You can really separate State’s halfcourt offense into two categories: Burns offense and non-Burns offense. The non-Burns offense is pretty much the same spread ball-screen that Keatts had made a living running. State will tinker with these sets in a lot of ways, but fundamentally, it’s high pick-and-roll (PnR), side PnR, and 77 PnR, which is a double screen.
Versatility is really the name of the game with this stuff. You have to have guard play that can exploit different PnR coverages. We talked about this here a few weeks ago. Sometimes the term true point guard gets defined as a guy who passes and doesn’t score. In modern offenses, this is not as useful of a player as it maybe used to be. You have to be able to put pressure on the rim. This is where the non-Burns actions suffered against Notre Dame with DJ Horne and Michael O’Connell getting majority minutes on the ball. It's ability to create dribble penetration against the Irish was near zero, but that changed a lot against Virginia. We're going to take a look at some offensive elements from both games.
High pick-and-roll vs. Notre Dame
Teams have become very aggressive defending DJ Horne in the pick-and-roll. The scouting report is out on him as a ball handler, and Notre Dame’s coverages followed a specific game plan of running him off the three-point line and forcing him to either drive on a big or shoot a mid-range.
The Irish would ice side ball screens and aggressively run over high screens while playing drop coverage. It looks like this.
Burns sets the screen, the guard chases over the top to run Horne off the line, The big drops to protect the paint. Horne is not going to go at a big in the paint very often. It’s not his game. Notre Dame succeeded defensively in this game because it got him off the perimeter. He was a respectable 2-5 from three, but 1-9 from two. Notre Dame was able to generate a lot of mid-range shots and floaters from State’s guards, which is a losing recipe for the Pack.
77 pick-and-roll vs. Notre Dame
State got into a lot of 77 action toward the end of this game, something it didn’t run much in the first 30ish minutes. Here it generates 3 points from Jayden Taylor that State absolutely does not win without.
The scouting report is a little bit different on Taylor. He has more size than Horne and more finishing power around the rim. It hasn’t been a huge component yet this season, but with how Notre Dame was committing to defending the ball screen, State pushed the ball through Taylor in the 77 sets to close the game.
Notre Dame did not handle these 77 sets well at the end of the game. I counted three consecutive halfcourt possessions where this set was ran, two for Taylor and one for Morsell in transition. The results were a made three, a made two, and a foul that led to two free throws. In the above clip, the Irish go under both ball screens. Taylor had made of one of his last 18 threes, so it makes sense to try and keep him away from the paint, but he buries the three.
I'm intrigued by these types of sets for State because they have an opportunity to create more rim pressure and get Horne into his more natural position off the ball. Taylor is State's most versatile scorer for sure, but he's not a point guard. He doesn't see the floor well enough to be ball-dominant, and when he comes off a screen, a shot is going up more times than not. Still, I think there's space for these types of sets to disrupt the groove a defense can get into when Horne is on the ball.
Taylor is willing to go at a big and has the size and length to get shots off at the rim. He needs to make more of them, but it's a starting point.
The play to win the game vs. Notre Dame
The core of the offense is still the Burns sets without a doubt. That's the way it should be. He was bad against Notre Dame, and that had more to do with the low offensive output than anything else. Of course, he was still the hero.
I think Keatts was expecting a double to come on this play. At the very least, the action was anticipating it. Notre Dame did not double the play before and he tied the game. By putting O'Connell in the weak side corner and your three best shooters on the strong side, you basically guarantee that, should a double come, it will come from the weak side corner.
This play had two options: score, or hit O'Connell on the baseline cut should Notre Dame run a double at him. The Irish don't double, so Burns eats the guy's lunch. It's good ATO design from Keatts and nice use of spacing and personnel
Burns' passing vs. Virginia
While Notre Dame was a putrid offensive performance (and still a win!), Virginia was quite the opposite. State ate the Cavaliers with easily its most cohesive offensive performance of the season. This game was the goal for the Burns-centric offense. He was dynamite exploiting Virginia's doubles and traps. The size advantage State had inside forced Virginia to try some different stuff, and Burns' versatility as a player left them without an obvious answer.
Burns only had six points, but he had four assists and initiated ball movement sequences that led to others getting assists.
This is great team basketball. Virginia brings the trap double and Burns passes out of it. The Hoos are caught in rotation, and Morsell's quick trigger leads to a dunk. Virginia will rotate this cleanly if Morsell is late. There is nothing on the stat sheet for Burns here, but his anticipation initiates this, and Morsell's finishes it. Smart players making smart plays.
Horne dribble penetration
It's been talked about at-length the lack of dribble penetration State has created this season. This game was different. State created some rim pressure off the bounce in this game, and it led to buckets every time.
Horne attacks drop coverage here and is able to get all the way to the rim. Help comes from the strong side, which is the easiest pass to make for a point guard. Dennis Parker Jr. had a huge game, largely as a beneficiary of some matchup problems State created elsewhere.
State's ability to get dribble penetration, a rarity this year, generated some overhelp from Virginia, and State has too many shooters this year for this kind of stuff. That's what kills me about this offense. If you could stick a dynamic point guard in this personnel group, you'd light up the scoreboard. This team can shoot. It's the only thing missing, and Robert Dillingham was committed at one point.
A handful of minutes later, with Horne attacking in transition, the strongside help does not come, and Horne is able to score. Parker's shooting impacts this. That's floor spacing as a result of shooting at work.
State made Saturday afternoon a rough one for Virginia's defense, which couldn't match up with Burns and didn't really scare State from a rim protection perspective. State got more dribble penetration in this game from Horne that it had in the past, I assume due to lack of a real shot-blocking threat. This was a good matchup for the Pack, and it played really well. When you combine those things, you usually win by a lot.
Michael O'Connell had five assists as he played at a high level. This was his best game of the year and it's not particularly close. He really does see the floor very well, and he snuck up and bit Virginia in this game with his passing.
This is a roll-and-replace action that Keatts has used as an extension of the spread PnR during his tenure. When you hedge hard like Virginia is known for doing, the roller is coming free, and you have to tag the roller and prevent him from just being wide open in front of the basket. Taylor's defender actually does a really good job tagging Burns as the roller and then rotating back to Taylor. Virginia is very good in rotation.
Usually, as a defense, Taylor's spot isn't a huge concern being on the other side of the court, but O'Connell has always had impressive vision and he whips a sweet skip pass. O'Connell is the only player on the roster that could see and execute this. He was huge on Saturday, and it's easy to see why Keatts wants him out there, even as he struggled mightily through the first 10ish games of the year. He has such good understanding of everything that's happening during the play. The ability to execute this skip pass completely transforms what a pick-and-roll offense can do when it faces a hedging defense.
This is a matchup-driven sport. State was able to exploit matchups against Virginia. O'Connell thrived against the aggressive ball screen defenses because such a defense creates passing lanes that he can attack. He had a few other nice ones in this game too. If teams return to playing more drop coverage like Notre Dame did, it's probably going to neutralize O'Connell because he can't really take on a big and score in the paint. That's the nature of the game. You have to find where you're built to exploit teams and lean on it.