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Fast and Furious
February 18, 2008
Unbeaten Memphis has climbed to No. 1 using the Dribble-Drive Motion offense, a relentless and innovative attack that's all the rage among teams at all levels, from high school to the pros
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February 18, 2008

Fast And Furious

Unbeaten Memphis has climbed to No. 1 using the Dribble-Drive Motion offense, a relentless and innovative attack that's all the rage among teams at all levels, from high school to the pros

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The Denver Nuggets are running elements of DDM, and so are the Boston Celtics. "[Calipari] and I fax each other," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Meanwhile, one vocal DDM skeptic has changed his mind. "If I were fortunate enough to get back into coaching, I'd seek Vance's help in a minute," says Brown, who joined Calipari and Walberg last September at a clinic in Mississippi attended by more than 400 high school coaches. "When I was coaching UCLA, everybody ran the high-post offense and the 2-2-1 press because of Coach [John] Wooden. He won 10 national titles, so you could understand that. But to see all these people who are incorporating what Vance does is mind-boggling."

It's enough to make you wonder: Who the hell is Vance Walberg? How is his offense spreading around the nation? And if his brainchild is the hottest thing in U.S. basketball, why is he out of a job?

WHERE DO innovators come from? An original idea—the new new thing—can be sparked anywhere, but the majority of college basketball's greatest innovators share a common trajectory: Unlike most of today's top coaches, who rose through the college ranks as assistants, they became head coaches early, often in anonymous hoops outposts. Carril was 24 when he became the jayvee coach at Easton (Pa.) High, the same age Knight was when he took over his first team, Army. Two of today's most respected innovators are Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, exponent of the Swing offense, who became the coach at Sun Valley High in Aston, Pa., at 26, and Michigan's John Beilein, who won the top job at Newfane (N.Y.) Central High at 22 and later came up with the Five-Out offense.

No matter how obscure the team, "when you're a head coach you get to tinkering with what you want," says Walberg, who was 22 when he took over at Mountain View (Calif.) High. As a high school grinder over the years—he even coached badminton at one point—Walberg dabbled in variations of the flex offense and Knight's motion, among other schemes, but his real break came in 1997, when he had his Clovis West team use a cutting-edge "four-out" offense (i.e., four perimeter players) of the kind now favored by Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus.

"It was pure luck," Walberg says, despite all evidence to the contrary. His best player, a heady, relentless point guard named Chris Hernandez (who would later star at Stanford), was such a skilled dribble-penetrator that Walberg moved his post man to the weakside block, clearing two bodies from Hernandez's path to the basket. When Hernandez broke down his defender he had several options: 1) shoot an open layup, 2) pass to the post man (if his defender left him to stop Hernandez), or 3) kick the ball out to an open teammate on the perimeter (if his defender had sagged to help out on Hernandez). The open player could shoot a three-pointer, but if one wasn't available, the team would attack again.

Because there were no screens and attackers were spaced so far apart, the formation opened yawning gaps for penetrators, as long as they had the talent to beat their defenders and the smarts to read defenses on the fly. "I wish I had chosen a fancier name than AASAA, but I wanted kids to understand that it was attack-attack-skip-attack-attack," says Walberg. "What am I trying to say? Get to the rim. It's basically here we come." All of Walberg's teams hear the same slogan (we like three-pointers, but we love layups), and shot charts reveal that the teams take almost no midrange jumpers.

Walberg's invention shares some elements with European-style drive-and-kick formations and the fast-paced spread offense of Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, parts of which are being used by Duke, Texas and UMass. But Walberg is sui generis. Since '97 he has added myriad phases, wrinkles and—perhaps most important—an elaborate set of competitive practice drills (with names such as Blood, Cardinal and Scramble) that hone the fundamentals necessary for the offense. "Have you seen Vance at practice? Oh, man," says Brown. "His drills are all building blocks to his offense and defense, which is the key to coaching."

In fact, Calipari says he now does far more coaching in practice than during games, when he used to bark out play calls nearly every trip down the court. "The biggest strength of this offense," Walberg says, "is I feel we're teaching kids how to play basketball instead of how to run plays."

Dribble-drive is tailor-made for today's high school and college teams, which favor speed in the absence of classic back-to-the-basket big men, but it isn't for everyone. It requires quick, smart and talented guards who have a feel for the game. (See: Memphis point guard Derrick Rose.) It requires agile big men who can shoot from the perimeter and race downcourt. It requires deep benches and three-point shooters who can punish sagging man-to-man defenses and the inevitable zones. Not least, it requires complete commitment from coaches, who have to give up the control that comes with offensive play-calling and conventional half-court defenses.

Indeed, Walberg is so committed that he might need to be committed. He's still disappointed that Memphis's swarming defense—the nation's best, holding opponents to 0.83 points per possession—hasn't adopted his gambling full-court press, which Walberg's California converts contend is even more Promethean than his offense. "Vance believes so much in what he does," says Brown, a disciple of Dean Smith and Henry Iba. "The first time I met him we were talking about defensive principles, and everything I said, he'd say, 'No, no, no, you can't do it that way.' I'd say, 'Well, Coach Smith and Mr. Iba taught me this.' And he'd still say, 'No, no, no.' Is he not a character?"

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