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Breaking Down the High-Low Offense, Part 1: In the Beginning

AKA the "Self High-Low," this offense is what we can expect to see a lot of in the coming years under new Mizzou head coach Kim Anderson.

Since Kim Anderson was hired as the head basketball coach at Missouri he has given approximately 4,873 interviews. And in approximately 96.7% of those interviews he has mentioned that he may anger some Mizzou fans by admitting that he runs Bill Self’s High Low offense.

From the Columbia Tribune:

I hope this doesn't upset Missouri fans. When I came to Central 12 years ago, I was thinking, "Well, what do I want to run offensively?" I actually started running Bill Self's High/Low Motion, and I've run it ever since — not exactly like he runs it but just some tweaks and maybe changing it up a little bit to meet the talent. We'll do a lot of ball-screening stuff depending on our guards, our talent. Then we'll run some sets, some plays to get shots for certain people.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"This will make people mad, but forever I’ve run Bill Self’s high-low offense as a basic thing we go to," he said. "I’ll probably do that here, because it creates opportunities for (Johnathan Williams III) and creates opportunities for Jakeenen (Gant.) It puts a little more emphasis on throwing the ball inside maybe than what they did a year ago."

So it’s pretty clear that Coach Anderson enjoys the high low offense. And to be honest, I know this will upset some Missouri fans, there are a lot of reasons to like Bill Self’s High Low offense.

This version of the High-Low was developed while Self was the head coach at Oral Roberts in the early 1990’s. He inherited a team that was bad, and tried to win with a true motion offense which failed, and failed hard. For two years ORU lost a lot of games so Self and his staff developed an offense that would suit their players better, and what they found was something quite amazing. They found that this offense does a great job in just about any settings because it works for both skilled and unskilled big men. It works for scoring guards and passing guards. It creates space for shooters and for those attacking the rim. The Self High-Low is so dynamic that Kim Anderson isn’t the only one who has adopted it. The offense itself, or elements of the offense, can be found throughout college basketball.

Because much of the offense is predicated on having 4 players on the perimeter, it's easy to go back to Mizzou's offense in 2012 and see many influences of the Self High Low. For those who were really paying attention (like me), you may recognize some of it in this post. So this offense, or at least the principles of it, have been run at Mizzou before.

From it’s name alone the High-Low is a very inside-out approach to offense. Going back, the term "High-Low" meant the action where a high post player (somewhere in the area of the free throw line) and a low post player (somewhere in the vicinity of the low block) are working off of each other. The offense would try to enter the basketball into the high-post in order to catch the defense out of position in order to enter the ball into the low post, with the low post working to seal off his defender and keep him from the basketball as it is entered. This was basically a counter to the defense playing in front of the low post player. However, as the game evolved, so did post play. Post players became more and more effective away from the basket. Gone were the days of George Mikan, who made a hall of fame career out of layups and footwork on the low block. Here came the days where your post player wanted to be out at the three point line shooting jumpshots. What the Self High Low did was take advantage of a post players yearning to play outside the paint area, without risking him hoisting up a bunch of three pointers. It makes all 5 players involve themselves in the offense, without being a motion offense.

[Also, for some reason, SBN put a little "GIF" tag on these diagrams. It's weird, I know. I'm sorry, can't be helped. Just ignore it.]

The Self High-Low - a 4-High Starting Point


Fig. 1: PG = Point Guard; W = Wing; P = Post (not Keanau)

You see the graphic above that there are three positions on the court. Point Guard, Wing & Post. Bill C. was kind enough to switch up his roster breakdown to feature these three positions SOLELY because he knew this post was coming and wanted to comply to make it easy for people to understand. I'm going to blatantly steal his roster table:

2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Point Guards Keith Shamburger (Sr.)
Wes Clark (So.)
Tramaine Isabell (Fr.)
Wes Clark (Jr.)
Tramaine Isabell (So.)
Wes Clark (Sr.)
Tramaine Isabell (Jr.)
Wings Deuce Bello (Jr.)
Cameron Biedscheid (So.)
Namon Wright (Fr.)
D'Angelo Allen (Fr.)
Deuce Bello (Sr.)
Cameron Biedscheid (Jr.)
Namon Wright (So.)
D'Angelo Allen (So.)
Cameron Biedscheid (Sr.)
Namon Wright (Jr.)
D'Angelo Allen (Jr.)
Posts Keanau Post (Sr.)
Ryan Rosburg (Jr.)
Johnathan Williams III (So.)
Torren Jones (So.)
Jakeenan Gant (Fr.)
Ryan Rosburg (Sr.)
Johnathan Williams III (Jr.)
Torren Jones (Jr.)
Jakeenan Gant (So.)
Johnathan Williams III (Sr.)
Torren Jones (Sr.)
Jakeenan Gant (Jr.)
Total Scholarships 12 10 8

Feel free to reference specific players when you see the diagrams below. Keep in mind that any point guard can be a wing, but you'll probably only see Gant out as a wing from the list of bigs this year.

