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If it seems like everyone can score in March Madness, there is a reason. Offense has evolved

By AARON BEARD (AP Basketball Writer)

Hubert Davis remembers the inside-out emphasis of playing for North Carolina Hall of Famer Dean Smith before a 12-year NBA career.

“When I was here at Carolina or in the NBA, you had two big bigs and you threw the ball into the post,” the Tar Heels coach said. “Then they threw it back out to me. My job was to throw it right back into the post. And then they threw it back out to me, and it was late shot clock, maybe I could shoot the 3.”

Things look different today across college basketball when it comes to the way offenses operate.

As March Madness arrives, offensive efficiency is at its highest point in almost three decades, according to KenPom’s national statistics. The lumbering space-eaters in the post have been largely replaced by playmakers with length and shooting range. Players have become more versatile in an age of position-less skillsets. And that has created more freedom for coaches to add wrinkles to tried-and-true philosophies aided by readily accessible film and analytics data.

“There are all these different angles, just different places on the court,” said Connecticut coach Dan Hurley, whose Huskies won last year’s national championship and are this year’s No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

And that’s led to an uptick in KenPom’s efficiency metrics.

Division I teams have averaged 105.1 points scored per 100 possessions, marking the fourth straight increase from 100.8 in the 2019-20 season. This year’s average is the highest KenPom has charted in data going back to the 1996-97 season.

So is this more about offenses evolving into a more sophisticated version of themselves? Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose Spartans are in the NCAA tourney for the 26th straight time, thinks the answer is simpler.

“I don’t think the plays have changed,” Izzo said. “The people running them have changed a little bit more. You used to have two centers, a point guard who wasn’t a good shooter, and two wings that could shoot. Now you’ve almost got four, sometimes five guys that can shoot.”

A further look into the data reveals a few other telling numbers that line up with Izzo’s assessment.

For one, turnover percentage for possessions checked in at 17.1%, the lowest figure dating to 1996-97. And the assist rate has dropped to 50.7% — the lowest figure in data dating to the 1992-93 season. That indicates players’ expanded skillsets translate into fewer mistakes when handling the ball or being more capable of creating shots rather than depending on a teammate for a post entry.

“The players have gotten so good with the basketball,” said Arkansas assistant Keith Smart, a former Indiana player under Bob Knight and NBA head coach for three franchises. “Every guy for the most part who handles the ball can make a play, can make a shot. I think the players have gotten so much craftier with that.

“I don’t think the offenses are so much where you’re like, ‘Wow, I don’t know what they’re doing, I can’t figure this out,’” Smart added.

Hurley knew he had to re-evaluate his program’s approach to running offense after three straight March Madness losses that turned into what he called “rock fights” with UConn averaging 54 points. Getting perimeter scoring through the transfer portal was important. So too was making offense a bigger priority.

As a result, the Huskies went from ranking no higher than 22nd nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency in Hurley’s first four seasons to third last year (120.8 points per 100 possessions). UConn ran out a lineup with 6-foot-9, 245-pound Adama Sanogo surrounded by four perimeter players, while Sanogo was among a quartet shooting at least 36.5% in the typical starting lineup.

This year, the Huskies are No. 1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (126.4).

“Yeah, it’s sophisticated,” he said. “And, you know, the ‘dumb jock’ or the ‘dumb athlete’ idea? You’ve got to know a completely separate language and some of the principles that you have to understand to be able to get on the court. And that’s why it’s so tough on freshmen nowadays. I think it was easier for freshmen to play years ago because the game, it was simpler.”

Davis, who is leading the West Region’s No. 1 seed, can see that change, too.

“I can’t remember a time here at Carolina when I played that we ever talked about ball-screen defense,” he said. “DHO, Chicago action, delay, zoom — never talked about that. The only thing we talked about was screens and post play, so things are different and have evolved.”

Coaches are finding no shortage of resources to help rethink their options. There’s readily accessible video online or through analytics sites like Synergy that allow coaches to scan the basketball world for ideas.

Bobby Hurley, Dan’s brother, played for Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and has been Arizona State’s coach since the 2015-16 season. He studies the international game featuring skilled and versatile players, looking for ideas to incorporate and “put defenses in a dilemma.”

He figures offenses are “more comprehensive” than ever, yet points to the players with broader skills as the core reason.

“It just opens up the playbook more when you have those type of guys,” he said. “I’ve had 4-men that have been more like junkyard dogs that do all the dirty work: defend, that are athletic, not great shooters. It’s tougher to hide those type of players.

“So if you can get your hands on a guy in the frontcourt that is skilled at the 4-spot, now you’re not just an offense trying to hide someone. … Coaches are certainly looking for bigger players that have a diverse skillset.”

Discussing those changes brought a quip from Davis, thinking back to 6-9, 247-pound All-American teammate J.R. Reid with a game largely confined to the paint or the rim.

“I don’t remember a time when J.R. Reid was picking and popping from 3 and Coach Smith was like, ‘Good shot,’” he said. “I just don’t remember that.”


AP Sports Writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Connecticut; and Larry Lage in East Lansing, Michigan; contributed to this report.


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