Cam Scaled

GLENDALE, Ariz. – In the summer of 2022, Connecticut coach Dan Hurley decided he would adopt a new offensive system and a new coaching style. Harley chose to go the football route. He developed a glossary of terms for various alignments and actions.

He gave a composite example of “14 jet zoom pitch twin”.

14 is to line up – one-four minimum – and then Huskies actions are stacked against each other. In this case jet, then zoom, then pitch, then twin.

“It’s like learning a language,” says Harley.

The new offense, heavy on off-ball screening and motion, won the Huskies a 2023 national title. Then last summer, Hurley basically tore up the UConn dictionary and came up with a new glossary.

“We do it out of paranoia,” said assistant coach Luke Murray, who serves as the program’s offensive coordinator.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, because Yukon’s choreographed sets already leave opponents’ heads spinning. Defending UConn is like trying to multitask in a room full of screaming kids. An example from Saturday’s semifinal against Alabama:

The game starts when UConn’s best shooter, Cam Spencer, takes the ball to the wing, gets a chin screen by Donovan Clingan and heads to the basket. He then turned around and set a back screen for Alex Karaban. This is where the confusion begins for Alabama’s defense. Alabama’s Aaron Estrada and Rylan Griffin are about to change.

Grant Nelson, defending the Klingon, is standing in the middle of the lane, slowing down the Klingon and trying to play the role of an air traffic controller. His head turns left and right, tracking what’s behind him. With the two Alabama guards confused on the switch, Spencer veers to the right and the ball goes to the right. Newton rejected the screen and cut to the basket. This actually gives Griffin a chance to get back into position, but then comes another screen from Clingan. And Griffin is toast. Spencer gets a free line jump. Ideally, Nelson would provide assistance, but he was stuck in his control center in the paint and Klingon was afraid to completely abandon his wheel to the rim.

It takes three or four viewings to really know what’s going on. Now imagine trying to prevent all that in real time.

“I’ve been studying the top offenses in the country for the past five years, and UConn’s off-ball screening and ball movement in their sets and the number of sets they run make it a very complex offense. I saw it at the time,” said Jordan Sperber, the former video coordinator at New Mexico State, the czar of college basketball, who reported it all in the weekly Hoop Vision newsletter. Sperber made a video of the UConn offense last month titled “Why This Offense Is Basketball Poetry.”

“Their half-court offense is amazing,” Xavier coach Shane Miller said.

Last week, Philadelphia 76ers wing Nicolas Batum tweeted that he doesn’t know how to watch college basketball, but the way UConn plays is the way basketball should be taught and played. Especially at that age.”

Dan’s father and coaching legend Bob Hurley Sr., all of his coaching friends tell him how much fun this team is to watch.

Dan Hurley has a reputation for coaching tough teams that play hard. But an offensive hunter? Normally his defense was always better than his offense. Hurley didn’t have a top-50 offense until his 11th season as a college head coach. And last season, it was Hurley’s first time with a top-20 offense when the Huskies finished third. The Huskies enter this year’s Monday night national championship game against Purdue as the most efficient offense in college basketball. He seems to be on the verge of a dynasty.

How did this happen?

When Hurley took over Connecticut in 2018, the Huskies were in the American Athletic Conference. The best teams in the league were Houston and Wichita State. Those teams had big, physical fronts, so Harley tried to match them. At Rhode Island, Hurley played a lot of four-and-around-one with a heavy ball screen offense. He carried ball screen concepts to UConn, but now he had two posts on the floor. Spacing was a problem.

Hurley wanted to go to a modern approach with four perimeter players and brought in Murray to help him with the offense. Murray was with Hurley in his first season as a collegiate head coach at Wagner in 2010-11. Hurley tried to make up for the talent gap by milking his shot clock that season. If you study all of his teams, the most notable for the last two UConn teams is the first Wagner team. That roster’s strength was its shooting, and Hurley ran a lot of floppy moves to free up shooters. Wagner finished 18th in assists that season. Hurley would not have another team finish in the top 100 in assists until the team finished eighth last year. (This year’s team is fifth.)

Murray joined Hurley in April 2021, but they were unable to establish a plan immediately because Hurley felt loyal to senior forward Isaiah Vale. Also, point guard RJ Cole was better off ball screens, so UConn played a traditional two-big lineup and relied on the pick-and-roll.

But in the summer of 2022, the plan was implemented. The Huskies had a great shooter in Jordan Hawkins, a perfect man as a signal-caller who could come off screens and use his gravity to get others open. Then they had a good run at Karaban, a freshman who graduated early and took a semester break in the 2021-22 season.

“It was really clear that we were going to transition to a more off-ball identity,” Murray says.

Harley and Murray studied the European teams, stealing different concepts and packages they could use.

“Not necessarily as a transcript,” says Murray. “The thing that means more to our team is just smashing together.”

The goal is to put pressure on the defense, to arrange several actions that create decisiveness for the defense. Most stage plays are choreographed. While the Huskies may seem patterned at times, their fate is a choose-your-own-adventure story.

