Newton South High School boys basketball coach Steve Matthews and Newburyport boys coach Dave Clay both implemented the principles offense in the 2019-2020 season. It is an offense that takes a tremendous amount of reps since players are the key decision makers. I asked Coach Clay and Coach Matthews a variety of questions about their experiences this past season. Primarily my goal was to learn about the structure of the practice plans with such an intense focus on offense.
As a side note, since interviewing Coach Matthews and Coach Clay, I came across another great practice plan resource. Leicester High School coach Michael Lynch shared an assortment of ideas for practice plans recently. I especially liked his idea for putting all your potential drills on one page for any given day.
Considerations for Practice Plans
Both Matthews and Clay agree that offense is their major concern in practice. Coach Matthews went as far as saying that he spends 90 percent of the practice time with offense as the focus. That might “offend” defensive coaches (see what I did there), but the sacrifice pays off. Newton South got into the 80s and 90s at times in points last year. Newburyport raised its 3-point percentage by 9 percent over last season.
My favorite part about dedicating so many eggs to the offensive basket is the ease of organizing practice. Practice plans in the past take me 90 minutes to two hours to put together. I am always interested in finding balance. Zig zags, shooting, shell, trapping, box outs, press breakers, BLOBs, etc. In contrast, flooding the plan with offensive options limits the possibilities and forces you to dig deeper in one area. More often than not, the players are involved in a small-sided game and you need to react to what they do. You cannot plan for that. And in high school basketball where coaches do so much outside of coaching, freeing up time is vital.
Everyday Staples in Practice Plans
The first thing that Coach Clay generally starts his practices with is one on one competition. He likes to simulate some type of offensive advantage from different spots on the court and then play it live. There are those coaches out there that like the idea of adding a coach or a third player to this puzzle. Doing this will add some elements to make the one on one a little more game-like. I do not have the resources, and like the simplicity of players going one on one and having to score. You might not be developing game-like decision making, but you are developing game-like finishing skills.
Shooting in Practice
Another staple that both coaches agree upon is shooting. Coach Clay developed a system to rank players in a similar fashion to what Dave Smart developed. The benefits of the system were illustrated with the improvement in the team’s three point percentage. Awareness as to who the best shooters on the floor were resulted in players making extra passes and passing up a look if a better shooter is open. Players also began to notice the importance of being a good shooter and put in extra work to move up the list. Inevitably some players are going to struggle to accept their role. That happens regardless of system though. At least in this way, the numbers are what they are. If coaches value other skills, the level of ambiguity and abstractness rises when you have to evaluate more parts in the equation.
Coach Clay added that part of their shooting considerations go past just getting repetitions. They strive to shoot game shots. One of the drills that they use is four offensive players stationary around the perimeter and three defenders trying to close out. Since the general offense they run features four players on the perimeter, they are also practicing spacing. Coach Clay limits the number of passes the offense can make. The shooter that misses goes to defense. Coaches can either time a drill like this or play until a certain player reaches three makes. Newburyport does a similar drill with 2 on 2 and one defender’s role is limited.
Coach Matthews is a big believer in form shooting every day. As an off-season shooting coach, one of the points he stresses that I never heard before is shoulder to chin. In other words if a player’s shooting shoulder stays close to her chin, her elbow is going to remain tucked in where we want it. Offenses that produce open shots are not good enough if the shots are misses. Coach Matthews and Coach Clay agree with the philosophy of Mansfield coach Mike Vaughan. By the end of practice each player should take at least 100 shots.
Key Question: Where Are We Struggling Right Now?
A common theme I am noticing among the coaches that run Noah LaRoche’s principles offense is that they develop small-sided games to enhance team weaknesses. For instance, Coach Matthews brought up cutting. Unlike West Point and St. Joseph’s, he prefers players to cut immediately after a pass. Players tend to be inconsistent cutting. To combat this, Coach Matthews films practice once per week. He will edit the film and then show players cutting with various levels of effort. After showing film like this to players, the expectations are clear. From there, in a 4 on 4 or 3 on 3 game, if players are not cutting the way they should be, there is a consequence.
Both coaches agreed about the benefits of 4 on 4 on 4 cut throat. It is a way to hold every player accountable for results since they score it. Coaches can even apply automatic turnovers for breaking a certain principle and kick a team out. This part of practice also is likely to engage everyone if a team has 12 players. No players can mentally escape under this premise.
Another theme that the coaches touched upon was limiting the amount of time on the clock. Part of the challenge in this offense includes time and score situations. Coach Matthews told me that they found that 2 or 3 reversals can be made in under 12 seconds. They did have a few sets to run if the clock was in single digits, but by playing in many situations where the clock was counting down they found success running the offense they always run at the end of quarters.
Coach Chase said that the principles offense acted as a hybrid zone and man offense. The thought of consolidating one offense to combat any type of defense gave me even greater optimism of the principles offense. When I started to think about it though, I grew skeptical. I always wonder about the value of cutting when you do not take a defender with you. I asked Coach Clay and Coach Matthews for their thoughts and they confirmed by skepticism. Both coaches ran traditional zone offenses in lieu of the principles.
Coach Clay told me that against lower end teams they were able to run principles with success versus zone, but tougher competition forced his hand to abandon the principles. Coach Matthews kept his offense very simple against zones. The primary goal for him was spacing. All of this is not to say that principles cannot be run against zones. In fact both coaches agreed that they want to make a greater effort to stick with it in the upcoming season. West Point hit a team-record 15 three-pointers against a team that played zone against them this season.
All of this being said, I think practice plans can be built to work against zones with principles and without principles. Find out what the players are most comfortable with and again adjust as needed.
What Happens to Defense?
There is an elephant in the room. All of the talk of shooting and drilling home the principles is great. There are those coaches out there though that contend that half the game is spent stopping the other team from scoring. Obviously this strategy of putting pretty much all of the eggs into offense requires that defensive instruction is significantly curtailed. Coach Matthews admits they only build 5 to 10 in practice plans where the focus is squarely on defense.
In order to still be a competent defensive team, Coach Clay and Coach Matthews offered a couple simple ideas. First, be consistent in what you teach. Both coaches told me that they switched everything this past season. It really did not matter who the opponent was or what the action was.
Second, they wanted their defense to play tough for 2 to 3 seconds. In other words, they did not want to get beat by a straight line drive.
Third, and most importantly they believe that the small-sided games are opportunities to improve offensively and defensively. The offense challenges the defense to cover so much space and keep track of continuous movement. On any given sequence a player could be forced into as many as two or three closeouts. And inherent in all of those closeouts is deciding how far to commit toward the ball versus being able to recover onto your man. All the while, these defenders have a coach dedicated to watching them while another coach watches the offense.
Unintended Benefits in Practices
Coach Matthews told me the players that are not starters benefitted from the offense in practice. They moved the ball well and forced the starters to work on defense. In a typical setting, the most skilled players and athletes win everything in practice. This offense relied less on individual skill and more on the synchronized timing of all five players. Players that come off the bench generally have lower skills. Once these players grasped the principles though they were thinking less. As a result, they played with more freedom and conviction in each decision they made.
Another benefit both coaches agreed on is the difficulty of scouting this system. For a team that relies on a set, if you shut down option A it is often enough to make it a very difficult evening. In this system, there is generally more balanced scoring. Additionally, just watching from the stands, the ball moves so fast you miss out on how the play evolved.