Crazy ball

MORRIS: Newberry teams play basketball at a frenetic pace

rmorris@ thestate.comJanuary 31, 2013 

DAVE DAVIS arrived at Newberry College three years ago with a promise to introduce an innovative and exciting brand of basketball to his players and to the Newberry fan base. Little did Davis know how far that influence would extend.

To fully understand that reach, Davis only need travel a couple of miles down Highway 219. That is where Newberry High runs the same full-court, trapping defense and a spread-’em-out, attacking offense that changes lines — like in ice hockey — every two or three minutes.

“You’re as good as you are by the people you surround yourself with, and the things you steal,” says Newberry High coach Chad Cary, rather unabashedly. “I would never think I invented it. He brought it to town.”

Basketball has not been the same since in this city of 10,000.

Newberry College ranked fifth in NCAA Division II basketball in scoring two seasons ago, second a year ago, and could be the national leader this season with a 90.6 average through 16 games. The Wolves have flipped their side of the scoreboard to three digits four times this season, including 120 against Barber-Scotia.

Newberry High ranks second in the state with a 19-2 record due in great part to an offense that averages just under 80 points. The Bulldogs have topped 100 points twice, including 109 against Ninety-Six when they put up 64 in the first half.

Neither coach has a name for this style of play, although Davis had heard mention of Nolan Richardson’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” game when Richardson coached at Arkansas. The name would not apply to Newberry High, though, because it plays 32-minute games.

Perhaps “Crazy Ball” best describes a staccato of action that can make fans tired just watching.

“In my opinion,” Davis says, “it’s the most fun way to play, and the most fun way to watch, and the most fun way to coach the game of basketball. It’s just an all-out, buy-in to effort and unselfishness and hard work.”

While the casual fan might see the system of play as complex, it actually is quite simple. Both coaches admit: The system is stupid simple.

Davis began tinkering with the system when he was coach at another NCAA Division II program, Pfeiffer (N.C.). His 14 Pfeiffer teams led the nation in scoring five times, including 2009-10 when the Falcons averaged 103 points.

In a 2006 exhibition game against North Carolina, Pfeiffer scored 66 points in the second half of a 140-101 loss. The Falcons also scored 50 points in the second half of a 128-70 exhibition loss against Duke in 2009.

The system was responsible for Pfeiffer posting five 20-win seasons, including a 31-3 record in 2003-04. It came about through Davis’ recognition that he could not recruit big-time post players to a Division II school but could bring in guards and wing players by the bushel.

“We’re playing four guards all the time,” Davis says of the current Newberry team. He could easily be speaking of most of his teams. “If we try to play a halfcourt game, when everyone else has a traditional one-two-three-four-five (lineup), it does not give us an advantage to win.”

Whatever you do, do not confuse this style of high-scoring play with that once employed by coach Paul Westhead at Loyola (Calif.) Marymount and in the NBA.

“No similarity at all,” Davis says. “In fact, I take great offense to that because, it may not look like it always when you watch us play, but we actually are teaching and coaching defense.”

The system’s base is defense. Westhead’s defense was designed to make opponents shoot fast. Davis’ system wants to force turnovers by the opposition and generally make life miserable for them when they have the ball. Both coaches live by the motto: “(Defensive) pressure bursts pipes.”

The Newberry teams employ baseline-to-baseline pressure the entire game with double-teams all over the court. They sometimes purposely trail an opponent’s ball-handler to force a faster pace. Newberry wants the opposition to run with them because Newberry eventually will wear them down.

Davis and Cary demand that their players give all-out effort for two- or three-minute stretches. Then they substitute, in mass. Instead of informing fans who is checking into a game, the Newberry College public address announcer simply says: “Newberry line change,” or “Change it up,” as five players replace the five on the court.

Newberry College has 11 players who average at least 14 minutes of action per game. Newberry High does not track minutes played, but Cary is comfortable using 13 players throughout the game, and often uses all 16 players on the roster in the first half of a game.

Cary says his team’s goal is to score 30 points in the first half of a game. Then his team’s depth takes its toll on an opponent that might use six to eight players. In last season’s state playoff run to a runner-up finish in Class 2A, Newberry High rolled up 117 points against Liberty — including 75 in the first half — and 113 against Carolina.

If Newberry teams are creating turnovers with their pressing defenses, then points can be scored in a flurry with layups. If not, both Newberry teams rely on an offense that has one set. That set includes a post player near the basket, one player in each corner near the baseline, and two others around the 3-point line.

The post player is called the “rim runner.” As soon as there is a possession change at one end of the court, the “rim runner” is required to sprint down the center of the court and plant himself in the middle of the lane. Newberry wants the ball to go to a corner of the court, where that player’s first option is to feed the “rim runner.”

If that pass is unavailable, the corner player can attempt a 3-point shot or attack the basket off the dribble. If he scores, fine. If he can’t get to the basket, he looks for an open teammate on the perimeter. The complexity of the offense is the ball-handler’s ability to read the defense and find an open teammate.

Not everyone can play within the system.

“People think it’s a recruiting dream to come play in this system,” Davis says. “But you have to have very unselfish players. You’re not going to get many prima donnas.”

Davis sells recruits on the idea they will play more possessions in 20 minutes of action than opponents do in 40 minutes of play. For Cary, it was an equally tough sell to upperclassmen who were accustomed to playing the entire game and carrying high scoring averages.

“We didn’t like it at first, but we weren’t used to running like that,” says Kaheem Praylow, a Newberry High senior, who is headed down the road to play at Newberry College next year.

Cary, who played at Newberry College from 1991-95, liked what he saw of Davis’ style from the outset three years ago. Then Cary decided a season ago to install the system at Newberry High.

Now, the two coaches work together. They talk by cell phone almost daily. They exchange ideas. They are each other’s biggest supporters. They also recognize the biggest benefit of all to running the system: winning.

It took Davis into his fourth season at Pfeiffer for his teams to begin winning big. His first two Newberry teams won 13 and 16 games, and this season the Wolves stand at 8-8.

Cary’s first 10 Newberry squads won six region titles. His first team running the new system produced a 24-4 record. Now, the fans who pack the Newberry High game for home games expect the Bulldogs to win.

Newberry High’s two losses this season came in a holiday tournament against Class 4A Gaffney and against Buford High, a 3A school from Georgia. Not long after those losses, Cary found himself in a Newberry Waffle House where the waitress recognized him.

“I don’t like what I seen,” Cary recalls the woman saying.

“What, did a kid get in trouble?” Cary responded.

“I saw that we got beat twice,” she said, “and we can’t have that no more.”

With that, Cary sought the advice from Davis on how to improve on a system that can only be described as “Crazy Ball.”

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