The Running Game

From high school to NCAA Division I, five coaches share their strategies for using run and gun.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at rja@momentummedia.com.

Coaching Management, 13.6, August 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1306/runninggame.htm

On college and high school campuses alike, run and gun basketball is experiencing a renaissance. Huge numbers of points are being scored, on-court intensity is running high, and crowds of super-charged fans are watching this hyper-aggressive combination of pressure defense and rapid-fire point production.

There’s more than one way to turn up the tempo, and there are as many variations in the running game as there are coaches that use it. The five coaches here—Grinnell College’s David Arseneault, Niagara University’s Joe Mihalich, the University of Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl, Oregon City High School’s Brad Smith, and the University of Redlands’ Gary Smith—have each experienced dramatic success with run and gun. Their approaches are as varied as their personalities, with one thing in common: “Running and pressing,” says Mihalich, “is the most exciting way to play this game.”

Running the Numbers
At Grinnell College, the Pioneers play a style of basketball that causes purists to shake their heads in disbelief. Using the most extreme form of run and gun in collegiate basketball, Head Men’s Coach David Arseneault has built his approach around taking as many shots as possible on offense—especially three-pointers, which often outnumber two-point attempts. His defense is an all-out gamble that often concedes simple layups by the other team and routinely yields 100 points a game.

“It sounds and looks really chaotic at times, but there’s a method to the madness,” says Arseneault. “My players will tell you it’s the most organized system they’ve ever played in.

“What we’re trying to do is perfect our response to certain situations: What to do when another team scores on us, what to do when we get a defensive rebound, what to do when we get an offensive rebound, and what to do when we get a live turnover,” he continues. “I want to see the exact same thing happening at high speed every time.”

Playing a hyper-aggressive 1-2-2 trapping press, Grinnell throws all of its resources into stealing the first or second pass of an opponent’s possession. If a steal is made, the Pioneers spread across the floor on the offense, as the point guard tries to either take the ball to the rim for a shot or pass to a teammate for a three-pointer. The Pioneers keep their possessions short, expecting the player who has the ball at the 12-second mark to take his best shot.

If Grinnell is unsuccessful in forcing a turnover within the first couple of tries, the result is often an easy bucket for the other team. It’s a consequence that Arseneault doesn’t mind. “We’ve actually figured out that it’s better for us to get dunked in the first 10 seconds of a possession than it is for our opponent to hold the ball for 30 seconds without scoring,” he says. “That’s how important the pace of play is for us.”

Built on numbers, it’s a two-for-you, three-for-us formula that helped the 2003-04 Pioneers set an NCAA record for offense, averaging 126 points per game. According to Arseneault, who authored The Running Game: A Formula for Success, and developed the DVD Running to Win!, a study conducted by Grinnell students revealed a set of statistical benchmarks that usually lead to a Pioneer victory.

“We found that if we get off 94 shots per game, with half of those coming from behind the three-point line, rebound 33 percent of our misses, force the other team to turn the ball over 32 times, and force the other team’s big man to run up and down the court 150 times, the result is usually a victory,” says Arseneault. “At one point our record was 79-3 when we accomplished all of those goals.”

Grinnell players are expected to attempt as many shots as possible, especially three pointers, which account for about 60 points per game. “We’re trying to get a shot off every 12 seconds,” says Arseneault, “and we’re trying to get the ball back every 12 seconds off of our press.”

Although Grinnell’s style of play is so physically taxing, Arseneault rarely incorporates conditioning-specific drills into his daily practice routine, preferring to let his athletes rest their weary legs, especially when they are deep into the season. And because defense is almost an afterthought, 80 percent of practice time is spent on the offensive end of the court, and every drill ends with a three-pointer. The Pioneers put so much stock in the three that at the beginning of each practice every player takes 100 shots from behind the arc, with team managers charting how many are made.

“A lot of becoming a good shooter is gaining confidence,” says Arseneault. “If I can get the kids to shoot three-pointers while they’re fresh, they’ll have a better chance of making them. If I can get them to shoot threes off an easier pass, then they’re going to shoot a higher percentage. And if I can get them to shoot from similar spots—we have them shoot 25 shots from four spots—then they’re more likely to go on runs. It is a great way to raise their averages.

“The amount of practice time they spend under my watchful eye is very limited,” adds Arseneault. “It’s the old K.C. Jones approach: You don’t want to leave your best efforts on the practice floor. I’m trying to keep the kids fresh mentally and physically.”

Playing Platoons
In only their second season using run and gun, the 2004-05 University of Redlands Bulldogs surpassed the Pioneers’ NCAA record for offense, averaging 132 points per game and making almost 24 three-pointers per contest. Head Men’s Coach Gary Smith learned the style directly from Arseneault, and bases his approach on a two-platoon system in which new players generally rotate into the game every 45 seconds. This season, 13 Redlands players averaged 10 minutes a game, and it was unusual for any one athlete to play more than 20 minutes in a single contest.

