Cal Basketball on Offense

The late legendary coach Abe Lemons once said, "There are really only two plays: Romeo and Juliet, and put the darn ball in the basket." It's a funny line, but offense is more complex than that. However, basketball really is a simple game. Even Coach Ben Braun admits, "Sometimes basketball is not a hard game. We make it harder than it is."

There's been an ongoing online debate at The Bear Insider - and in the hallways at Haas Pavilion - about Cal's offensive system, or even if there is a system. Many "experts" have weighed in with their analysis, some of which has served only to further muddy the waters.

Ben Braun is known as a defensive mastermind, but he knows the offensive side of basketball very well too. He informs us that Cal runs a combination of transition, motion, post isolations, multiple screens for shooters, ball screens and post exchanges. "We'll run, depending on the teams we play, something to take advantage of our strengths," said Braun. "It's nice to be flexible and have more than one offensive look. It may change from game to game."

"We have plays for every situation," said Braun. Cal uses them to create isolations, mismatches, and to get to the foul line. Different sets or alignments may be the stack, box, spread, double post, wide, and 4 around 1. Cal may do similar things out of different sets. For example, Cal might give the opponent a different look, and still be trying to get the ball inside to Leon Powe.

The Bears employed a four-man motion attack against Washington with Leon Powe in the motion. The set spread Washington out, and created back-cut opportunities, as well as post entries to Powe. Said Braun, "That's an effective way to play against teams that are trying to get out on you and pressure you."

That attack would not have worked against Washington State and Dick Bennett's sagging pack line defense. Penetration opportunities simply were not available. Braun noted that there were often 10 hands around Powe. The Bears had to move the ball on the perimeter, and probe inside when they could. Richard Midgley was the primary beneficiary of WSU's defensive strategy and had an outstanding game from the outside.

In the Arizona State and Oregon State games, Cal played at a higher tempo to exploit their backcourt advantage. In Tempe, the coaches took Ayinde Ubaka off the ball to create a favorable matchup. Ubaka exploded for 24 points on 8 for 12 shooting from the floor.

Flexibility is the key to Cal's offensive philosophy. "It's not good enough to say that we only do one thing. If you do one thing and teams adjust to you, you're in trouble," Braun said. "You have to be able to run counters, read the defense. What's option A, option B, option C? What do you do when teams switch on you? What do you do when teams double down or front you? You better have some counters for those things."

Braun said, "We'll attack teams at a point where they are weaker and we think we can exploit them." For this Cal team, that usually means going inside. "Part of our philosophy through the years has been to attack teams inside out. You're starting with the ball near the basket and now you can create offense from there." The idea is to force the defense to move, and therefore to create openings. If the defense doubles the post, it's up to the Cal player to read the defense, and make the right pass. "Everything we do offensively is always predicated on reading the defense," said the Cal coach.

"There are two ways to get to the basket. One is to penetrate by the pass, and one is to penetrate by the dribble." With Leon Powe, the dominant post player in the Pac-10, it makes sense to penetrate the defense by entering the ball to the post. As Powe continues to develop the ability to read the double and respond, the Cal offense becomes more effective.

Another significant philosophical basis of the offense is targeting a particular mismatch or defender weakness. Bruan said that Cal might try to take advantage of a player who is not adept at getting through screens by making him do just that. He also noted that they might try to tire a player out. Against Stanford, they had the player that Chris Hernandez was guarding run back and forth through baseline screens to tire the Stanford star.

Getting to the foul line is another goal of Cal's offensive system. For the season, the Bears have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted. Free throws are the "easiest" way to score points. The inside attack will not only force the defense to react, but will also draw fouls. Following the first Stanford game, Cal has done an excellent job of converting from the line.

In order to maximize possessions, and the opportunity to score points, good teams must take care of the ball. Cal leads the Pac-10 in assist to turnover ratio. They had just 5 turnovers at Oregon State, and 4 at home against Stanford. That's really taking care of the ball. Every team wants to minimize turnovers, but it's clear that Cal has been extraordinarily successful in this important area.

