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After early turmoil, Auburn is flexing its muscles

Bruce Pearl’s attack blends top-flight recruits, an old-school offense, and modern tempo.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

.In 1975, Carroll Williams confronted a problem.

His team at Santa Clara was young and undersized and faced with a daunting non-conference schedule that included UCLA (the defending national champions), Memphis State, and Creighton. Necessity dictated shortening games but also running an offense with principles that were static and easy to teach.

As the season wore on, though, Williams loosened the reins, granting his players flexibility to tweak their reads and decisions.

Naturally, Williams started calling it the Flex.

Several years earlier on the other coast, a young Maryland assistant named Tom Davis, like Williams, put a spin on Pete Newell’s “reverse action” offense — a system he toted along to stops at American University, Lafayette, Stanford and Iowa. While coaching the Hawkeyes, Davis happened to mentor a young assistant named Bruce Pearl, who made the flex his own and will roll it out Wednesday night when Auburn visits Mizzou Arena.

Pearl’s spin on the system, which has been dubbed Cutters (PDF), differs in one key way: it doesn’t milk clock. Instead, it blends a modern tempo with a structure that you might see run in a high-school gym almost anywhere in the country.

And it’s helped propel Auburn to the top of the SEC standings.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Auburn
Bruce Pearl picked up the Flex offense as a young assistant on former Iowa coach Tom Davis’ staff.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

How does Auburn Flex?

The core components of the Flex aren’t revolutionary, and scouting the offense isn’t a challenge. It’s a 4-out, 1-in system built on a continuity pattern of screen-the-screener actions initiated by a flex cut, where a player in the corner gets a screen and cuts to either side depending on how his defender is playing him. You can flip on film and usually deduce the pattern or flow.

While you can pick up the beat and timing, the beauty of the Flex is, over time, players learn to improvise when they get a screen, cut, and read a defense. Ideally, all five players are interchangeable, creating any number of mismatches. If you have outside shooting, a defense can’t sag off to clog passing lanes. And you can wear down a defense by forcing them to move constantly and fight through said screens.

Let’s take a quick tour of Pearl’s offense. (PDF)

First, Auburn flows into its offense out of a secondary break and can set up this way. Point guard Jared Harper has a couple options. He can kick the ball ahead to Mustapha Heron for a 3-pointer or a quick post entry to Anfernee McLemore on the right block. In other cases, Harper might skip the ball to the left wing to guard Bryce Brown, left open as defenders scramble to match up.

If a quick, high-quality shot isn’t available, Auburn falls into this pattern. (PDF)

This is where Newell’s influence comes into play. Barring a quick and efficient look, Harper quickly reverses the ball to the left side of the floor. At the same time, McLemore screens for Heron in the corner, with the swingman reading out the situation to decide which way to cut. The wing player, whether its Brown or forward Horace Spencer, eyes the cutter or McLemore, who can step into the lane for a feed.

There’s also a wrinkle. (PDF)

A down screen can be built in to free up Harper, a 39-percent shooter from the 3-point line, for a look outside. But let’s go back to the typical flow. (PDF)

Once Heron has cleared to the other side of the floor and the ball is completely reversed, McLemore vacates to the right wing and does a backside exchange with Harper, a move that occupies help-side defenders and gives Brown a chance to make a clean post feed to Heron.

The loop then starts again: A ball reversal, a flex cut by Brown, a down screen to get Harper back out top for a shot and so on. There are also plenty of ways to tweak and structure how the sequence gets initiated. All the while, the problem remains the same. The post defender defaults to his training: give help and cover the flex cutter. The structure of this offense, though, exploits the natural inclination of a defender to trail his man and for a help-side defender to step over by screening this defender, who helplessly watches their man freed up.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Auburn
While Bruce Pearl has ditched his favorite version of the press, Auburn still finds a way to ratchet up the tempo.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, and Auburn also plays fast.

The reputation of the Flex is that it slows the game down. However, Pearl has flipped that convention on its head. In Pearl’s 15 seasons as a head coach, nine of his teams have finished in the top 50 for adjusted tempo, six in the top 25.

How? Until a couple years ago, Pearl married the Flex offense with a 1-2-2 diamond press. Not only did it generate turnovers, but it also wore down opponents physically, which was compounded by defending the Flex offense on the other end.

However, rule changes to improve freedom of movement and flow in college basketball came at Pearl’s expense. Forced to adapt and tweak his style, Pearl’s teams struggled defensively his first three seasons on the Plains.

This season, the Tigers still get up and go, but they aren’t reliant on playing in the open floor. According to Synergy Sports, only 19 percent of their possessions are in transition, which ranks sixth in the SEC and 88th nationally. But the efficiency of their transition offense (1.00 points per possession) doesn’t differ dramatically from setting up shop and running their half-court offense against a set defense (0.96 PPP).

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Mississippi State
Auburn guard Jared Harper is just one of three Tigers wings scoring in double figures this season.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Did I mention Auburn is versatile? And deep?

Another irony about Pearl: He runs an offense meant to mask talent deficiencies.

