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ACC Basketball Weekend Update: Conference Dominates in NCAA’s

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The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is in the books, with the ACC performing about as well as one could have anticipated. Six out of the seven conference teams that made the field of 68, won each of their first two games to advance to the Sweet 16. The six tickets punched to the Regional Semi-Finals were by far the most of any conference, further strengthening the argument that the ACC is the nation’s best college basketball league. Managing Editor Justin Cates and Assistant Editor Mike McDaniel discuss their observations of all the action so far.

Mike:

Well Cates, it was definitely an eventful weekend of tournament action. This time of year never ceases to amaze me with all of the craziness that seems to ensue. If there was one over-arching thought about the opening two rounds for you, what would it be?

Cates:

We all ripped on Syracuse — some more than others — but they’ve managed to carve out a Sweet Sixteen appearance with a very favorable draw. The Orange ran away from Dayton and then blasted Middle Tennesse after they pulled the upset of the tournament and beat Michigan State. Now they have a match up with 11-seed Gonzaga. What do you make of the resurgent Orange-persons?

Mike:

I wrote this column last week on why I thought Syracuse deserved to be left out of the field (link), and those thoughts, as I mentioned then, had nothing to do with whether or not the Orange would go on to win any games in the tournament. While I still think they got the benefit of the doubt on Selection Sunday, there is no dispute over how well they played this weekend. Their game against Dayton was simply tremendous. The renowned match-up zone defense of Jim Boeheim’s club won the day against the Flyers, as Dayton never seemed very comfortable with the pace of the game. The lack of adjustments to the pace ultimately got the Orange swiftly into the second round, where they ended up beating the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State into submission. Jim Boeheim and his staff are proving once again that they are made for March, as they seem to be a constant in the second weekend year after year.

Outside of Syracuse, my biggest winner of the weekend has to be the Virginia Cavaliers. The ‘Hoos were able to not only stomp Hampton and control the second half tempo en route to a win over Butler to advance to the Sweet 16, but their biggest foe of the last two years, the Michigan State Spartans, were upset in the first round by previously mentioned Middle Tennessee State. The Spartans have knocked Virginia out of the bracket in each of the last two seasons, so not having to game plan for Tom Izzo’s club has to be somewhat of a reprieve for Tony Bennett’s squad. Plus, Malcolm Brogdon was simply phenomenal this weekend, continuing his strong streak of play. Through two tournament games, he is averaging 16.5 points, 4.5 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game. He has to be my MVP in the ACC this weekend.

What about you Cates? Who most impressed you through the first two games in the ACC?

Cates:

The Overall dominance of the ACC has been a bit unexpected. People figured UNC and Virginia would win some games, but everyone save Pittsburgh pulled out theirs as well. The ACC will send six teams to the Sweet Sixteen and will earn a truckload of money for the effort. Tens of millions of dollars, that’s what winning gets you Mike.

I had the Cavaliers down as winning it all on my initial pass through the bracket last Sunday, but I convinced myself that they have a short bench. That hasn’t really been the case. Against Butler, Mike Tobey and Marial Shayok both came off pine to score double digits. That coupled with Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill have made UVA very tough.

Notre Dame has been solid which is nice as they were one of my Final Four picks. They needed some magic to beat Stephen F. Austin, but they’re a tough came that can shoot it. Zach Auguste is a force down low too.

Fun fact: Stephen Fuller Austin is considered the Father of Texas having led a successful settlement there in 1825. Also, the Lumberjacks hail from Nacogdoches which is one of the best named places in the country.

Who’s your favorite underdog so far Mike?

Mike:

Well in my mind, the only true “underdogs” in the ACC that are left are probably Notre Dame and Syracuse. With my well-written feeling of the Orange’s initial presence in the field, I’m going to have to go with Notre Dame for this one.

The Irish are an extremely interesting team. Offensively, when they’re at their best, they can play with any team in the country. They have been ranked as a top team in offensive efficiency according to KenPom for most of the season, and have shown an ability to morph into a team that can play at any given pace on that end of the floor. Their ability to score both inside and out, as well as their athleticism on the wings and at point guard with Demetrius Jackson make Notre Dame extremely difficult to defend.

With ND, the question marks pop up on the defensive end of the floor. The Irish have struggled at times this season to get stops, but when they are at their best on defense, they are one of the few teams left in the entire tournament that can pull away from their opponent down the stretch and run good teams out of the gym. Mike Brey is a proven leader who never gets too high or too low, and has consistently gotten the most out of his rosters over his 15 years in South Bend. To be able to coach to the strength of your roster is extremely crucial at any level, and the fact that Brey has not pigeon-holed his team to play strictly to his system on both ends, but instead to play to what makes each unique group successful is what makes the Irish such an impressive bunch to watch.

