Monday, January 5, 2009

How the nation's best-shooting team does it

Last year, 56-year-old Stew Morrill's Utah State team led the nation in FG and FT shooting, and they're the best-shooting FG team so far again this year. [Here are the team's stats.]

According to this article on ESPN, "Morrill's program is one of just five to win three-quarters of its games [they're 12-1 this season] since the turn of the century, and that has been thanks in large part to its consistently superb shooting."

What's his secret?

"We've had a lot of kids who can really shoot the ball. We've been blessed with a lot of skilled kids, and Utah's a great basketball state. I don't know if people really realize that. We always take extra shots in practice; we work on our free throws all the time. But there's a lot more to it than that."

By "a lot more to it" Coach Morrill (pictured above) is referring to a "2-inch thick playbook that's as thick as any NFL team's. And those binders are chock-full of ways to get the open looks and easy shots for which Utah State has become known across the West."

Says one Utah State player (who's shooting better than 71% from the floor):

"Learning this system is almost like taking a class. We have to remember a lot of plays. For example, we have this one play where everything goes on timing. I make my move when one guy gets to a certain point on the floor and not a second before or after, and if I don't set my screen at the exact moment, the whole thing is busted and everybody gets lost."

As the article describes, "during games... associate head coach Tim Duryea and basketball operations director Lance Beckert... hold a thick set of indexed flip cards. Either set, red or blue, represents the actual plays being run at any given time, and the 'hot' set can change at a timeout's notice. The Aggies on the floor always know what to execute, but opposing teams trying to steal signals are lost in an endless blur of 'Cross Iso,' '24,' 'Monster Right' or any of the hundreds of possible flip-card combinations."

Says Coach Duryea:

"I don't think anyone else uses two sets. We use it in practice from day one, so it becomes a way of life when it comes to playing offense at Utah State. The assistants that have held the cards in the past have a running joke that on nights when we aren't shooting so well, those cards get a whole lot heavier."

There are two keys to running Coach Morrill's system. First, as one player puts it, "We have really, really smart guys; there isn't anyone on our team who's under a 3.0."

Second, "in Morrill's complex system, which focuses on inside-out play, four-year players often have a marked advantage, which is enhanced by the general advanced maturity and intelligence of the squad as a whole. The Aggies' average age is 21, and only one player was born in the 1990s." [Here's the roster.]

According to one player, "Freshmen almost never start with this system. I took a redshirt, and that helped me a lot. When you come in as a freshman, you have time to learn how things work. The two-year players, on the other hand, have to understand everything right away."