This version of the High-Low Offense is based upon the first pass or "entry" pass. Which is to say: where the Point Guard starts off going with the ball. Traditionally, the offense starts with a 4 High look as pictured above. And what that means is that a single guard is out top with the ball with the other four players across in a line at the free throw line extended. Bill Self preferred the setup of having a single guard high look because it always puts an offensive player deeper on the floor in case of a turnover. Basketball coaches refer to this as "defensive balance". It's the guy responsible for stopping breakaways if you turn the ball over. It's important that when a shot goes up, your offensive players always have defensive balance. Most of the time it's just whoever is closest to the opponents basket, but occasionally that may be a post player who opts to go in and rebound, in which case a smaller player will have that responsibility of "getting back".

Even with a 4 high-1-deep starting point, the players still have positions. And almost always the players end up with a 4-out-1-in set up after the initial entry pass. Something Mizzou fans are very familiar with from watching Phil Pressey, Mike Dixon, Kim English and Marcus Denmon with Ricardo Ratliffe on the inside. To initiate the offense there are three options, most teams start with the wing pass.

When the ball goes from point to the wing,

the point guard cuts to the same corner as the ball (or "ball side"), the posts do an exchange screen where the opposite post pops to the top of the key, and the other post dives to the opposite block. Here it is diagrammed... as you can see at the end of this action, you now have a post player at the point, the point guard in the corner and a wing and post player on the opposite side of the ball. 4-out-1-in.

With most of the initial entries in this offense, this wing pass is used to set up the other action. Most of the time the post is going to setup on the weak side and try to hold position on his defender when the ball gets swung over to to his side of the floor. However there is a possibility of a high-low entry when the post who is stationed at the point gets the ball, if the defense is caught napping.

This setup is also used as a simple secondary break because it allows one post player to sprint to the block and try to gain early position for a ball to be entered, while another post is allowed to trail the ball as it's brought up. A Secondary break is basically when both teams are at full strength, but you try to run quick action to get an easy basket. Kansas, under Roy Williams (and now subsequently UNC), was one of the best secondary fast break teams in the country for those looking for a reference.

By reversing the ball at this point, going from wing to post to wing, the post player who is set up on what was initially the weak-side block will attempt to seal his defender. A seal is something that is basically trying to hold your position in preparation of the ball getting to the opposite side. An early seal will put a lot of pressure on the defensive player to either fight to get around (where lots of fouls are called), or simply play behind and be at a disadvantage. A "post touch" is a valued commodity in the half court offense because it will force ALL of the defenders to sink to the basketball.

Once the ball goes to the weak-side wing, the weak side becomes the ball side. Then both the post at the top of the key, and the weak-side wing now set a stagger double screen for the point guard, who flashes to the top of the key pulling up the defenders of both the screeners, as well as his own defender, leaving the post player even more open. A stagger double screen is called that because there are two screens set, and they are staggered to give the defender two screens to get through instead of one big screen set by two people.

Below you can see two clips from both Central Missouri and Kansas running this action to get a simple post entry and good shot at the basket. The difference is that the division one post player dunks the ball, while the division two player gets fouled. From KU's national championship game against Memphis in 2008:


And from Central Missouri's national championship season, this time against St. Mary's University:


But one thing is very evident in both clips. The defense that is playing on the weak side get sucked up into the action of the double screen. This gives the post player a clear path to the rim. It also helps that the defense overplays on both situations. So if nothing is open at this point, the weak side post can move to either the low block or the high post and you're back into a 3-out-2-in set where the post players can simply flash high to get back into the initial 4-high set, right back at the beginning of the offense.

Coming up in part 2, we'll dive a bit further into the other entry options available from the starting point of the offense, as there are three possible entries. So since we've covered the wing entry, we'll talk about the high post and the dribble entry in that post. Until then...