To close, Cates, who is your favorite underdog and what match-up are you most looking forward to when turning your eye towards the Sweet Sixteen?

Cates:

Syracuse-Gonzaga is an interesting match up. One of those teams is in the Elite Eight and that’s a bit of a surprise especially for Jim Boeheim’s club. Whoever prevails will take on the winner of Virginia-Iowa State so the path to the Final Four isn’t easy, but whoever makes it that far has a strong shot.

The basketball has been great despite the over-corporatization of the whole thing. From the ads to the cookie-cutter courts and massive payouts mentioned above, this whole tournament is some kind of beautiful, capitalist basketball hunger games.

I’ll add that somehow Oregon still feels a bit like an underdog. They’re new blood and my east coast bias leaves me less knowledgable than I should be regarding a top seed. Tyler Dorsey seems like a pretty terrific freshman based on the end of the Saint Joseph’s game. They seem incredibly athletic too in the vein of someone like Miami. Plus, they’ll wear a different uniform every game that they play. Imagine what they’ll pull out in Houston if they reach the Final Four?

Mike:

I’m going to have to agree with you with the marketing of this tournament. It is such a money-maker every year and the interest with every upset only further grows the tournament and intrigue from a monetary standpoint. I think you and I share the same sentiment that the NCAA, which has proven to be quite corrupt time and time again over the years continues to find more and more creative ways to profit handsomely over their amateur athletes, and this year is no different.

As far as match-ups are concerned for the Sweet 16, I’m with you on Gonzaga and Syracuse. The Orange, who I think are definitely over-seeded as a 10, are facing off against a very gritty Gonzaga bunch who may have been one of the more egregious under-seedings in the entire field of 68. Both teams are playing an extremely high quality of basketball right now, and as with most games in this tournament, the match-up will most definitely be decided by which team best controls the pace. Syracuse will try their best to force the issue, especially defensively, where they will try to turn the Bulldogs over and get out in transition. Gonzaga loves to dump the ball into their big man Sabonis and let him go to work, so the turnover discrepancy will be paramount in deciding the winner of that game.

In an attempt to be different though, I’m really looking forward to Oregon and Duke. The Blue Devils have cruised through the opening two rounds of the tournament, thanks in large part to their core of Grayson Allen, Marshall Plumlee, and of course, Brandon Ingram, playing extremely well. Duke is getting better and better defensively and you can never count out the defending National Champs for as long as Coach K is on the end of the bench. I’m interested to see how the size of Oregon impacts Duke, as the Ducks do not have a single starter standing smaller than 6’4″. The ability for Oregon to match-up any of their three guards defensively with some of Duke’s taller wings will negate any advantage the Blue Devils may have had with Matt Jones and Brandon Ingram slashing in from beyond the arc. I find this to be a potentially lower scoring affair than most believe, because while most will want to focus on the offensive firepower of both of these teams, I firmly believe that each respective roster is playing some of their best basketball defensively of the season. It should be a great match-up of heavyweights in what could be the highest rated game of the weekend on television.

Thanks for following along with our back-and-forth. Follow me on Twitter @BestCates and follow @MikeMcDanielACC. Like Inside The ACC on Facebook and check out @InsideTheACC.

Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 5: Going Deep

The vertical passing game has had many benefactors over the years.  Thanks to the proliferation of Air Raid-inspired offenses in college, the concept of “four verticals”—simultaneously running four evenly-spaced receivers deep—has almost become an internet meme.  The coaches who got us to this point include some of the best known football strategists and lineages of all time: the Gillman/Coryell West Coast offense (not to be confused with Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense which built and expanded on these roots), Ellison and Davis’ Run-and-Shoot, and Hal Mumme’s Air Raid scheme.  For this post, we’ll look at vertical concepts in the context of four-verticals plays.

Before I get into details, I’ll say that the advancement of the deep ball hinged on a few changes in the way the game is played.  Contact rules involving holding and otherwise interfering with receivers have made it easier for receivers to get deep, particularly in the last twenty years.  Just as important is how bump-and-run coverage has turned from a devastating technique to one of the worst ways to play defense in football.  Receivers now have a bevy of special moves that’ve rendered bump-and-run almost a relic, and causes offenses to hope to see it used.

There are two major tenets to a successfully drawn deep-ball play.   Let’s use Louisville’s Switch/Stop play as an example.  This is a spread formation play, with three receivers to the wide or “field” side of the play:

Full-route diagram of Louisville’s Switch/Stop play; the running back is primarily a blocker here.

