Inside Look: Why working the ball through the post makes Gonzaga a title contender

This story originally appeared in the March 20, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The most celebrated press-conference­ rant of 2016–17 was not another baby-boomer coach railing against the entitlement of today’s youth but rather a recent convert to the church of analytics lashing out against strategic orthodoxy. This occurred after a nationally irrelevant game (Marshall’s 112–106 loss at Pitt on Dec. 28), and the question that triggered it was generic: “You guys take a lot of threes. Did you feel like there maybe wasn’t quite enough working the ball into the paint early on?” But the depth of Thundering Herd coach Dan D’Antoni’s answer—as well as analytics Twitter’s thirst for convention-challenging content­—helped it go nerd-viral.

“You’re old school, aren’t you?” D’Antoni, 69, asked the reporter. “Do you watch the NBA ever? You see those top three teams. Golden State—do they work it in? My brother [coach Mike D’Antoni] in Houston, the biggest turnaround in the league—do they work it in? You can go get any computer and run what the best shots are, and it will tell you the post-up is the worst shot in basketball.”

D’Antoni then listed shot options from best to worst, including their expected NBA point values: the clean layup (1.8), the shot that draws a foul (1.5), the corner three (1.3) … all the way down to the post-up (0.78). He continued: “The last two championships have been Cleveland and Golden State. What do they do? They just spread that thing out and go. I changed a long time ago. I coached for 15 years like a dummy, running down there real hard so I can get it in there for the worst shot in basketball. I didn’t even know what I was doing. The short version of my answer is no.”

D’Antoni’s NBA references weren’t exaggerations. Only 8.3% of the Cavaliers’ possessions had ended on post-ups or passes out of the post at week’s end, according to Synergy Sports Technology, while the Warriors’ rate was just 6.6% and the Rockets’ a league-low 2.8%. Marshall worked the ball through the post even less (2.5%) than the Rockets, and while this strategy led to offensive improvement and a 20–15 finish for the Thundering Herd, there are teams around the nation shunning the post to even greater effect.

During 2015–16, under since-fired coach Travis Ford, Oklahoma State’s post rate was 11.9%. When his replacement, Brad Underwood, cut that to 2.4% this season, the Cowboys not only ranked No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency but also made the NCAA tournament in defiance of preseason expectations. “I’m a big believer that there’s value in getting the ball to the rim,” says Underwood, who runs a spread offense. “We’re just going about it in different ways than ­posting—with cutters, dribble-drives and offensive rebounding.”

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The coach who posts the least in Division I—just 0.7%—is LeVelle Moton at North Carolina Central. His Eagles finished 13–3 in the MEAC and made their second NCAA tournament in four seasons. Moton runs perimeter-based sets that flow into ball-screen motion; he’s not interested in schemes that require personnel he’ll never be able to recruit to a low-major. “A wise man once told me, ‘You can’t find five guys in America who can score with their back to the basket,’ ” Moton says. The sound, new-school thing to do is phase post-ups out of your offense.

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Except: What’s the sound thing to do if you’re Gonzaga? You’ve recruited outside America, persuaded 7' 1″, 300‑pound Polish center Przemek Karnowski to play for you, and he’s developed into the best low-block passer in college hoops—with a killer lefty jump hook as well. You’ve landed Zach Collins, a 7‑foot McDonald’s All-American freshman with advanced post skills, to serve as Karnowski’s backup; plus you have Johnathan Williams III, a 6' 9″ transfer power forward who can score using both hands on both blocks; and Nigel ­Williams-Goss, a 6' 3″ point guard who’s comfortable backing smaller defenders down into the post.

With that personnel, do you go new-school and spread? No. You become the country’s most efficient, high-volume post team. The Zags use 24.7% of their possessions on post-ups or passes out of the post, while the national average is just 10.4%. They score more points (1.16) on those possessions than any other team, while the rest of D-I scores just 0.86. (In this case, 1.16 is excellent; the numbers D’Antoni quoted were NBA, and they didn’t factor in turnovers.) The Zags went 32–1 by acting as a counter­argument to D’Antoni’s rant: Post play is inefficient and for dummies unless you’re exceptionally good at it—in which case, you can become the No. 1 seed in the West.

