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Fast and Furious
February 26, 2007
North Carolina coach Roy Williams revved up Dean Smith's classic secondary break to create the college game's most relentless-- and riveting--attack
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February 26, 2007

Fast And Furious

North Carolina coach Roy Williams revved up Dean Smith's classic secondary break to create the college game's most relentless-- and riveting--attack

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It was a simple exchange, really, a moment that laid bare Roy Williams's vision to create the most lethal attacking weapon in college basketball. In the fall of 2002, not long after rejoining Williams's staff at Kansas, Steve Robinson stood next to his boss during a preseason practice and blanched at the scene before him, a chaotic blur of bodies in motion. The Jayhawks hadn't operated this way seven years earlier, when Robinson had left to coach Tulsa (and later Florida State). "I'm a little uncomfortable with how fast you're playing," Robinson told Williams, who cackled like a mad scientist. "Good," Williams replied. "Because I want to play even faster."

In today's game Ol' Roy's ongoing metamorphosis is nothing less than revolutionary. Whether it's for reasons of ego or control or changing personnel, most Hall of Fame--worthy coaches have slowed down their attacks over the past two decades. Consider Pat Riley, who's gone from running the Showtime Lakers to the bump-and-grind Miami Heat, or Louisville's Rick Pitino, who almost never uses the full-court press he made famous at Kentucky. "Some guys are trying to go slower than they used to, but I'm always trying to go faster," says Williams. "Basketball is supposed to be a finesse game--Dr. Naismith didn't want people to foul each other--and I think speed is a part of finesse."

Structured chaos, Williams calls his brainchild, an ever-quickening version of his mentor Dean Smith's classic primary and secondary breaks. It sounds like an oxymoron until you see the uncanny way in which Williams's latest North Carolina team mixes the supposedly competing elements of breakneck speed and wise shot selection. With a month to go before the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels (23--4 through Sunday) own the most fear-inducing offense in the land, not least because they're the country's fastest-paced major-conference team (averaging 75.1 possessions a game, according to and ranked No. 4 nationally in offensive efficiency, scoring 1.17 points per possession. We've seen this deadly combination before, of course: In both categories the Runnin' Heels are neck and neck with Williams's 2005 national champs.

The Carolina break is more dangerous than ever because the Tar Heels have uncommon depth, rotating as many as 12 players, none of whom ever stops running. If UNC has a numerical edge and can score on a traditional fast break, a.k.a. the primary break, then that's the first option after a make or a miss by an opponent. If not, the Tar Heels will launch into their secondary break, a term that many hoops fans have heard but only a few understand. "The secondary break is the phase between the primary break and a set offense," Williams explains. "It gives us a chance to keep attacking so that defenders have to pick up people they're not supposed to be guarding. They're backpedaling and trying to protect the goal, and now we're moving it around and setting screens before the defense can really get set."

Carolina's most common secondary-break sequence is one that any frequent basketball watcher will recognize. It requires the point guard (usually freshman Ty Lawson) to dribble to one wing out of transition, then reverse the ball to a post player at the top of the key (sophomore Tyler Hansbrough or freshman Brandan Wright), who fires a pass to a guard on the other wing and, using a back screen from a teammate, cuts to the block for a pass. At every step the Tar Heels try to look inside and feed the other post player, who has raced as fast as possible to the front of the rim. The object is to create a high-percentage inside shot or, failing that, to draw defenders into the lane, opening up the perimeter for three-pointers.

These days Williams has cranked up Carolina's attack to the point that the Tar Heels almost never call set plays in a half-court offense anymore. "They play out of transition into their secondary break 90 percent of the time, and their early offense is as good as there is because they've got big guys like Hansbrough who can run like track stars," said Miami coach Frank Haith after the Heels drubbed his Hurricanes 105--64 on Jan. 31 in Chapel Hill. "You'd think it would be easy to defend, because you just have to get back and find your man, but it's easier said than done. Their speed puts so much pressure on you, particularly if you're trying to [get the] offensive rebound." In fact, some coaches are so wary of Carolina's explosiveness that they'll send only two players to the offensive glass. Another benefit: Because the Tar Heels inbound the ball so quickly after a basket, Williams says it's almost impossible for foes to set up a press.

Williams's staff is fanatical about conditioning--every player broke six minutes in the team's annual preseason mile run, with point guards Bobby Frasor and Quentin Thomas finishing in under five minutes--and all that running has a cumulative effect in games. "It wears on an opponent," Hansbrough says. "In the first half they may be fine, but in the second half they get winded and worn down. Those are the times when we make a run."

An alternate handle for the Carolina break could just as well be Ty Goes to the Runners. From the moment Lawson catches the outlet pass, it's his job to push the ball with the same complete commitment as that of his four teammates already sprinting toward the basket. "Ty has a gear that very few point guards have," Williams says, "and an ability to burst between two defenders until it's wide open in front of him." More than halfway through Lawson's freshman season, Williams says he's made great strides but is still running at only 60% of his maximum capability. "I'll think I'm playing fast, and then Coach tells me I need to go faster," Lawson says, smiling. "I don't think he'll ever be satisfied unless every time down the court we hit layups."

Williams's relentless pursuit of speed reflects personal tastes that go beyond basketball. (He'll proudly tell you about the time he played the famed Cypress Point golf course 15 years ago in two hours and 35 minutes--walking and with a caddie.) Yet not even Smith would have predicted that his former assistant would rev up the secondary break and make it the cornerstone of his offense. "Every year I'd want to change something we were trying to do," says Smith, "and he was the one of the three [assistants] who would always say, 'Why are we changing?'"

The secondary break has evolved in fits and starts over the years since Smith coined the term in 1964. That year he hired former Tar Heel Larry Brown as an assistant following Brown's participation as a player on the U.S. Olympic team, and Brown brought with him a transition strategy (using a sharpshooting trailer) that Olympic coach Henry Iba called "flattening the defense." For years Smith's teams took the ball baseline and then swung it quickly around the perimeter, always looking for passes to the low post, and in 1982 Williams suggested adding the back screen for the post player at the top of the key. (He now jokingly calls it "my entire contribution to North Carolina basketball in 10 years" as an assistant.)

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