The first tenet is that the receivers are horizontally spaced to start, and their respective routes end up taking the receivers deep while roughly dividing them across the breadth of the field.  Spreading the receivers out in both planes prevents the defense from overplaying particular spots on the field.  Even though there are three receivers to the wide side of the field at the snap, their routes diverge and they can end up dividing the field into fourths.

“Can” is the operative word here.  The dashed extensions of their routes are all possible directions each receiver can take a pattern.  This flexibility is the main key to going deep with success: the quarterback and receivers have to attack the weaknesses of the defense as they see them develop.

The “X” receiver has the most flexibility here.  The primary route is a deep hitch, which he runs when the cornerback defending him plays off the ball or man.  If the corner plays a short zone, however, as in a Cover 2 or any other kind of “cloud” coverage, the receiver runs a fly route straight downfield.  The X receiver is also the play’s “hot read,” which means he has responsibility for recognizing and attacking a blitz; when he sees a blitz, he runs a quick slant that should pick up good yardage without making the quarterback hold the ball for too long.  The Z receiver has similar responsibilities, though is too far away to be useful as a hot read.

The H receiver has his own options.  After switching with the neighboring Y receiver, he focuses on how the safeties are playing.  If there are two safeties playing deep, he runs right between them where they’ll have the hardest time making a play.  If a single safety plays deep, the H receiver crosses his face and gets open on the deep corner route.  For all these routes, the quarterback is likewise watching and reading the defense; this lets QBs still throw to spots that will be open, which lets plays hit much more quickly and in places the secondary can’t defend.

To show this in action, here’s how the play would look versus Cover 2, where five defenders play short zones underneath, and two safeties have to defend deep balls; the strongest areas of the defensive zone are shown as ellipses:

Route selection of Switch/Stop versus Cover 2; note that X, H, and Z receivers all find weak spots in zone coverage.

Notice how the shallow corners leave the deep sidelines relatively open, and that the X and Z receivers recognize this and attack these openings.  At the same time, the H receiver recognizes the weak area between the safeties and runs straight for it.  Even if the corners react quickly and trail their respective receivers, their best chance at making a play is on an underthrown ball.  The result is that two safeties have to cover four receivers who are running deep at full speed.  It’s a tremendous bind to be put into.  Conversely, if the defense is set right to cover four fly routes like this, the receivers run hitching or slanting routes that are harder to stop.

This isn’t the only way to run a four-verticals style play, and these principles aren’t exclusive to spread teams. Pro teams used these concepts out of the I- and Split formation by sending receivers deep on choice routes, and a tight end downfield to react to how the safeties are playing.   Here’s a look at the New Orleans Saints running a variation, which is a little more straightforward than Louisville’s:

This ability of offenses to read defenses on the fly is a big reason why not only bump-and-run coverage is so rare, but why true zone and man defenses are becoming extinct at higher levels of play. Given that four deep threats can stress just about any defense short of a pure prevent shell, four verticals has become the chalkboard standard for deep-ball plays.  The final thing standing in its way of becoming a true football staple was a slight hindrance:  the covered deep pass is one of the hardest things to do in football, which is why it was relegated to deceptive and desperate uses.

There wasn’t a tactical approach to solve this last problem. The success of flexible all-vertical plays for today’s spread-option teams is ultimately owed to the fact that teams spend so much time practicing and using these patterns.  Though he wasn’t the first coach to get praise for leaning on these routes (Steve Spurrier comes to mind as a predecessor), Mike Leach took this to an extreme at Texas Tech, where he created a slew of record-breaking “system” QBs.

Where other used and practiced it as something situational for play-action or the two-minute drill, Leach made it a core play in practice and a staple on game day.  As he notes in his autobiography, when Leach started using his four verticals play his teams completed about 30% of their passes when running it…in practice.  A few years later versus first-ranked Texas, Leach’s team went 9-11 with the play, including a game-winner to Michael Crabtree.  Also having a measure of success with the play are Dana Holgorsen and Art Briles, two of Leach’s former assistants I’ve mentioned frequently, and Sonny Dykes, who along with offensive coordinator Tony Franklin is leading an archetype-busting attack at Louisiana Tech.

Given that the concept is most effective with true receivers running the routes, it’s become a natural fit for every spread team.  And now that teams at all levels are using it more and more, it’s become a self-reinforcing concept much like today’s most popular option play.  In the next installment, we’ll examine the use of fast tempos and what the means for opposing defenses and practitioning offenses.