By Clay Kallam, Contributing Editor
Most coaches love to draw up plays. The Xs, Os and squiggly lines on pizza-parlor napkins are part of the fun…but the sad truth is that most baskets don’t come from those bolts of offensive genius, but rather in transition, or after a play breaks down, or thanks to some other unplanned occurrence.
Joanne McCallie, one of the most successful womens college coaches in the business, recognizes this all too well, so she spends more than a little practice time preparing her team for those times when the Xs don’t mark the spot, and the Os are off in the ozone.
“We work with advantage situations first,” says McCallie, who’s now in her third year at Duke after highly successful stays at Maine and Michigan State, “those are situations where points are there for the taking.” If a team can score every time it has an advantage in transition, it’s going to win a whole lot of games — but how many teams convert those situations into points as much as the coaches would like?
Transition Takes Time
Of course, almost every coach runs a version of the 3-on-2, 2-on-1 drill, but for McCallie it’s a staple for getting her transition game in tip-top shape. “I don’t think teams do those types of drills enough,” she says.
For example, how many coaches really focus on the strong-side elbow jumper in a 3-on-2 situation? “That’s the money shot in a 3-on-2,” says McCallie, who wants her players to look ahead, pass ahead and flatten out the defense. Once that happens, the strong-side elbow is wide open for a quick return pass and a quick shot.
But even though McCallie is working at the highest level of the women’s college game, and coaches a perennial Top 10 team, she still starts by breaking down 1-on-1 play. “The defense has to try to take away the ball handler’s strong hand,” she says, “and the offense needs to attack the defender’s high foot.”
In a 2-on-1 situation, McCallie doesn’t like to hear the bounce of the ball. “Move the ball as much as possible without the dribble,” she advises, “and get the defender to commit. There’s nothing fancy about it.”
McCallie also works on her players’ ability to score in spite of contact. Defenders often just settle for a foul when they’re outnumbered, but McCallie wants the and-one play. “I don’t think anyone’s happy without the finish,” she says.
The natural progression from a 3-on-2 is to a 4-on-3 but it’s a bigger step than most coaches realize. “The defenders tend to zone up,” says McCallie, so Duke emphasizes strong-side cuts through the defense to stretch the zone. “We don’t want to allow one defender to guard two people,” she says.
The same principles apply in 5-on-4: The defense most likely will be in a semi-zone and strong-side cuts that split the defenders will ultimately create good shots (see sidebar). And of course, the ball handler can also look to score: “Go by them if you can,” says McCallie.
In addition to full-speed work, McCallie also has her team warmup extensively to work on how to handle advantage situations. “You can do some warm-up drills that get some principles in place.”
Coach McCallie explains how excited she is to join Duke basketball
Another transition fundamental for McCallie is attacking the foul line. She wants her point guard to get the ball to the foul line when the defense is still setting up, because once there, a plethora of options open up.
At Duke, McCallie has a scout team for her players to work with when it comes to transition drills but the team isn’t dependent on having outside competition. “The scout team makes one pass and takes a shot,” she says, “then we box out, go down and try to score.
“We try to use one outlet so we can get everyone down the floor — it’s difficult, but the idea is to run, run, run,” she says. “We want the point guard to get to the foul line and make good decisions.”
To help out her point guards, McCallie uses a visual: “We tell the point guard there’s a yellow blinking light at the foul line, which means they have to change speeds. So many players blast through the foul line at top speed, and they make it easy for the defense.”
In game play, there are times the point guard can’t get to the foul line, and so the Blue Devils immediately go into their early offense (secondary break — see sidebar on page 25). In transition, the first post runs to the strong-side rim, and the second post trails, and out of that basic set, Duke has several different options. “We have a lot of different stuff we can run,” she says. “We have five or six called plays that roll into something else. When there’s no call, the players must read the defense.”
No Single System Necessary
And of course, McCallie does install familiar offenses — but she’s not wedded to any particular one.
“I like them all,” she says. “I’ve run 1-4 sets, which create on-ball screens, I’ve run high-low sets for post players, and I’ve used the triangle, though never as a base offense. It’s mechanical and I get a little bored with it.
“But you name it, we’ve used it.”
Why not go with a set system? “Each team is different,” says McCallie, who made adjustments when she came to Duke from Michigan State. “It doesn’t matter how good the players are, they still have to learn. When you’re new to a program, you have to determine how much they can deal with. Some teams can do very little.
“We have very smart teams,” says McCallie, which is expected at a highly rated academic school like Duke, and she emphasizes possession. “Valuing the ball is very, very important. Our goal is to have 24 or 25 assists to 12 turnovers.”
To that end, the Blue Devils spend five to eight minutes every day working on ball handling. “I’m not sure there’s enough ball handling done during practice,” she says.
But it doesn’t matter how smart a team is, or how well the players execute, if the players can’t put the ball in the basket. “Good players make shots,” says McCallie. “Lindsay Bowen (an all-American for McCallie at Michigan State) made plays look great.”
It also takes a great deal of time, effort and patience to build a good jump shooter. Sure, some players are born with great shooting ability but everyone benefits from taking extra shots in the gym or at the playground after everyone else has gone home for the day. “In the summer, we do a tremendous amount of shooting,” McCallie says. “Our players have to teach shooting at our summer camp, which is very valuable, but players don’t shoot enough at any level — there’s a huge issue in today’s game of sweat equity. Players have to put the time in.
McCallie is finding that players do not have the fortitude, or the time, today to take those extra jump shots when no one is watching. “I think shooting is a lost art. Players used to shoot a thousand shots a day,” says McCallie, “but now they’re playing on club teams and not shooting in the driveway.” And what happens is that the players who focus on getting to the rim at the high school and club level discover they need a jumper in college – and it’s hard to develop one that late.
“Players don’t shoot well, and they wonder why their shots aren’t going in,” says McCallie, who also thinks players need to set their shooting goals high. “If they really want to shoot the ball well, they can’t be satisfied if the ball rattles the rim. They need to snap the net.”
McCallie uses basic shooting drills during the season, including the 5-Spot Drill, which has players taking five shots from five determined spots on the court, and also the 40-40 drill, which has partners each taking 40 shots from the paint, from mid-range and from outside the arc.
“It would be great to do more,” she says, because it doesn’t matter whether it’s an advantage situation, early offense or a set play: If the ball doesn’t go into the basket, it’s not what the coaches had in mind back at the pizza parlor.