Like special teams play in football, in-bounds plays in scoring range on the basketball court offer some unique opportunities. It's a chance to run sets that look different from the normal offensive attack (if nothing else, players start out facing the basket), and teams that are able to take advantage of those situations can often grab a few extra points that make the difference in a tight game.
WVU, as we've noted a couple of times, this year, often gets quick shots (and very good ones) out of its in-bounds plays. Running a handful of different formations, these plays depend on each person making the right read and getting to the correct spot on the floor. When all four players do that, there's often an open 8-12 foot shot for the taking. And that's just what happened for the Mountaineers when they passed the ball in with 20 seconds to go and trailing the Cardinals by a single point.
Watching the play in real time, it looks pretty mundane. Butler makes a cut toward the left short corer, takes the in-bounds pass from Dalton Pepper, and drains a 15-footer to give the Mountaineers the lead. However, there was a bit more to it than that.
"The play worked the way it was drawn up," honestly," said Butler, who knows as well as anyone that late game possessions often wind up in scramble situations that don't go as envisioned. "I saw [Kevin Jones], and if [the defender] follows me all the way through, I'm going to curl, and I'm going to hit him so he can pop out and screen. But if was a little bit too far behind me, I was just going to pop off and take the shot. I kind of walked him down a little bit, and he got caught in the screen, so I took a little further step out and put it up."
Simple, eh? But there's a lot more going on than the simple description Butler provides, and it was his read, and the execution of Jones, that helped create the last shot
As the play begins, Jones sets a screen mid-lane, and occupies not only his defender, but that of Butler. Jones catches the defender with a hip (and no, Louisville fans, it wasn't a moving screen), allowing Butler to get a step advantage and find some clear space as he heads toward the baseline. Butler also does a good job in not breaking too early. He "walks his man down" to set up the screen by moving a couple of steps down the lane toward the hoop. That help Jones get a better angle to set the screen. Without that set-up, Butler isn't as free to catch the pass.
Next, Butler takes the pass, but doesn't rush to get the shot away, He sets his feet while glancing inside to see if Jones or Pepper has come free (neither has, as the Cardinals drop back in the lane to protect). Pepper's defender has tried to slide over to guard Butler, but he's too late to do more than get a hand up. Butler rises, gets a clean look, and swishes the shot.
Of course, making the shot might be the "easy" part. It's something that Butler has done hundreds of times before. The key was the initial read he made in recognizing Jones' positioning, seeing what the defender would do, and then reacting correctly. If he had chosen another option, things might not have worked out so well.
"Da made the right read on the play," head coach Bob Huggins said afterward.
In past coaching regimes, the frontcourt in-bounds play was something of an afterthought. Lob the ball in deep and start the offense was the normal modus operandi. Under Huggins however, that thinking changed quickly. The offense works hard to get the ball close to the basket for good shots, and when the ball's out of bounds on the baseline, you can't be much closer, so why not take advantage of that and attack? Throwing the ball deep is the last resort, the safety valve, and while that's sometimes the only pass that's available, it's usually the last option on the table.
Huggins, of course, doesn't want to give up any of his tactics in setting up those plays. When asked earlier this season about them, he gave his sly grin and noted, "I've been doing this for a long time, man." Fair enough. But Butler was willing to give up one of the keys to getting those good shots without revealing any secrets.
"I know this part of the season we are doing a better job getting to our spots," he explained. "Early in the season we were walking to our spots and the ball gets handed in, and everyone isn't to their spot yet. Guys are doing a better job of getting to their spot. I think that's why the in-bounds plays are working very well now."
"Very well" might be an understatement, but Butler added another as he wrapped up the discussion of the weapon that allowed the Mountaineers to come away with the win.
"It's a nice little in-bounds play we run."