Ball movement, player movement, and screening are the elements of the Cal attack. Ball reversal, which is moving the ball from one side of the court to the other, is also a vital part of the offensive system. As with penetration, reversal is a way to force the defense to move. As the defenders have to close out shooters, driving and passing lanes open up. Cal will try to position their best shooters on opposite sides of the floor to take advantage of ball reversal.

The motion offense, which can be three or four man motion, is one of the ways that Cal gets player movement in the offense. Post exchanges, where the bigs switch positions, from high to low, or from side to side are another kind of player movement.

Finally, screening on or off the ball can create mismatches, and force a defense to make choices. The Bears like to use a scoring threat to set screens, because it makes the options for the defense more difficult. As an example, with about four minutes left in the Stanford game, Richard Midgley set a horizontal screen in the lane for Leon Powe, which led to a Powe slam and a Stanford foul.

Braun has not been satisfied with the screening, however: "It's something we need to get better at." Effective screening requires both the player setting the screen to hold it long enough, and for the player using the screen to not allow the defender space to get through.

Ultimately said Braun, "It's about our execution. You plug in Leon Powe and suddenly your offense is a little better." Any system is only as good as the players running it. For Cal, it's about attacking every opponent in a slightly different way. "Sometimes we have to take what the defense is giving us," said Braun. When the Bears' attack is working, the players are reading the defense and attacking it where it is vulnerable.

In the remaining Pac-10 games, watch how the opponent is defending Cal. If they are out pressuring on the perimeter, Cal should be trying to spread them out, and attack with the dribble and the pass. They did this brilliantly against Arizona, but not so well against Arizona State. If the opponent is sagging in on Leon Powe, look for ball reversal, and inside-outside action. Even when entries to Powe are difficult, Cal should work to maintain focus and concentration, and to continue to probe inside. They failed to do this against ASU.

A generalization: if the offense doesn't always have the same look from game to game, that's no accident. It's by design.


©Copyright 2006, BearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this active online Cal community and get access to the members-only content from the nation-wide Scout.com network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.


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There's been an ongoing online debate at The Bear Insider - and in the hallways at Haas Pavilion - about Cal's offensive system, or even if there is a system. Many \"experts\" have weighed in with their analysis, some of which has served only to further muddy the waters.

Ben Braun is known as a defensive mastermind, but he knows the offensive side of basketball very well too. He informs us that Cal runs a combination of transition, motion, post isolations, multiple screens for shooters, ball screens and post exchanges. \"We'll run, depending on the teams we play, something to take advantage of our strengths,\" said Braun. \"It's nice to be flexible and have more than one offensive look. It may change from game to game.\"

\"We have plays for every situation,\" said Braun. Cal uses them to create isolations, mismatches, and to get to the foul line. Different sets or alignments may be the stack, box, spread, double post, wide, and 4 around 1. Cal may do similar things out of different sets. For example, Cal might give the opponent a different look, and still be trying to get the ball inside to Leon Powe.

The Bears employed a four-man motion attack against Washington with Leon Powe in the motion. The set spread Washington out, and created back-cut opportunities, as well as post entries to Powe. Said Braun, \"That's an effective way to play against teams that are trying to get out on you and pressure you.\"

That attack would not have worked against Washington State and Dick Bennett's sagging pack line defense. Penetration opportunities simply were not available. Braun noted that there were often 10 hands around Powe. The Bears had to move the ball on the perimeter, and probe inside when they could. Richard Midgley was the primary beneficiary of WSU's defensive strategy and had an outstanding game from the outside.

In the Arizona State and Oregon State games, Cal played at a higher tempo to exploit their backcourt advantage. In Tempe, the coaches took Ayinde Ubaka off the ball to create a favorable matchup. Ubaka exploded for 24 points on 8 for 12 shooting from the floor.

