Bruins in motion
Drew Hanlen does a quick assessment. A lob across court it is.
J.J. Mann catches the pass and hands it off again.
Quick cut on the perimeter to try and shake the coverage.
The tension within the student section is almost as loud as the countdown shouts.
Kerron Johnson now holds the ball.
Can I feed it to the post?
Defense is confused by the switches. The help has pulled too far off the post.
Send it to Mick Hedgepeth.
Hedgepeth’s hands grasp the ball as the defenders realize their mistake. It’s too late.
Cheers erupt from the stands as the Bruins cross back over the half-court line.
For the fans, the scenario is just what the Bruins do. But for the players and head coach Rick Byrd, it’s their own take on the popular motion offense in action.
First used by Henry Iba at Oklahoma State and later popularized by Bob Knight at Indiana in the ’70s, motion offense is flexible, allowing for a movement-based offense instead of continuously running set plays.
Because of the flexibility, motion offense is difficult to defend against and can be altered quickly to work against man-on-man or zone coverage.
Coaches develop different styles and techniques to accommodate their players’ skills and often base the style on the level of competition they’ll be facing.
Belmont runs a 4-out 1-in style of the motion offense that plays to the Bruins’ strength in perimeter.
It’s a style that Byrd has tweaked throughout his 26 years as head coach. He picked it up from Belmont’s biggest rival: Lipscomb’s legendary former head coach Don Meyer.
“When I started playing against him, I realized how hard it was to defend against, so that’s what we started running,” Byrd said. “All of us in this business steal from one another.”
The main difference between Belmont’s style and that of most teams that base their motion offense off Knight’s is that the Bruins use the post for scoring, not screening.
As a mid-major team, this is an unusual setup for the Bruins; most teams in their position live and die by the 3-point goal. But the power of Belmont’s post players allows for the team to successfully use “feeding the post” as an option.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski mentioned this trait during his opening statement after his powerhouse team barely defeated the Bruins 77-76 in November.
“I know they’re the best team in their league, but I think they’re just one of the better teams,” Krzyzewski said. “I think they can play against anybody. They remind me so much of Butler when we played them a couple of years ago because they have bigs, they have depth and the maturity of their team is unbelievable.“
Post players like current Bruins Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Sanders, as well as former standouts like 1989 NAIA player of the year Joe Behling, who averaged 30 points a game and scored 58 points against Lipscomb that season, are major factors in the success of the 4-out 1-in offense.
When recruiting, Byrd bases his picks heavily on Belmont’s offensive style. For Byrd, the big piece is finding players that fit with the system.
“We recruit strongly to our offense. Players need to be good shooters … skilled enough as passers and have a high basketball IQ,” Byrd said.
The most critical position to the current system: a strong post.
A complete shutdown of the post has been shown to leave Belmont ineffective, a key factor in the loss to UCLA in Belmont’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 2006.
UCLA held the Bruins to 44 points, which Byrd attributes to a lack of preparation and no plan B for playing with a team of that skill level.
Since that first NCAA appearance, the Bruins have risen from unlikely tournament appearance to the trendy upset pick or a “sleeping giant,” as many analysts affectionately dubbed the team in 2011.
This shift in opinion is no fluke.
Byrd constantly pushes his team to improve, whether that means working on offensive fundamentals or building a challenging schedule.
Earlier this season, Byrd remarked that this year’s schedule was not meant to replicate last year’s impressive 30-5 record.
A quick look at the schedule that pits Belmont against teams like Duke, Memphis, Marshall and MTSU proves just that.
Question Byrd about this or Belmont’s level of play, and he’ll quickly pull out the numbers, from multiple sources if necessary, to demonstrate the improvement.
“[Playing] athletic teams like Marshall and Middle Tennessee help us get better offensively, “ Byrd said.
The numbers don’t lie.
Belmont is ranked 34th overall in the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings and 94th in the Ratings Percentage Index or RPI as of Jan. 23.
Both are dramatic improvements from 2006, when Belmont closed out the season with rankings of 180 and 115 respectively.
When Belmont moves to the Ohio Valley Conference next season, Murray State could set itself as Belmont’s biggest competition. The Racers were undefeated as they started conference play, and were 42th in the Pomeroy rankings and 32th in the RPI.
The switch in conferences also comes with the perception that Belmont’s style of offense will not be able to keep up with the more athletic programs in the OVC.
“There is a perception that the Atlantic Sun is not as good of a league,” Byrd said. “Perceptions are not always accurate, the quality of competition will stay the same.”
Turnover. Maybe I can get a break away.
Johnson charges down the court before handing off to Hanlen.
Too much coverage in the paint. Hanlen sets up for the shot.
“Drew Hanlen, three points.”