Of the handful of issues that plagued Seattle U on its way to an 8-22 record last season, the team's lack of an offensive identity was perhaps the most apparent. One reason the Redhawks lost so many close games in crunch time was that they didn't have that one reliable "This is what we do" play to go to when push came to shove.
Things are different this season.
The Redhawks' offense revolves around the ball screen, and their best tandem at making the play work has been junior point guard Isiah Umipig (18.8 points per game, 5.5 assists) and sophomore center Jack Crook (5.8 points, 8.3 rebounds).
It's easy to see why Umipig and Crook make for a good pick-and-pop combination. Umipig is one of the quickest guards on the West Coast getting to the basket, and a good enough shooter that defenses can't sag off of him. Crook is a 6-11 mountain who sets brick-wall screens and has a reliable mid-range jumper.
And if you're wondering why SU coach Cameron Dollar hadn't unleashed this tandem until now, it's because Umipig had to sit out last season after transferring from Cal State Fullerton, while Crook averaged just 10 minutes per game as a true freshman.
This season, Umipig has been the starting point guard and general of SU's offense since opening night, while Crook recently cracked the starting lineup and has proven to be the Redhawks' best rebounder.
The payoff has been immediate. Through the season's first couple of weeks, Seattle U leads the Western Athletic Conference in scoring (80.2 ppg) and assists (14.8 apg), ranks third in field-goal shooting (43.7 percent), and only one team in the conference has committed fewer turnovers.
Before Friday's practice, Umipig and Crook broke down Seattle U's offensive bread and butter:
REDHAWK NATION: How does the ball screen get started? Is it a play called in from the sideline? Is it an unspoken thing?
ISIAH UMIPIG: It's just how we initiate our offense. A lot of our plays involve ball screens and making reads throughout the game.
JACK CROOK: The majority of our offense has a pick-and-roll of some form in it. It's the first thing we go into just to see if there's anything there, then maybe we'll go into a set play or something different.
Jack, how do you decide on which side you're going to set the screen?
Crook: That's the big man's read. You can tell by reading the guy who's guarding the ball-handler. I try to set it where I can get Zeke into space so he can make a play, and get myself in position to rebound.
Once he sets the screen, Isiah, what's your next move?
Umipig: I have to make a read. So if the big man who's guarding Jack stays with him, I'll be more aggressive and try to get to the paint -- make a play for somebody else or score. If he comes up on me, then I just throw it back to Jack and he'll make that shot all night long. A lot of times they're playing off of him because they don't know he can shoot yet, and he knocks it down.
Crook: He's so dangerous coming off screens. He can shoot, he can get to the basket, he can find teammates. It's good for us because we have good shooters on this team and he can find them.
After you set the screen, Jack, what do you do next?
Crook: I'll either stay behind Zeke if he needs to pivot and pass it back out, or I'll roll to the rim, or go rebound if he takes a shot. My read depends on what the ball-handler does.Jack Crook (Photo: John Aronson)
Is that 17, 18-foot jumper something you worked on a lot in the offseason? We didn't see it a lot when you were a freshman.
Crook: I've always had it, but I worked on it quite a lot in the summer. I think it was more about being confident and taking it when it's open and when it's the right shot, rather than taking it just to take it. I worked with the coaches a lot on shot selection and making it consistently.
If you had it your way and the defense did what you wanted them to do every time, would you be shooting the ball? Passing? Driving?
Umipig: Just making the right decision, whether it's me shooting, getting it to a teammate in the corner for a three, whatever is the right play. Being able to read the defense is something I'm still trying to get better at.
Jack, what would be your favorite thing to do all day off a ball screen?
Crook: I'm definitely better at staying back and taking the jumper, but I also like to rebound.
What happens when the ball screen doesn't work? Do you just circle back and try it again?
Umipig: Oh yeah. There's secondary action, third action off of it. We have 35 seconds to get a shot, so running off ball screens can get pretty tiring for the defense once you do it three or four times in a row.
It sounds simple, but it takes some guys a long time to get the chemistry where it needs to be on ball screens. Was this something you two worked on last season in practice?
Umipig: It was more in the offseason and going into this season. Last year I was working more on my dribbling and passing skills to be able to do this, but we didn't really run this type of offense last year. It's something we focused on all summer.
Crook: We all focused this offseason on making the right plays at the right time. It helped that Zeke, Emerson (Murray) and Manny (Chibuogwu) were practicing with us last year. (Editor's note: Murray sat out last season after transferring from California; Chibuogwu redshirted as a freshman.) Even though they couldn't play, we still worked together as a team and became really close, so now it's flowing really well.
When did things start to click for you two?
Umipig: During open gym (in the offseason), a couple of times we'd be on the same team and we'd just run it. I knew Jack could shoot, so I'd look for opportunities to get him open and get some of my other teammates open that can shoot. Now it's a play I'm used to making; I've made it 100 times a day.
Crook: We could always run it pretty well, but we're making the right plays more often now. Defenses are starting to focus on Zeke more, so the more I hit shots when the ball comes to me, that will open things up for my teammates. It's hard for everyone to be guarded, so that will translate into getting good shots. We can always get better, but I think we're going in the right direction.