Flexibility is the key to Cal's offensive philosophy. \"It's not good enough to say that we only do one thing. If you do one thing and teams adjust to you, you're in trouble,\" Braun said. \"You have to be able to run counters, read the defense. What's option A, option B, option C? What do you do when teams switch on you? What do you do when teams double down or front you? You better have some counters for those things.\"

Braun said, \"We'll attack teams at a point where they are weaker and we think we can exploit them.\" For this Cal team, that usually means going inside. \"Part of our philosophy through the years has been to attack teams inside out. You're starting with the ball near the basket and now you can create offense from there.\" The idea is to force the defense to move, and therefore to create openings. If the defense doubles the post, it's up to the Cal player to read the defense, and make the right pass. \"Everything we do offensively is always predicated on reading the defense,\" said the Cal coach.

\"There are two ways to get to the basket. One is to penetrate by the pass, and one is to penetrate by the dribble.\" With Leon Powe, the dominant post player in the Pac-10, it makes sense to penetrate the defense by entering the ball to the post. As Powe continues to develop the ability to read the double and respond, the Cal offense becomes more effective.

Another significant philosophical basis of the offense is targeting a particular mismatch or defender weakness. Bruan said that Cal might try to take advantage of a player who is not adept at getting through screens by making him do just that. He also noted that they might try to tire a player out. Against Stanford, they had the player that Chris Hernandez was guarding run back and forth through baseline screens to tire the Stanford star.

Getting to the foul line is another goal of Cal's offensive system. For the season, the Bears have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted. Free throws are the \"easiest\" way to score points. The inside attack will not only force the defense to react, but will also draw fouls. Following the first Stanford game, Cal has done an excellent job of converting from the line.

In order to maximize possessions, and the opportunity to score points, good teams must take care of the ball. Cal leads the Pac-10 in assist to turnover ratio. They had just 5 turnovers at Oregon State, and 4 at home against Stanford. That's really taking care of the ball. Every team wants to minimize turnovers, but it's clear that Cal has been extraordinarily successful in this important area.

Ball movement, player movement, and screening are the elements of the Cal attack. Ball reversal, which is moving the ball from one side of the court to the other, is also a vital part of the offensive system. As with penetration, reversal is a way to force the defense to move. As the defenders have to close out shooters, driving and passing lanes open up. Cal will try to position their best shooters on opposite sides of the floor to take advantage of ball reversal.

The motion offense, which can be three or four man motion, is one of the ways that Cal gets player movement in the offense. Post exchanges, where the bigs switch positions, from high to low, or from side to side are another kind of player movement.

Finally, screening on or off the ball can create mismatches, and force a defense to make choices. The Bears like to use a scoring threat to set screens, because it makes the options for the defense more difficult. As an example, with about four minutes left in the Stanford game, Richard Midgley set a horizontal screen in the lane for Leon Powe, which led to a Powe slam and a Stanford foul.

Braun has not been satisfied with the screening, however: \"It's something we need to get better at.\" Effective screening requires both the player setting the screen to hold it long enough, and for the player using the screen to not allow the defender space to get through.

Ultimately said Braun, \"It's about our execution. You plug in Leon Powe and suddenly your offense is a little better.\" Any system is only as good as the players running it. For Cal, it's about attacking every opponent in a slightly different way. \"Sometimes we have to take what the defense is giving us,\" said Braun. When the Bears' attack is working, the players are reading the defense and attacking it where it is vulnerable.

In the remaining Pac-10 games, watch how the opponent is defending Cal. If they are out pressuring on the perimeter, Cal should be trying to spread them out, and attack with the dribble and the pass. They did this brilliantly against Arizona, but not so well against Arizona State. If the opponent is sagging in on Leon Powe, look for ball reversal, and inside-outside action. Even when entries to Powe are difficult, Cal should work to maintain focus and concentration, and to continue to probe inside. They failed to do this against ASU.

A generalization: if the offense doesn't always have the same look from game to game, that's no accident. It's by design.


©Copyright 2006, BearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this active online Cal community and get access to the members-only content from the nation-wide Scout.com network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.

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