Whether it’s Williams, Davis, or former Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose 2002 national title team ran the Flex, coaches emphasize the team aspect of the offense. The structure is based on passing the ball, generating side-to-side movement and having the ball react to player movement. If a player puts the ball on the deck, it’s for a specific purpose or action within the offense.

Auburn’s roster, however, doesn’t have that problem. Pearls’ first three recruiting classes finished between No. 12 and No. 21 nationally, stocking his roster with seven top-100 prospects like Heron, Spencer, Davion Mitchell and Chuma Okeke. He’s also done stellar work developing Brown, Harper and McLemore. Consider, too, that Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, who were both top-75 prospects, are absent after getting caught up in the FBI’s pay-for-play investigation.

The byproduct: a roster defined by balance and embodying different facets of Auburn’s attack.

Heron is the Tigers best option pushing the ball in transition can be a slasher off the dribble. But he’s also the Tigers best off-the-ball cutter, averaging 1.338 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. Brown supplies jump-shooting, whether he’s guarded (1.113 PPP) or left alone (1.5 PPP) on spot-up attempts. Finally, Harper is really good in pick-and-rolls:

Synergy Sports

On the interior, Anfernee McLemore subsists as a cutter under the basket (1.143 PPP) and as the roll man in the two-man game. Meanwhile, Okeke brings an ability to face up in pick-and-pop situations. On the other end, those big men do a great job patrolling the paint — Auburn is fifth nationally in block percentage — and forcing opponents to shoot jumpers.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Texas A&M
Jordan Geist is seeing more time out of necessity, but his pick-and-roll defense might be a weakness Auburn tries to exploit.
C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

So what will Mizzou do?

Running the Flex offense means, in theory, Auburn isn’t limited by tempo. A continuity pattern repeats until the defense makes a mistake. Even if Missouri grinds the pace to its liking, it doesn’t mean Auburn’s scheme will be any less effective.

Unlike a motion offense, ball movement dictates player movement in Pearl’s system--and therein lies the key to disruption. If you disrupt ball reversals, you can throw off the rhythm necessary for the Flex to work.

Still, SEC opponents have managed to stymie Auburn early in games. The Tigers faced double-digit deficits in the first half against Tennessee, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and, most recently, a 16-point hole versus Georgia. While Pearl’s crew has rallied in each of those tilts, he told local scribes Monday can’t continue to live dangerously.

“Bottom line is we got to start playing better early,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said, “because we’re not going to continue to be able to come back and win those games.”

How Mizzou will toss a wrench into the gears remains to be seen, though.

It’s unlikely MU plays zone, even if it's the matchup variety. For man-to-man schemes, the remedies run the gamut: switching all screens, hugging-and-jamming on down screens or cheating more defenders to the defensive midline. The most common approach, though, is to trap the ball-handler whose first pass triggers the initial cut and crowd wing players to take away sightlines.

Over 19 games, Cuonzo Martin’s group has become of one the nation’s better teams at defending spot-up shooters, allowing just 0.83 PPP and ranking 30th in Division I. Based on personnel, Kassisus Robertson seems likely to draw Brown, while Jordan Barnett has the size and athleticism to match up with Heron.

Where Mizzou is somewhat susceptible, at least in SEC action, is when opponents can find cutters or slip the ball to a roll man.

There’s no one weak link in Missouri’s chain, though. Or at least not one that’s easily identifiable. Barnett, Jontay Porter, Kevin Puryear all have ugly PPP numbers, but none of them have more than 10 possessions defending a roll man or cutter. Given the small sample sizes, it’s probably wrong to indict any of them as a liability.

One player to keep an eye, though, is Jordan Geist. He struggles at times defending ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll, especially in cutting off a driver on high ball-screens. The numbers also reflect the fact opponents have it underlined in their scouting reports: almost 44 percent of Geist's defensive possessions are pick-and-roll plays.

Given that one in five Auburn possessions is a pick-and-roll or cut, how Geist and his teammates fare will be an indicator how this game unfolds. Working in Mizzou’s favor, though, is its ability to execute priorities laid out in the scouting report.

Against Georgia, Jontay Porter dominated Yante Maten. When Tennessee came to town, the Tigers did a phenomenal job contesting looks by phenomenal jump shooters in Jordan Bone and Admiral Scholfield. Finally, on Saturday, they largely shut out Texas A&M’s starting backcourt. If the Tigers mustered an average day offensively, it would have been enough against an Aggies squad that leaned heavily on its front line.

Over the past two weeks, Mizzou’s ability to bend the pace of games to its will and force opponents to play, at least somewhat, on its terms has helped offset the Tigers’ budding tendency to start slow. And so we should reasonably expect Martin and is staff to have a solid plan in place.

For his part, Pearl is also a realist. No one needs to explain to him the nature of conference play, where staffs have extensive knowledge of the Tigers personnel and scheme, is obviously a contributing factor to the Tigers’ slow starts.

“What it is is, ‘Alright now we’re going to sit in Bryce Brown’s pocket, take him away. We know what Mustapha likes to do, we’re going to make him do something else. We’ve got Desean Murray figured out in the pinch post.’ The question is do you have something else to go to if they take that away, what can you go to? Or me as a play-caller, if they take that away, what can I go to?”

We’ll see how adaptable the Flex truly is this week.