A Flexible Pearl Can Kill

Vanderbilt faces an unenviable task having to go to Knoxville Wednesday night to take on red-hot Tennessee. Bruce Pearl's Volunteers are in the middle of a three-game home stand that if entirely successful can let the Big Orange jump over the bubble and virtually guarantee them a berth in the NCAA Tournament. At 7-1/16-3 including a win at Texas, it would take a total collapse for Tennessee to miss out on the big dance. Just a 3-5 finish would sew it up.

Added to Vandy's  difficulty is the Vols' burning desire to seek revenge on the team that basically ended the Buzz Peterson era in Knoxville.  Last year, Vanderbilt dominated Tennessee at Thompson Boling Arena like no other Commodore team had previously done in the Thompson-Boling/Stokely Athletics Center/Armory Fieldhouse era. The only time the Gold Men beat The Orange Men by a greater score was at the old Alumni Memorial Gym 50 years ago.  In the Commodores' 88-63 slaughter in 2005, they connected on 20-33 second half shots including 10-14 from behind the arc, while outscoring the Vols 50-35 in those final 20 minutes.  Seniors Dawid Przybyszewski, Corey Smith, and Jason Holwerda had excellent afternoons, combining for 38 points on 15-23 shooting.  Mario Moore had the best afternoon of all with 18 points and seven assists.  Moore's shooting prowess has disappeared this year, although he still can feed the rock to teammates and pick up crucial steals.  Will that be enough this time?  Not if Tennessee comes out playing nothing worse than average ball.  I don't think we will see just average ball; the Vols have boulder-sized chips on their shoulders from last season.
Tennessee will use full-court pressure and man-to-man pressure on the ball in the half-court.  They will attempt the fast break on most possessions.  When in their own half-court offense, they will run Coach Pearl's version of the flex continuity offense, one that works against both man-to-man and zone defenses.  The flex is an excellent motion offense creating open looks inside.  When defenses overreact to the inside moves, the flex counters can create open shots from three-point land and from 10-15 feet.  It also places players inside for offensive rebounding.  When a team runs the flex and isn't "married" to sticking to the exact pattern, they usually score a lot of points, draw a lot of fouls, and achieve a higher than average shooting percentage.
Let's take a look at the Flex.  This offense was created about 35 years ago on the West Coast.  After Dean Smith made his passing game popular, many teams began to copy the North Carolina offense.  However, many of these teams didn't have the personnel to use the high-low post exchange like the Tar Heels were able to do.  So, Coach Carroll Williams of Santa Clara came up with the idea of quickly changing his strong and weak side by having his players cut off screens in the low post and passing the ball across the perimeter from a two-guard set.
Diagram 1
Here is the typical alignment for the flex—the 2-3 (see diagram 1).  Two guards set up about 15 feet apart and about 22-25 feet from the basket.  The three low players align with two men on the baseline and one in the low post. 
Diagram 2
Diagram 2: With the pass from 2 to 1 (a), 5 sets a stationary baseline pick for 3.  3 must set his man up for the screen, as 5 does not head hunt.  If 3 is open coming off the screen, 1, hits him with a crisp pass shoulder high.
If 3 is not open and does not get the pass, he continues across the lane and stops just outside the paint to set the same pick for 4.  4 now uses 3's stationary screen in the same manner.  Once 3 makes his move across the lane, 1 passes the ball back to 2 (b).  This continuity can repeat over and over, with the strong and weak sides changing back and forth rather quickly.  Defenses that pressure on the ball side and sag on the weak side will quickly tire both physically and mentally trying to match the offense.
Now, in diagram 2, I have only shown the basics.  As I mentioned earlier, the key to the success of the flex is knowing when not to follow the basics.  Players can trick their defenders by fading from the screen and stepping outside for open looks.  They can choose to cut high off the low post screen and make a power move once they have the ball.  They can move off the screen then hook toward the ball if they can beat a defender playing behind them from less than five feet away from the hoop.
Flex Diagram
Diagram 3: Here we have the textbook second move of the flex offense.  Tennessee doesn't use this as such; for them, it is a counter move.  When the flex was invented, there was one flex cut low followed by a down screen on the first screener.  In Tennessee's version of this move, we see 3 coming off 5's screen and then setting a screen for 4.  Once 4 clears the area, 2 sets a down screen for 3 who comes out to the elbow.  If 3 can hit the trey, he can come out a little farther.  If 2 can post up his man in the block, then the offense is that more potent.