“The platoon factor emphasizes unselfishness and a positive work ethic,” says Smith. “It gets people to play with more effort, and our athletes are trained to work extremely hard for short periods of time. Platooning players allows the team to dictate how the game is played. It truly is a team approach.”

The composition of Smith’s platoons varies from year to year, based on his athletes’ strengths. “It’s not a first-and-second-team scenario—we start different groups, depending on who’s playing well during practice, or if one group is better at controlling tips,” says Smith. “We’re looking for as much balance as we can get, but it’s as much about chemistry as anything else.”

In practices, Smith runs drills crisply and quickly, which is how he wants his athletes to play the game. “Drills have to create the immediacy of transitioning from offense to defense and from defense to offense,” he says. During actual contests, with substitution patterns largely established ahead of time, Smith concentrates on game management and fine-tuning his defense to counter an opponent’s attack.

“I have one assistant coach in charge of substitutions and another in charge of getting the kids ready for their next shift,” says Smith. “That way, we don’t have to take timeouts to make adjustments. We’ve got everybody there, ready to go, and we can tell them what we want right before they go into the game.”

Practicing Pressure
At Niagara University, the Purple Eagles ranked fourth in scoring last season among Division I teams and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 35 years. Running a patterned fast break, Head Men’s Coach Joe Mihalich trains his players to take shots as quickly as possible, building the team’s offense around its point guard.

“He’s the key to our run and gun, and his job is to push the ball and make plays,” says Mihalich. “For us, it’s the point guard’s show. Everybody on the team has responsibilities, but the point guard dictates how the game unfolds.”

To make the system work, Mihalich structures practices to simulate the pressure of a game situation. “We want high-intensity practices, whether we’re running drills or scrimmages,” says Mihalich. “Practices need to be very competitive, whether we’re competing against another player, the clock, or ourselves. We want to create a healthy sense of urgency with everything we do.”

In the last two seasons, Niagara has relied on a half-court man-to-man approach as well as a 2-3 zone. “A lot of people think that pressure basketball automatically means full-court man-to-man pressing, but you should apply pressure with your offense as well by pushing the ball,” advises Mihalich.

“We give up a lot of points,” he adds. “But partly, that comes from having a lot of possessions. When we play quickly, there are going to be a lot of possessions. We give up a lot, but we more than make up for it on the offensive end.”

Forcing Errors
Like any good tactician, Brad Smith is not afraid to make adjustments to his system. As Head Girls’ Coach at Oregon City (Ore.) High School, he’s been tweaking his running game for more than 20 years and in that time has won eight state titles and finished at the top of the USA Today poll three times.

On defense, Smith shifts between a zone press, a man-to-man press, or a run and jump, shifting formations to keep opponents off-balance. But no matter which defense he calls, the team’s priority is forcing errors. “One of the big things with the fast break and press is showing kids that their purpose is not to steal the ball, it’s to make the other team make mistakes,” he says. “That may turn into a steal, but more than likely it will turn into a forced shot or a straight turnover. The point is to get the ball back. If you go in thinking you’re going to steal every pass, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes.”

Smith runs team practices six days a week for three hours at a time. Sessions start with 15 to 20 minutes of fundamentals and shooting drills, then move on to game-simulation exercises. “We spend an hour in which we have either three teams of six or four teams of five running our fast break against our press,” he says. “One team gets the rebound and runs five versus three. Two defenders join in at mid-court and the offensive team will score or miss. The offensive team gets the ball right back and goes the other direction against the five defenders. Once they get to the other end, the offensive players come off and the defense becomes the offense against a new group.”

During that hour, Smith and his coaches call out different presses, and the offensive team is charged with recognizing and beating each defense. After an hour of fast breaking and pressing, which doubles as the team’s conditioning work, the remainder of practice is broken into 45 minutes of offensive drills and 45 minutes of defensive fundamentals, giving players the background they need to think on their feet.

“Because we’re allowing our athletes to play with a lot of freedom, we’re going to lose a certain amount of control,” says Smith. “Coach Wooden said it himself: When you fast break and press, you’re going to increase your turnovers. What we’re counting on here is that the other team will turn it over even more.”

Making the Transition
At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Head Men’s Coach Bruce Pearl’s running style took the Panthers all the way to the Sweet 16. But setting a school record with 26 wins wasn’t the only byproduct of Pearl’s success. Tournament upsets against Alabama and Boston College put Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the basketball map, bringing national recognition to the team and its coach, who’s since brought the strategy to his new job as the Head Men’s Coach at the University of Tennessee.