“If you decide not to accept the screen, now that sets off a chain of events in two or three off-ball situations,” Murray explains. “That’s something we work really hard on, because good defensive teams can often do a good job of taking teams out of the game. But I think the fact that the way we’re cutting is not random, the way we’re screening is not random, and that our guys are going to be a passenger and a mover and a screener and a shooter, I think that makes it very difficult.

Murray said the Huskies take a lot of pride in their defense, which ranks fourth nationally, but he estimated the drills to be a 65-35 split between offense and defense.

“You can have some of the greatest concepts in the world, but men have to be able to execute them intelligently and with a good understanding of the time and place differences and how they’re being defended,” Murray says. That’s one of the things we try to emphasize a lot in game preparation. A lot of scouting is based on what the other team is doing. For us, we talk a lot about the way the other team is waiting for us.”

Because the Huskies set so many screens off the ball, multiple teams switched frequently. That turnover gave UConn some issues early in the season. While injuries played a part in UConn’s loss at Kansas, KU’s switch-hitting defense held the Huskies to their first loss of the season.

They spent a lot of practice time rehearsing what to do with these switches. As the Klingon hurt, they began to cut more into their sets, especially with Karaban going to five damage.

“They’ve been really good against the switch with their sliding and fake action,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “If you shoot under a screen or miss a late switch, they’re going to try to make you pay off of it.”

Especially when Klingon gets the ball upfield or in the corner, he’s very hard to stop when the rim is dragging the defense. The Klingon is good at reading defenses and because of his height he sees defenses easily. This is when the back cut is fatal.

Endless cutting will keep the defense in awe.

“If you cut the ball and you don’t get the ball, you open it up for somebody else,” Karaban said.

The Huskies can also penalize switches with the drive. If a big man switches to Newton, which happens on the play below, he knows it’s time to attack.

The Klingon has the ability to perform dribble hands, and his size makes it impossible to block those moves because it’s difficult to get around him. And if the Klingan man decides to change, the Huskies send to the post and try to feed the ball there.

Much of last year’s offense was built around Hawkins’ endless runs of screens and Adama Sanogo’s late ducks. This year’s plan was mostly to repeat what was done last year for Klingan and backup center Samson Johnson. Finding a replacement for Hawkins became imperative. The Huskies rested Spencer, who shot 43.4 percent on 3s last season against Rutgers, but the Huskies knew he was capable of being more than a knock-down shooter.

It’s like trying to figure out the geometry of defending last year’s team. This period is like trying to solve trigonometry. Spencer can handle the ball in the pick and roll and then move without the ball very well. He has the highest offensive rating in college basketball. Caraban can also fly over screens and is an excellent cutter. And they don’t always come from the same place.

“You can run the same action and flop players, which I don’t think is as common as everyone thinks,” Miller says.

“This coaching staff does better than anyone to just make you successful,” Spencer says. “They help you play to your strengths and build on your weaknesses. There are times when you go off script, and Coach Hurley will let you know when those times are, but you really don’t have to deal with this team. We are very unselfish and the ball will find you. And if not, then too bad; It’s not your night.”

That line of thinking is why UConn’s shooting selection is so good. That’s why the Huskies rank 328th in adjusted time because so many half-court possessions can go into the shot clock.

“When they’re in the half court, they’re very patient and they execute,” Miller said. But when you talk about what makes them great, I think it’s the combination of elites in transition and the way they lead their teams. I don’t think there is anyone more dangerous on the college basketball court.

This is another area where Harley looks to excel. He likes to hit misses quickly, doesn’t want players to look for play calls from the rim, but rather moves up the floor quickly and hunts down transition 3s. The Huskies are the seventh-most efficient transition team in college basketball and fifth in synergy in half-court efficiency. It is the only team in the country ranked in both top 10.

Those numbers only reflect first-chance opportunities and don’t factor in second-chance and third-chance opportunities, and UConn ranks 13th in offensive rebounding rate.

“Your job starts when you shoot the shot, because they’re coming on the offensive glass,” McDermott said.

Face-to-face is exhausting, because there’s no time to have fun with the Huskies. That’s why they won 11 straight games by double digits in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama hung around for 35 minutes Saturday, but then Spencer hit that free-throw line jumper, then came another complicated, 20-second layup that set up Caraban’s 3-pointer, then a pick-and-roll dunk for Clingan, then Spencer curled around a Clingan screen, engaged a defender and dunked the ball. Pass it on – Another beautiful game design removes the help.

The (Crimson) storm broke as the Huskies scored on seven of their nine possessions.

Each game seemed inevitable, and Miller’s horror episode spoke volumes for the rest of college basketball.

“(Hurley) has grown and improved,” Miller said. “He’s become more sophisticated and definitely more confident.”

And that improved offensive approach put him on the brink of back-to-back titles. And who knows how many more.

(Top photo by Cam Spencer: Elsa/Getty Images)