Flex Diagram 
Diagram 4: This is an excellent counter the Vols have used to post up one of their more athletic guards.  The play starts with 1 passing to 2 and setting a back pick for 4 (not a flex pick but a conventional back screen).  4 moves off the screen and continues across to the opposite block (of course if he is open for the shot, he will get the ball and the play ends).  While 4 is making his move to the block, 2 passes to 5 who has come out a few feet to establish a clear passing lane.  2 then cuts quickly down the lane off 4's screen and heads to the basket looking for the ball.  3 replaces 2 for floor balance and for the opportunity of squaring up for a three-pointer should he be left unguarded (which happens quite frequently on this play).  5 passes to 2 if he is open; if not, he can make a move to the basket himself, pass to 3, or pass to 1 who has moved back towards his original spot.
How I Defended The Flex
1. Force the ball to one side and deny ball reversal.  When 1 passes to 2 or 2 passes to 1, have the perimeter defender off the ball play ball-you-man pressure defense, denying the return pass.  Force any cross court pass to be made with the receiver retreating away from the basket.
2. Guard the guards from an inside-out alignment making it tougher for them to cut inside or pass inside the paint.
3. Force the baseline flex screen to come about as low as possible and shadow the man using the screen by fronting him through the lane.  Be a little late catching up to him as he leaves the paint in order to help out on the next man coming through from the opposite direction (a little legal bumping here won't hurt).
3a. Many coaches disagree with me here; they would rather force the cutter high and play behind him.  I preferred the other way hoping to capitalize on forced passes inside that produced steals and transition points.
4. Be prepared to switch if the cutter fades back and doesn't come through the lane.  It is better to force the pass outside the paint and then do everything possible to prevent the peppered pass to the post.
The flex is a rhythm offense.  Disrupting that rhythm is a must.  For a team like Tennessee, I would strongly consider applying token full-court pressure to them making them take seven or eight seconds to get the ball across mid-court.  Then, I would force the ball to one side and attack from that half of the court, not allowing ball reversal (or at least forcing ball reversal quite wide).  That would greatly reduce the total amount of flex cuts Tennessee could attempt.
Three Big Wins in Knoxville
Aside from the blowout wins I mentioned earlier in this feature, Vanderbilt owns three additional blowout wins at Tennessee in the modern era.
Ray Mears became head coach at Tennessee in 1962.  His first season in 1962-63 saw him miss most of the year due to a nervous breakdown from exhaustion stemming from a viral illness.  In his place, assistant coach Bill Gibbs assumed head coaching duties.
Coming into this game, the Volunteers had won eight of eleven contests.  Leading the charge was a junior college all-American guard.  6-03 Danny Schultz came to the hill from nearby Hiwassee Junior College.  He averaged better than 16 points per game.  A.W. Davis and Sid Elliott complimented Schultz well.
Vanderbilt head coach Roy Skinner assigned perhaps the school's best ever defensive player to stop Schultz in John Russell.  Russell held Schultz in check for most of the night while his guard teammate shot them into submission.  Roger Schurig shattered the Commodore field goal percentage record in this game when he canned 14 of 17 shots in a 68-50 massacre.  Schurig added a pair of free throws for 30 points.  Many of his made shots would have counted for three points if the game had been played under today's rules.
Vanderbilt went to Knoxville with a 4-1 conference record and 12-1 overall mark.  The Commodores were in a first place tie with Alabama, just one game ahead of the Vols, Kentucky, and the Mississippi schools.  The Vols, one of the co-favorites to win the SEC (along with Kentucky and Alabama) were favored to win, led by shooting stars Ernie Grunfeld, Len Kosmalski, and John Snow. 
Vanderbilt had one of the best seven-deep lineups in the country that year.  The famous "F-troop" of Butch Feher, Joe Ford, and Jeff Fosnes joined a fabulous group of seniors in Jan Van Breda Kolff, Terry Compton, Bill Ligon, and Lee Fowler.  The versatility was such that VBK could play both point guard and center.  Ligon, Fowler, Compton, and Feher could play both guard and forward.
As Vandy destroyed the Vols that night 82-65, Vol Coach Ray Mears called it the best execution of basketball he had ever witnessed an opponent play against one of his teams.  The Commodores used a 1-2-2 zone defense and kept the ball out of the middle where the seven-foot Kosmalski could dominate.  They nearly shut out Snow, while Grunfeld proved to be unstoppable even as a freshman.  His 22 points weren't enough to overcome his teammates' lack of production.  Vanderbilt placed five players in double figures led by Fosnes with 20, Compton with 19, and VBK with 18.  Fos added 13 rebounds, while Feher recorded a double-double with 13 points and 12 boards.  This team would become the first division one school to shoot better than 80% at the charity stripe for a season, and on this night, the Commodores connected on all 16 of their attempts.