Gonzaga’s inside-out offense starts with Karnowski, a senior who was born in the same city, Torun, as Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century contrarian astronomer who theorized that the sun, and not the Earth, was the center of the solar system. Karnowski is now the star around which his fellow Zags orbit, as they first look for what they call “point-to-post” low-block touches in their primary and secondary fast breaks, and then space and cut around him depending on how he’s defended. Collins calls Karnowski, who combines an American ­power-post game with European passing flair, a “magician” as a distributor, and the big lefty’s 352 post-up and pass-out-of-post possessions have generated an average of 1.17 points. “When we throw the ball in to Karnowski,” says Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, “we never feel like it’s an all-or-nothing proposition—that he’s either going to score or miss. He can either score one-on-one, or force the defense to make a decision about a double team, and then we move the ball and find the best-quality shot.”

When Collins and his father, Michael, were evaluating colleges, they had good reason to home in on the Zags, and he became the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with them out of high school. “If you’re picking a school based on style of play,” Collins says, “Gonzaga is probably the best for any big guy, because they throw it into the block so much.” If Karnowski is the Bison—as he was nicknamed by his ­Polish national-team compatriots—then Collins should be the Giraffe, a slender and skilled change of pace whose 120 post possessions have generated an average of 1.19 points. With that duo, plus Missouri transfer Williams, and Williams-Goss’s occasional forays into the low block, the Zags have developed a balanced, multi-option offense that ranks 10th nationally in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com.

Only two other Top 25 teams have multiple post options that rival Gonzaga’s in volume and effectiveness: Wisconsin, which works the ball through the post 24.1% of the time, mainly via sophomore center Ethan Happ and senior forward Nigel Hayes; and Purdue, whose post rate is a nation-high 27.3%, with 6' 9″, 250-pound sophomore Caleb (Biggie) Swanigan and junior center Isaac Haas. Happ is a former high school point guard who grew to 6' 11″ and arrived in Madison three years ago with no post skills whatsoever. The go-to scoring maneuver he’s since developed is not one of those that Badgers have been drilled on for at least a decade—the program calls them the Bernie, the Dominique, the McHale, the Moses and the Sikma—but rather a baseline spin. It’s similar to a move used by Hayes, except that Happ extends the ball out ahead of him, and around his defender, to initiate the spin. “I’m trying to get it certified as the Ethan Happ Spin Move,” Happ says, “but I don’t think that will happen while Nigel’s around. It might have to be an Ethan Hayes, or a Nigel Happ.”

Purdue, meanwhile, opens its games with the 6' 9″ Swanigan at center, surrounded by shooters, but has the option of bringing the 7' 2″ Haas off the bench to create a jumbo package. “You almost feel like you have two separate offenses, depending on the matchups,” Boiler­makers coach Matt Painter says. “We can spread it out around Biggie, or with him and Isaac we can play old-school, high-low basketball.” The Jan. 8 meeting of Wisconsin and Purdue served as major-conference­ evidence that post play isn’t extinct, as the two teams ran a combined 36 of 143 (25.2%) total possessions through the post.

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If Gonzaga or Wisconsin or Purdue were to win the national title—and the Zags have by far the best championship odds—it would be a novel development for a post-reliant­ team in the analytics era. Synergy has been tracking Division I possessions extensively since 2007–08, and the most post-reliant Final Four team is the Frank Kaminsky–led Badgers of 2015, for whom 19.2% of possessions were post-ups or passes out of the post. Gonzaga has no plans to dial back its inside game as it faces potentially larger foes than it typically sees in the West Coast Conference. Says Lloyd, “We feel like it’s an advantage for us in every game, regardless of who we play.”

Gonzaga’s deepest NCAA tournament run of the past decade—to the Elite Eight in 2015, when it had Karnowski and future NBA players Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer in its ­frontcourt—was halted by Duke, which was celebrated for reviving post-up ball with one-and-done freshman Jahlil Okafor, whose entire offensive game was at close range. The Blue Devils went on to become the most post-reliant national champ of this Synergy era, with a post rate of 17.2%, and Okafor was picked third in the NBA draft that June.

What’s happened to Okafor since—his NBA value eroding to the extent that the 76ers couldn’t find anyone willing to part with real assets for him at the 2017 trade deadline—is representative of the league’s shift away from the low block. The average post rate in the NBA is just 8.7% this season, down from 12.5% five years ago, much of it driven by analytics. If the Warriors, Cavs and Rockets truly are trendsetters for college hoops, then we can expect Division I—whose average post rate is 10.4%—to decline accordingly. The holdouts, like Gonzaga, will be the teams with frontcourts talented and diverse enough to get away with staying old school.

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