Tennessee’s new offensive strategy will rely on covering the floor and its new defense will emphasize creating turnovers. “We try to create more possessions with our pressure defense,” says Tennessee Assistant Coach Jason Shay, who coached under Pearl for four years at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and played at the University of Iowa when Pearl was an assistant coach. “Our offensive philosophy is to push the ball as fast as we can, get three guys to the baseline faster than the other team, and try to spread the defense over the entire width of the court. That allows our guys to operate without being double-teamed. We want to attack the basket and force the defense to collapse, so we can either kick it out for threes or take it to the rim.”

Bringing their high-intensity approach to the University of Tennessee, Pearl and his coaching staff hit the ground running. Their first job was to get returning players to buy into the system, and they began by providing video clips that showed the 2004-05 Milwaukee team, focusing on the role of each position and the elements required to succeed at the faster pace.

“There’s no better teaching tool than showing a team what success looks like,” says Shay. “We played clips of our team advancing the ball up the floor, showing how the wings get out on the break, and emphasizing simple examples of guys playing hard.”

For Pearl and his staff, the next challenge is to change the mindset of players who are used to walking the ball up the court. “They have to recognize that transition opportunities exist as soon as we gain possession,” says Shay. “They’ve got to immediately put their heads down and sprint. If they can beat their man in those first two steps, it leads to passes over the top of the defense, which should result in layups or a wide-open shots.”

In practices, the coaching staff adds intensity by spending substantially more time scrimmaging and less time running drills. “Coach Pearl teaches on the fly, working within the framework of a game situation,” says Shay. “It’s more effective than doing a lot of drill work. We spend at least half of our practice time pushing the basketball and applying pressure.

“We play a lot of five-minute games,” adds Shay. “And we also do a lot of situational stuff using time and score scenarios, where our players have to quickly recognize the situation and decide how to react.”

Is It Right For You?
Whether or not a team runs is reflective of its coach’s personality and level of comfort with the freedom the system gives to players. It helps if the team is full of quick, instinctive athletes, but that shouldn’t be the only factor to consider when deciding whether a team should play up-tempo.

At Grinnell, the Pioneers are often out-matched from a pure athletic standpoint. “As I look across our league, in most years I think I would trade talent with any other school in our conference,” says Arseneault. “We’ve had average athletes who are prepared to overachieve for short periods of time against better athletes who are looking to pace themselves. That’s how we get it done.”

Brad Smith agrees, and says that by using the fast break and pressure defense, run and gun teams gain an advantage over opponents with the same level of talent. “You’re not always going to have great teams, but if you can press and run you’ll have good, solid teams,” says Smith. “You can succeed with even mediocre athletes—as long they know what they’re doing and where they’re supposed to go.”



Sidebar: Added Benefits
While most coaches use their fast-paced styles for obvious reasons—to outscore their opponents—there are other motives for pushing the pace. From packing the stands to getting more players into the game, coaches who run know that there are plenty of good reasons to play the fast break.

For Brad Smith, Head Girls’ Coach at Oregon City (Ore.) High School, run and gun’s up-tempo pace provides a chance to rotate more athletes onto the court, which makes for a happier, more balanced team. “In Oregon this year, there were programs that didn’t have enough girls to fill their freshman or JV teams,” says Smith, who regularly plays nine or 10 girls in each contest. “We had enough players for an extra team. Running makes the kids want to play because they know there’s more opportunity to get on the floor.”

Instead of systems that rely on one dominant offensive performer, run and gun gives every player the opportunity to score. “Kids need to enjoy the game,” says Smith. “It needs to be more than just passing the ball around so that one kid gets a shot on every possession. You should get everybody involved, and running is the ideal way to do that.”

When David Arseneault instituted an extreme, record-setting version of run and gun 12 years ago at Grinnell College, his main goals were to increase player participation and improve team morale. Inheriting a program that had suffered through 25 consecutive losing seasons, Arseneault saw a lot of problems that needed solving, and attitude was at the top of the list.

“Kids would stay on the team until they realized they wouldn’t be in the playing rotation, and then they would quit,” says Arseneault, who regularly plays 15 or 16 players in a game. “It’s one thing to sit on the bench for a winning team, but it’s another to do it for a losing team. The kids weren’t having fun, and I wasn’t having fun.”

Inspired by the freewheeling Loyola Marymount University teams of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Arseneault decided to turn his shooters loose. The results have been staggering, with Grinnell staging repeated assaults on the NCAA record books for points scored and shots attempted. Campus support has soared, even in a disappointing season like 2004-05, when the team finished 8-15 while averaging 109 points per game. And in a first for NCAA Division III basketball, ESPN2 televised a regular-season contest at the school’s new gymnasium, bringing Grinnell’s hyper-kinetic run and gun to a national audience.

It’s a huge leap for a small program, and the players aren’t the only ones who have enjoyed the change. “This style has rejuvenated my coaching career,” says Arseneault. “It’s wonderful to just watch our kids on the court creating and enjoying themselves.”