Washington men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar decided this season to stop waiting.
He was on the coaching staff at UCLA in 1995 when the Bruins ran the high-post offense and won the national title under Jim Harrick. During that run, Romar stood on the court each night beneath the most expansive proof of the offense’s potency: 10 national championship banners hanging from the Pauley Pavilion rafters.
Those titles were claimed by John Wooden’s teams. Like much of Wooden’s approach, the high-post has trickled down to coaches who came afterward. Harrick used it for years at UCLA. Clem Haskins used it at Minnesota. Gale Catlett used it at West Virginia throughout the 1980s and into the early ’90s. Numerous programs employ pieces of it.
But, only Washington and North Carolina State are the major programs using it today. The reason is lineage. Both Romar and N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried learned at UCLA under Harrick. Each will say other schools don’t run it because they don’t know how to teach it.
As Romar moved through his coaching career, he used elements of the high-post. It wasn’t until this year – when a quick scan of the roster showed departed drivers and retained jump shooters – that he went all in.
Early in the season, the expected pain of installing a new offense has caused the Huskies to revert to their old motion offense for much of the past two games. That’s evidence of how much work is left to be done, but, according to Romar, by no means an indicator the high-post is being abandoned.
Simply, the work is ongoing.
When that system is running at its optimum, rhythmic variations abound. The high-post is a read-and-react outline as much as a directive.
“The thing I like about it is it gives you some structure but you’re not structured out,” said Don MacLean, the Pacific-12 Conference’s all-time leading scorer.
MacLean, now an analyst with Pac-12 Networks, scored 2,608 points with the Bruins and they used the system in the halfcourt. At 6- foot-9 with a precision jump shot, he played on the wing. Many entry passes start the process by going to a big man at the high-post, which is the foul-line elbow in Washington’s case. But, the offense can also be started with an initial wing pass or even the point guard dribbling to the wing.
Wooden ran it with a center in the middle of the foul line. Washington often uses a 1-4 high set to get things started, with both big men at the elbows and a single guard at the top, preferring a single-guard set to the more common two-guard approach. After making the initial pass, the point guard, often Abdul Gaddy, heads toward the post man to make a “UCLA” cut. That’s the first wave of the wand by the conductor.
Numerous things, depending on where the ball was initially passed, can happen from there. If a post player received a pass at the elbow, he can hand the ball back to the point guard on the cut, pass out to the wing, swing the ball to the other side, pivot and shoot, pivot and drive and more.
If the ball starts on the wing, another swarm of options opens up.
Synchronicity is crucial. Once that’s achieved, creativity can follow. MacLean reached a point where his UCLA teams were making wing-to-wing passes for catch-and-shoot jump shots. That’s not diagrammed in any book, they just figured it out.
“I think if you have guys that can really shoot it, it just makes it where guys aren’t thinking, they’re just pulling triggers,” MacLean said. “I think that’s the point you have to get to. That’s what we got to.”
Washington is not there yet. Though its field-goal percentage is up from last season (47 percent vs. 44.8) – a result often claimed as a benefit of the system because players begin to understand where their particular shots will come from – the Huskies’ understanding of counters within the offense is incomplete. That’s not a surprise. Romar said from the start it would take time. Gottfried went through similar issues last season when he took over at N.C. State.
“Until about mid-January or even early February is when our team really began to understand how to take advantage of things offensively,” Gottfried said.
Against Cal State Fullerton, Washington ran the high-post offense on just six possessions in the first half before going to its motion offense. Fullerton tightly pressured Washington and fronted the high-post. Though there are built-in counters to such a defense, it left the Huskies stuck. Which, Romar said, leaves him needing to sense when it is time for a change, akin to switching to man-to-man defense from zone.
“It’s just a matter of us understanding what’s there and what’s not,” Romar said. “Until you get all the reads down, you don’t understand where the escape hatches are.
“You just feel like, ‘I’m in this one area.’ When you really understand what’s going on, it’s easier. You realize, ‘I just have to do this.’ We just haven’t got to where we know those reads yet. But, we will.”
The offense also has an extrapolated impact. Telling a recruit about “structure” is often akin to jamming a shoe heel into his bare toes. Washington is deep in the hunt for 6-7, five-star prospect Aaron Gordon, who has limited his choices to Washington, Arizona and Kentucky. He plans to make his decision in the spring.
“If you’ve got a guy who can shoot it and post it, he’s got to be licking his chops,” MacLean said.
Gordon can do both. Washington will tell recruits it still wants to push the ball, but will also try to show how 20 points a night can come out of the high-post offense for a player with NBA aspirations.
In addition, should Washington make it to the NCAA tournament playing this style, it’s a difficult task to prepare for defensively in a limited time. That is particularly ture from the second round to the third round when preparation time is just one day. Ohio State experienced this, with an even shorter window, when it played Washington the day after a game earlier this season.
“Wide pin-downs, handoffs, just a lot of different intricacies and you can’t prepare for all of them in a one-day prep,” Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft said.
Those are long-range impacts. For now, Washington has to reach stability, then continuity. After that, it can worry about one day hanging a banner of its own.
A plethora of options
Though the high-post offense often starts right there on the elbow, the process can also start on the wing. Here’s a look at how Washington was able to shake leading scorer C.J. Wilcox free for a good look in the lane against Saint Louis.email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @Todd_Dybas