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Scheming Sooners: How Lon Kruger draws up success for Oklahoma

The future Hall of Famer blends a straightforward philosophy with diverse actions that optimize Austin Reave’s change of pace and Brady Manek’s smooth stroke.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Oklahoma Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Last November, Oklahoma’s first possession against Missouri in the Hall of Fame Classic epitomized the Sooners’ approach to offense.

Sooners forward Brady Manek trotted up from the baseline, bringing Jeremiah Tilmon along toward the top of the arc. De’Vion Harmon waited patiently, pounding out dribbles in a seeming build-up to a ball screen. It never arrived.

Instead, Manek veered to the left slot. Austin Reaves cleared out to the opposite corner. And after Manek snared a ball reversal, he fed Kristian Doolittle on the left block. While Doolittle operated against Kobe Brown, Manek and Harmon swapped spots.

Once Doolittle ducked into the lane, Tilmon, hanging in limbo outside the paint, crashed down. It gave the Sooners just what coach Lon Kruger wanted – an open kick out to Manek, who knocked down an uncontested 3-ball.

The action that set it up: Ghost Pop Punch.

That day, Manek’s spot-up shooting helped the floor-spacing big man tally up 17 points. At the same time, Reaves’ ability to toggle between gears off the dribble led to 19 more in a 77-66 victory. Now, eighteen months later, the No. 9 seed Tigers will see the same tandem – and scheme — again during the first round of the NCAA tournament.

No doubt, Kruger won’t simply dust off the same game plan for eighth-seeded OU. Personnel changes and tweaks are natural. Yet, the broad principles the likely Hall of Fame coach uses still apply. So, it might help break down how the Sooners operate, using Synergy tracking data and video assembled Half Court Hoops’ Gibson Pyper.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Oklahoma vs Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Revving up Reaves

While Kruger’s offense is contemporary, ranking 22nd nationally in pick-and-rolls, his point guard pilots in a decidedly old-school fashion. Reaves, who transferred to Norman from Wichita State as a sophomore, doesn’t explode into gaps after turning the corner. And he doesn’t quite glide, either. Frequently, it’s stops, starts, pivots, shoulder jukes, and ball fakes.

What Reaves, who is averaging 17.7 points on 43.4 percent shooting, lacks in straight-line speed, he offsets with his frame. At 6-foot-5, 206 pounds, he’s hard to bump off course and sturdy enough to absorb contact around the rim. And just as importantly, his size helps him survey and read the floor.

As a result, more than a third of half-court touches come via a high pick-and-roll or isolated in the middle of the floor. While Manek’s comfortable pulling up in the mid-range, there’s no doubting his potency if he reaches the paint. Reaves averaged 1.29 points per possession this season — ranking third in the Big 12 Conference — when getting to the rim after a high ball-screen, per Synergy data.

How Kruger creates those situations are pretty straightforward, too.

Hit the Nail

At first glance, the Sooners’ alignment is reminiscent of a Horns set, with bigs stationed at each elbow. Yet Reaves is hanging out just below the free-throw line at a spot called the nail.

Kruger’s sets aren’t intricate in their choreography. In this instance, the minimalism’s goal is obvious: isolate Reaves in space. To do it, Reaves cuts vertically and over to the top of a Sooners big. The ballhandler clears to the weak-side slot, while OU’s ring runs the baseline to the strong-side corner.

Voila, Reaves has a one-on-one matchup to play down-hill. Or he can hit can drive and dish to any number of threats.

Maybe Umoja Gibson, who hits 45.2 of his catch-and-shoot jumpers, is camped out in the corner, preventing a defender from stunting. Usually, Harmon might be on the opposite side of the floor and poised to attack a closeout. All the while, Manek can pop from an elbow to the top of arc, a potential toll for a defense whose post crashes down to help.

Kruger adds wrinkles, too. For example, he can have Manek fill behind Reaves, setting up a hand-off. Watch how Manek drifts to the corner, and on the weak side, Bienemy pops out from the block to make room for Doolittle in the short corner.

So, when Reaves turns the corner, he’s solo in the middle of the floor but not lacking options: a rim attack, a pull-up jumper, a drive-and-kick to Manek, or a dump-off to Doolittle. Ultimately, Manek stopped on a dime at the free-throw line and connected, but Kruger’s offense balances optimizing Reaves’ comfort zone with those of his teammates.

When Reaves facilitates out of high pick-and-rolls, he’s more successful picking out spot-up threats (0.815 PPP) than hitting fellow Sooners rolling to the rim. The Sooners’ reliance on four-guard lineups — where the tallest member after Reaves is 6-foot-3 Elijah Harkless — is one explanation. Meanwhile, Manek, a 6-9 senior, spends most of his time away from the paint — and why Doolittle’s graduation still looms large.

Stroke the Chin

The Chin Series dates back to Pete Carril’s days at Princeton, but NBA coaches have adapted it to suit their purposes.

First, the spacing fits the modern game by having a post player flash from the block to the elbow and clearing out the baseline. That’s crucial because guards will typically swing the ball and try to shuffle cut over the post. If a defender jumps to the cutter, you can skip the ball across the floor for a jumper. Should that fail, the post flashes to the other elbow for a jumper or hit a backdoor cutter.

Again, Kruger performed relatively minor alterations to tailor looks that suit Reaves, who also dishes out 4.7 assists per game.

The elements remain the same. Two guards spaced to the wing, a big at the post, and a guard shuffle cutting. However, the post doesn’t flash to elbow looking to score. Instead, he goes to set a high ball screen.

