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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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Walberg may have been a mad scientist, but he won games at an astonishing rate, usually with less talent than his opponents had. In the five years after it adopted his offense, Clovis West went 159--18, and during Walberg's four seasons at Fresno City College (2002--06) the Rams went 133--11, winning the '05 state juco title and regularly averaging more than 100 points a game. Nuggets assistant John Welch constantly observed Clovis West practices during his days at Fresno State under Jerry Tarkanian. He recalls, "People used to think it was funny: Why is a college assistant always over there with a high school coach? But I've been around some unbelievable coaches—Tark, Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, now George Karl and Tim Grgurich—and I've learned as much from Vance as from anybody else."

By the summer of 2003 Welch had joined Hubie Brown's Memphis Grizzlies staff. One day he called his friend Calipari. "I've always respected Johnny Welch," says Calipari. "He's a basketball Benny, knows coaches, studies the game. He says, 'Look, I've got a guy coming in here, and I want him to spend some time with you. You ought to look at his offense.'"

WHY CHANGE? It may seem obvious now that they're coaching the nation's top-ranked teams in college and high school basketball, but Calipari and Hurley didn't need to overhaul their systems. Calipari, 49, had won 336 games in college and the NBA and had reached three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and a Final Four when he and Walberg sat down for dinner that night at Cal's Championship Steakhouse. During his first three seasons at Memphis, however, Calipari had coached in only one NCAA tournament game. "It's like you're a teacher, and you're teaching for 15 years, and your lesson plan never changed," he says. "This has been invigorating for me because it's gotten me to think, to study the game again."

Hurley, 60, had won 22 state championships, nearly 900 games and two mythical national titles as head coach at St. Anthony when he adopted dribble-drive in the fall of 2005. "I've had very few original thoughts in my life," Hurley says, "but I'm smart enough to take from people who are successful and seem to have a greater view of the game. We got to a point where kids spent more time in the weight room than out on the court working on skills. [Dribble-drive] gets you working on skills. You can move your center around. It doesn't have to be mud-wrestling where just the stronger, more physical, more athletic kids win."

Both coaches have added their own elements to Walberg's framework. Hurley uses what he calls "a European-style pick-and-roll," while Calipari departs from Walberg orthodoxy in several ways. Instead of going straight into the offense, Memphis sometimes swings the ball around the perimeter or springs the point guard with (gasp!) a ball screen. And instead of sending his post man straight to the lane's weak side, Calipari allows him to go on what Memphis calls a "rim run," in which the penetrating guard throws a lob in the vicinity of the basket for an alley-oop dunk.

A born promoter, Calipari also came up with the name Dribble-Drive Motion for the offense. "It's just easier to understand," he says. "AASAA? Come on, what are you talking about?" Owing to the offense's continuous patterns, reads and backdoor cuts, he also branded it " Princeton on steroids."

Whatever you call it, Calipari's team is smitten. "It turned out to be great for us," says swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts, one of the nation's most gifted penetrators. "It's about spacing and players making plays. A lot of players who are in conventional styles get bored sometimes because they feel like they can't show what they can do, but this offense lets a player show his strengths."

Although Calipari didn't adopt Walberg's scrambling full-court defense (he's convinced that winning at the highest level requires stopping opponents in the half-court), he did transform his defense in one major way. He says that during his days at UMass, from 1988 to '96, he wanted his teams to be last in the league in steals. "Why last? Because [gambling for] steals gets you out of position," he explains. "I wanted to give teams one tough shot, and that's it. Now we want to be first in steals—in the country. Because the way we play now, if the other team holds the ball, we're going to be on offense 30 percent of the time and on defense 70 percent. Now who's going to control the game? But if we're going after steals, we make them play faster." At week's end the Tigers had 8.7 thefts per game.

Opposing teams can play their own defensive trump cards, of course, and the most common gambit against Memphis's DDM attack has been to ditch man-to-man for zones and hybrid junk defenses, which clog the Tigers' driving lanes. Memphis has seen them all: 2--3 zones ( Gonzaga), 3--2 zones ( East Carolina), 1-3-1 zones (SMU), the triangle-and-two (USC). Arizona tried a two-man zone, with its post defenders stationed on the blocks. During its victory over Memphis in the 2006 NCAA West Regional final, UCLA used a one-man zone, keeping a big man in the lane.

The most successful defense against the Tigers this season was USC's triangle-and-two, which helped the Trojans take Memphis to overtime on Dec. 4 before losing 62--58. "We got tentative against USC," says Calipari, who calls more set plays against zones and says he has installed countermeasures for the triangle-and-two. (When Middle Tennessee State brought it out later in December, Memphis won by 24.) Besides, he adds, "if your primary defense is man but you're playing us zone, how will you be any good at it? And if you do stay in the game, what are you thinking with four minutes to go? We can't beat these guys."

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