If you could see Memphis' dribble drive motion, it would look like this
January 17, 2008
It is pure chaos here in the window booth at the Blues City Cafe. This ought to be a simple interview disguised as a Beale Street lunch, but the confusion that started when I left my digital recorder back home and had to buy a new one before speaking with Memphis coach John Calipari only escalates once the conversation begins. Calipari moves around five pink packets of Sweet'N Low on the table. He periodically looks to assistant John Robic for affirmation. He stops when the waitress brings him salad and later a plate of spicy steak. He tries to talk through periodic interruptions from his son, Bradley, who wants to go play video games at a buddy's house.
Calipari, breezing through a crash course on his dribble drive motion offense, clearly thrives on commotion.
Sure, but what about me?
Back in the fall, Calipari and the offense's originator, Vance Walberg of Pepperdine, did a full weekend clinic for basketball coaches trained to understand the entire language. At the cafe, we run out of time after 44 minutes, 22 seconds, and I wonder if some edition of that Rosetta Stone software might have helped make things decipherable.
"I know your head is spinning," Calipari says.
Well, it would help if I could see it.
The dribble drive motion offense is like the Yangtze River dolphin or a black hole in space. You know it exists in theory and maybe a few people have observed one, but the rest of us pretty much have to take their word for it. Having watched Memphis play four games in person this season, a total of perhaps 320 possessions, I've caught fewer than a dozen glimpses of the Tigers' preferred offensive scheme, a high-energy approach that involves constantly driving the ball into the heart of the defense and repeating those drives until the defense is overwhelmed and yields either a layup or an open 3-point shot. Partly out of wisdom but mostly out of fear, opponents employ every means at their disposal to prevent the undefeated Tigers from using it.
So while his son doused a couple of fried fish fillets in ketchup and busied himself cleaning the plate, I tried to wrap my brain around how it all works. If Calipari ever gets to use this offense in a game, it might just win him a national title.
If a dog really does resemble its master, it is surprising it took Calipari so long to discover this approach. He always has talked fast, thought fast, moved fast. A little more than a decade ago, when he was young, brash, handsome and blessed with a full head of dark hair and a last name ending in a vowel, many in the media derisively referred to him as a "Rick Pitino clone." That was laughable. Calipari's teams played slow. Having learned most of his basketball serving as a low-level staffer for Larry Brown at Kansas, and having established himself as a big-time coaching prospect under Paul Evans at Pitt, Calipari directed teams at Massachusetts that controlled the ball and guarded the lane as if it were paved with diamonds. Not Pitino basketball at all.
This worked beautifully with the rugged players Calipari recruited to UMass. His teams went 11-5 in NCAA Tournament games in the mid-1990s, reached the 1996 Final Four and helped land him a lucrative NBA job with the New Jersey Nets. However, this approach was not working as well with the less physical players he began collecting upon becoming Memphis' coach in March 2000. In his first five seasons, the Tigers won a single NCAA Tournament game.
He needed a fresh approach, something that would empower the long, athletic players the city of Memphis produces and the University of Memphis attracts. Calipari stumbled upon it by chance. When Walberg was visiting a friend who worked for the Memphis Grizzlies, the two were introduced. They talked awhile, talked some more, and next thing you knew, Calipari was trading in his fundamentalist principles for contemporary flash. Since making the switch before the 2005-06 season, Memphis is 81-8.
"Larry said to me -- exaggerating a little -- 'You won a thousand games playing the way we always played. Now you're listening to a junior college coach and you're going to throw all that away?' " Calipari says. "But we've been even better since."
At its core, the offense -- which Walberg perfected at Fresno City College -- features four players stationed around the perimeter and one player on the inside and is predicated upon the perimeter players driving, attacking, shifting the ball to the opposite side and then driving and attacking from there. The primary goal is to generate an open layup. The secondary goal is to draw in the defense so the driver can kick the ball back to the perimeter for an open jump shot. A third option is to stop the drive and lob the ball toward the rim, where the player stationed on the opposite post could be alone to dunk it home.
Walberg called his offense AASAA: attack, attack, skip, attack, attack. "If I'd known it was going to come to this," he says, "I'd have thought of something fancier." Not surprising, Calipari, the master salesman, took care of that with the term "dribble drive motion."