As you can see in the second clip, the practical effect is still the same. Reaves splits two Stanford defenders, and Oscar Da Silva must pinch in to cut off the path. That leaves Doolittle free to back cut from the corner. The elegant simplicity of the action also allows OU to run it over and over — hence the continuity — or have ample time left over in a possession to move on to another counter.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Oklahoma Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Maximizing Manek’s Mobility

The first 3-pointer Manek sank last year against MU was one of three in an early barrage, and the big man’s modus operandi hasn’t changed at all. Survey Synergy, and you’ll see more than half of Manek’s field-goal attempts in the half-court are jumpers, and 87.2 percent of those attempts come from behind the arc.

Bluntly, Manek’s another floor spacer, one whose size matters more when trying to dislodge your big as they post up and competing on the defensive glass. Sure, Kruger’s offense feeds him touches on the block. Still, Manek’s efficiency (0.8 PPPP) ranks in the 22nd percentile nationally and well behind fellow Big 12 peers such as TCU’s Kevin Samuel (1.102 PPP), Kansas’ David McCormack (1.069 PPP), and West Virginia’s Derek Culver (1.06 PPP).

The tax for failing to run Manek off the line is high, too.

He’s averaging 1.449 PPP on spot-up jumpers, making 47.9 percent of attempts on the season. And as a screener, he complicates pick-and-roll coverages. Your post player doesn’t have to tag him, giving you the flexibility to play in drop coverage behind Reaves. That allows his defender to recover and curbs the risk of help defenders jumping to the ball and leaving shooters unguarded.

But you must account for Manek, who will pop after setting the screen and offer another deadly kick-out option to Reaves or Harmon. If there’s one minor consolation, it’s that Manek’s only made 30.8 percent of his pick-and-pop attempts this season.

Roll-and-Replace

Manek’s shooting stroke poses an obvious threat, one Kruger exploits in actions designed to create those looks for his stretch five early in the shot clock.

The premise of the roll-and-replace actions is an easy concept. After one big sets a high ball screen and rolls to the rim, another guard flashes from the block to the top of the key — replacing the player who was just there. In another way, it’s similar to a guard standing in the slotting, bumping over and filling in behind the driver.

For the Sooners, Manek can play either role. As the screener and roller, he doesn’t grade a path for Reaves or Harmon, but he occupies a second defender in such a way that the dribbler can slither to the rim. Meanwhile, another guard replaces behind.

Should the initial action fail to reap a windfall, Manek and a ball-handler can flow into a two-man game. The second cut-up is a side ball screen for Reaves, who turns the corner for a pull-up jumper.

The conundrum confronting MU is a familiar one for opponents: Do you trust post Jeremiah Tilmon leaving the paint to close down Manek? Or do you have him providing rim protection at the top of the restricted area? The gamble is that Manek’s stroke is slightly off, and you’re keeping Manek — and cutters exploiting interior rotations — from high-yield looks in the paint.

Ghosting Defenses

While Manek’s not relied upon to score off the block, he benefits from a trend that’s flowed down from the NBA ranks – using the post as a playmaking hub, especially for distributing to the weak side of the floor.

How does OU get him those touches? They rely on ghost screens, which is another way of saying they fake it.

Watch the first couple clips and see how Doolittle trots toward the ball-handler as if he’s going to set ball-screen. Instead, he drifts toward the slot, receives a pass, and immediately passes (or punches) down to Manek.

It’s natural for defenders to gravitate toward the ball, especially those low on the floor. Manek exploits this by reading the weak side. In one instance, an Iowa State defender gets caught ball-watching and allows a cutter along the baseline to get to the rim. The next clip shows a skip pass to the same corner for a spot-up against a late closeout.

And finally, we see the sequence that started this piece – Doolittle picking up Manek after Tilmon helps down. The ghost screen is spacing cut, and when the ball swings, the Sooners also shift to balance the floor. Manek’s decision-making as a ball-mover produces high-quality looks (1.417 PPP) for the Sooners when needed.

It’s a Snap

You can also dispense with the trickery and just strip an action down to the nuts and bolts to get results. For example, run a handoff on the floor’s strong side, pass back to the screener, and make an entry to pass Manek. The defense sent a hard double team on this possession, and Manek simply slipped the ball to a cutter filling the void left by the extra defender.

Flare for the Five

And if all else fails, you can run some screening action for Manek to get him air space for a jumper. After some cursory ball movement and spacing cuts, OU incorporates a fun twist: Harmon screens in from the weak-wing for Manek, who flares to the corner for a skip pass from Manek.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Oklahoma The Oklahoman-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services LLC

What does OU lack with De’Vion Harmon out?

Bluntly, a secondary creator capable of easing pressure on Reaves.

The sophomore, who will miss the first weekend of the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19, packs an additional scoring punch at 12.9 points per game for Kruger’s crew. Yet Harmon’s creative powers are fairly pedestrian at 2.1 assists per game and a 12.8 assist rate. And as for his jumper, the Dallas native shoots a solid but unspectacular 33 percent from long range.

Where Harmon thrives, however, is playing downhill. Where Reaves is crafty, Harmon explodes around the corner, into a gap and toward the paint. Despite his size at 6-foot-2, he shot 83 percent at rim after using a screen in a high pick-and-rolls. According to Synergy’sergy’s data, against closeouts, Harmon was particularly effective going left, averaging 1.167 PPP and shooting 643 percent.

Now that Harmon’s sidelined, the Sooners are left with a pair of guards in Gibson and Harkless whose shot volume is almost 70 percent jumpers. Granted, they’ve shown some promise finishing around the rim — shooting 56.7 percent — but they only attempt two shots combined from point-blank range each game.

Toss in the fact Manek is also more at home spacing the floor, and it’ll be interesting to see how Kruger deploys personnel to apply some pressure on the paint beyond transition opportunities..