading the defense.

Those are the three styles of program and the tempos and thoughts behind the styles that dominate the college scene today. Of course there are hybrids of these out there as well.