Although Calipari has devised several ways to initiate the offense that were not in Walberg's original manifesto, there still is not a great emphasis on screening to initiate all these drives. Star forward Chris Douglas-Roberts estimates that in three seasons he has been asked to set screens "probably seven times. If that."
By stationing four players behind the 3-point line, Memphis stretches the opponent's man-to-man defense. When a player drives, every teammate has a pattern to follow in order for the ballhandler to have specific passing options if his penetration is denied. It's so precise Calipari had marks put on the floor at the Finch Center, where the Tigers practice, as if he were a director blocking out the stage for a hot action movie. Which, in a way, he is.
"If it's done right, there's a lane for you to go all the way to the rim," Calipari says. "Everywhere you drive, you know where all the other guys are on the floor. You can close your eyes and throw a pass." When the Tigers can throw that pass to the player stationed at the top of the key, who gets a running start as the ball is delivered -- what they call a "downhill drive" -- the attack is at its most dangerous.
"The hardest thing to guard in basketball is the dribble drive," says ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. "It's an excellent way for them to play because it's an attacking offense for a team that has attacking players."
The quartet of players Memphis lines up on the perimeter must have ballhandling skill. "If you can't drive it, it's going to be tough for you to play," Douglas-Roberts says. It helps if some or all are adept as long-range shooters and if some or all are comfortable finishing drives at the rim. They have to be able to read a defense's reaction and quickly counter those maneuvers.
Memphis' starters seem almost as if they were manufactured to run this attack. Point guard Derrick Rose stands 6-3, is disarmingly quick, makes excellent decisions and has surprised people with his shooting skill. Shooting guard Antonio Anderson is 6-6, a powerful penetrator and finisher and gradually is recovering his long-missing jumper. Douglas-Roberts is 6-7 and the best wing finisher in college basketball. Power forward Robert Dozier, 6-9, is not the most adept ballhandler, but he can drive it in a straight line given the opportunity and hit the occasional 3-pointer, and he operates with a solid grasp of the offense's potential.
Center Joey Dorsey, also 6-9, has less to do in the offense, but his contributions are essential. "Not many post guys are going to be content to never get a post-up touch," says Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, whose Bearcats fell to the Tigers in a December nonleague game. "Cal has sold him on being Ben Wallace, dunking the ball, blocking shots and rebounding."
It's possible every Memphis starter will play in the NBA, and Rose could become the No. 1 overall pick in whichever draft he chooses to enter. So these players probably would excel in any system Calipari chose for them. They prefer this one.
"I watch a lot of teams play conventional basketball, and it's boring to me," Douglas-Roberts says. "I don't really see how you can play like that, how players can show their strengths in those types of offenses. Maybe I'm biased."
What good is owning a Maserati if you never get it out of the garage? For most of this season, the dribble drive motion has been all talk, no action. Opponents have employed just about every variety of zone or gimmick defense they could conjure to prevent the Tigers from driving the ball.
USC was effective using a triangle-and-2. Cincinnati clogged the lane with a sagging man-to-man that dared the Tigers to shoot jumpers. Siena tried a 2-3 zone. Pepperdine had an advantage in that its coach invented the offense; he played a zone and flooded the strong side with extra defenders. It's harder to drive against zone defenses because it means taking the ball into areas where defenders already are stationed, as opposed to racing past adjacent defenders.
"If you start matching up with them, let them drive on you, they're really tough to handle," says Fran McCaffery, Siena's coach. "This is the best penetrating team I've ever coached against."
The run of opposing zones is unlikely to change as the Tigers navigate the Conference USA regular season. If Memphis belonged to another league, greater opposing talent and coaching egos would keep most opponents rooted to man-to-man and they'd get plenty of chances before March to work on their system. But they don't. That means that while UCLA and Kansas and North Carolina run their regular attacks against quality opponents -- and improve -- Memphis will get better at attacking zones they might rarely see in the later NCAA rounds.
Memphis' excellent backup players provide solid opposition as the regulars practice this stuff every day, but it's not the same as performing under game conditions.
"It's frustrating, but it's kind of what we expected," Dozier says. "Guys are not going to come out and play us man-to-man. We're just too talented, too fast. We have to take it as a sign of respect."
The Tigers have all the respect they can handle. What they need is more work on their specialty. They understand the concepts as well as their coaches could hope. But it could be like learning a second language -- if you don't use it, you lose it.