Vanderbilt headed east with an overall record of 14-3, 4-1 in the SEC, and tied with Kentucky for first in the SEC East.  It had been seven years since the black and gold left Knoxville victorious.
Tennessee had all-American Allan Houston and his 23-point average leading the way.  This game promised to be high scoring as both teams averaged over 80 points per game.
Leading the way for the Commodores was former Duke starter, and holder of a championship ring, Billy McCaffrey.  McCaffrey  entered this game with a 20.6 average and a 53% accuracy mark from behind the arc.  Joining McCaffrey in the starting lineup were center Chris Lawson, forward Bruce Elder, and guards Kevin Anglin and Ronnie McMahan.  An excellent bench included Dan Hall, Brian Milburn, and Frank Seckar.
Coach Eddie Fogler employed a diamond and one defense with the goal of stopping Houston.  It worked, as the sharpshooter was held to a season low 12 points.  Meanwhile, the Commodores found the range from outside hitting eight of 15 three-point tries.  It forced Tennessee to spread their defense, and when they did so, the Gold Men tossed it inside for easy baskets.  Removing the outside shots from the equation, Vandy connected on 18 of 31 shots for 58.1%.  The Commodores repeated their effort of 1974 with another 82-65 victory.  Also like 19 years earlier, five Commodores scored in double figures.  Seckar came off the bench for his finest game of the year with 18 points on 4-5 shooting from behind the arc.  McMahan hit several momentum-changing jumpers to tally 17 points.  Lawson scored 16 points and totally dominated Tennessee center Stevie Hamer.  McCaffrey hit for only 11 but pulled down six rebounds.  Anglin tossed in 10 points and dished out five assists.  Elder scored only eight points, but he led all rebounders with nine as Vandy dominated on both boards.
Can Vanderbilt find a way to upset the Vols in Knoxville?  Of course they can, but the more important question is will they play with the intensity required to pull it off?  That, I am not sure about.  It will take a Herculean effort defensively to slow the Orange Crush offense.  Who will step up and force C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton to miss two or three more shots than they normally miss or force them to pass to another player more than they desire?  Who will step up and disallow easy offensive put backs?  Dane Bradshaw must be prevented from getting easy crip shots off missed Vol shots.  Can the inside players keep their wits about them and not get fooled inside with all the post cuts?
Offensively, will the ball and the players without it move quick enough and often enough to get good open looks?  Will the players take smart shots without passing up good shots?  Will they hit their foul shots?  How will they fare against full court pressure unlike any they have faced this year?
I don't have the answers to any of these questions, but if I were forced to guess, I would postulate that our players will give one of their better efforts Wednesday night but not the required Herculean effort needed to beat the number 13 team in the nation on their home court, especially when that team has a huge revenge factor playing in their favor.  The game could be close for a half and for a little while into the second half.  I fully expect the Vols to profit from one or two quick scoring spurts and Vanderbilt to suffer one serious scoring drought.  This will give the home team the upper hand.  Cheap baskets will be too much to overcome.   
Let's Look At The Computers
Saturday's 23-point loss to Florida coupled with Kentucky's comeback win Sunday has sunk the Commodores deeper down the pack according to the computer ratings.  Vandy is now the 8th best team in the league according to the binarians.  The consensus among the computer ratings is that the Commodores will find the going quite rough down the stretch, winning only three additional games before the start of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.  The rating most favorable to the Commodores  calls for them to still finish 8-8 in the league, while one computer rating predicts Armageddon for the ‘Dores and believes they will win just one more time.
The Southeastern Conference consistently ranks as the fourth best league in the NCAA this season.  The Big 10, Big East, and ACC are the three heavy-hitters ahead of them, while the Big 12, Pac-10, and Missouri Valley Conference are within a small fraction of the SEC.  Looking at the power ratings and several of the simulated RPI ratings, it looks like the SEC will be quite fortunate to place five teams in the NCAA tournament and more likely just four teams.  Teams like Gonzaga, Northern Iowa, George Washington, Memphis, Iona, and Bucknell will cause major headaches if they are upset in their conference tournaments.  SEC fans better start cheering for these teams to all cop their leagues' automatic bids.
Florida 77  Ole Miss 68
Georgia 74  Alabama 72
L S U 78  Auburn 60
Kentucky 67  Mississippi State 63
Tennessee 80  Vanderbilt 68
Tuesday Night Special
Battle of the Boulevard II
Belmont 77  Lipscomb 76
Note: Some information and statistics came from the Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, and Knoxville News.

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