March 20, 2003
By Don Markus
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - College basketball coaches readily admit that few of their philosophies and strategies are original. In the old days, coaches would attend clinics to pick up ideas. In an age of satellite dishes and the Internet, just plain thievery is the most sincere form of flattery.
"I always stole stuff off teams that won a national championship," Maryland coach Gary Williams said recently.
Having coached the Terrapins to their first NCAA championship last season, Williams was not surprised to get more requests than ever for diagrams and tapes of an offense he has run his entire college coaching career. The "flex," as it is called, was back in favor this season after once being thought old-fashioned.
"For a while there, it lost its luster," Williams said. "As more teams start to run it, it seems like everything else, it comes and goes in terms of popularity. But it's a good basic offense, and it teaches kids how to play the game because it teaches them how to read a defense. That stuff is getting lost in basketball."
An offshoot of an offense run by Hall of Famer and coaching guru Pete Newell, who used the "reverse action" to win the 1959 national championship at the University of California as well as an Olympic gold medal for the United States in 1960, the flex has bicoastal roots and several current practitioners aside from Williams.
Williams, who learned the offense as an assistant under Tom Davis at Lafayette College in the early 1970s, is the most high-profile proponent of the flex. But Maryland won't be the only team running it during the NCAA tournament.
It's not surprising, because second-year UW-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl was a longtime assistant under Davis. In fact, Pearl won a national championship with it even before Gary Williams did, in 1995 at Southern Indiana, a Division II school.
"Maryland's success was a tremendous selling point when I came to Milwaukee," Pearl said this week. "I was able to have our guys watch Maryland play, and they were able to see some things that we try to do. If it's good enough for Maryland, it ought to be good enough for Milwaukee."
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said seeing Maryland win last year's championship "maybe in the back of my mind reinforced some theories."
Said Davis, who retired from coaching three years ago: "I bet there are 50 teams running a form of it. You even see the same cuts being run by NBA teams."
Davis began running his version - he initially called it the "regular" - as the freshman coach at Maryland in 1968, with a graduate assistant named Gary Williams. It was a combination of Newell's offense that Bud Millikan installed in College Park and the man-to-man offense Davis learned as a player at a small college in Wisconsin.
After joining the staff of former Maryland assistant Tom Young at American, Davis also would take it with him to Lafayette, Boston College, Stanford and Iowa, tweaking it as he went along by adding a point guard fast-break component that is still used today.
"If you're summing up why it works, it gives your team balance," Davis said. "It gives your talent a chance to take over because you're keeping the floor spread. Your best players get open, and your weaker players keep the ball moving."
Said Gary Williams: "What I like about it is that you can put anybody in any position."
When Williams got his first head coaching job at American in 1978, he brought the flex with him.
"That's the only one I knew," he said last week, standing and diagramming plays in his office at Comcast Center. "You go with what you're comfortable with. As time goes by, you add a number of plays. We now disguise a lot of our plays to look like this [the regular flex]."
At Maryland, the same post-up plays that were run for Vince Broadnax when Williams arrived in 1989 were later run for Keith Booth and Lonny Baxter. The same shots taken by Rodney Elliott are now being taken by Nik Caner-Medley.
Origins of an offense
The flex is basic in philosophy, but complex in execution.
The offense run by Newell was designed to get the ball to a player cutting across the post for a shot inside or to a player taking a shot off a screen on the wing. If the play broke down, the ball would be reversed to the other side and it would be run again. Thus, reverse action.
The flex, as it was first called by Carroll Williams in the mid-1970s at Santa Clara, has several cuts and screens involving all five players moving. It differs from Newell's offense in its continuity, in that the players never stop cutting and screening even if the first option breaks down.
"You can keep running and running and running it," said Gary Williams. "I think it's a great high school offense because there's no shot clock. If it takes you a minute to get a good shot, you'll get a good shot. The offense is harder to teach, because it's a five-man offense."
"We were very rigid and we drove everybody nuts. It probably drove my kids nuts, too. But as we got better and more mature later in the season, I let them become more flexible."
Former Bronco Head Coach Carroll Williams.
Initially, he called it "rigid" because he wanted his players more structured.
"We were very rigid and we drove everybody nuts," said Carroll Williams, who coached the Broncos from 1972 until 1993 and also was the school's athletic director until 2000. "It probably drove my kids nuts, too. But as we got better and more mature later in the season, I let them become more flexible."
The offense began being called the flex.
"If we were running rigid, we didn't shoot anything but a lay-in, but if we were running flex, we could shoot it anywhere we wanted," said Carroll Williams. "I called it a very structured passing game, where every cut was dictated unless the defense did something to counter it."
Like Davis, Carroll Williams passed it on to his assistants, Dan Fitzgerald and Dick Davey. Fitzgerald brought it with him to Gonzaga, which scared Maryland before losing in the first round of the 1995 NCAA tournament. A year later, Steve Nash led Santa Clara to a first-round upset of the Terrapins.
As Maryland's talent level has increased over Williams' 14 seasons, the offense has become more difficult to defend, especially in the NCAA tournament. Teams that haven't played against the flex are often flummoxed by it. Just ask Kansas and Indiana, the teams Maryland defeated in last year's Final Four.
"The whole system is hard to prepare for, and then you put in the full-court pressure defense that they run," said Pearl, whose team's first-round opponent, Notre Dame, beat Maryland this season. "It's a terrific offense with a lead. You can be patient, and you can spread the floor."
Players make system
Much of the offense hinges on the players who run it. Last season's Maryland team ran it all the way to a national championship, but this season's team has been up and down. At times, it has been crisp and efficient. At other times, the Terps have demonstrated their inexperience with impatience leading to imperfection.
In Friday's 12-point loss to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals, the flex eventually became the shrug. Players went through the motions of making their cuts and their screens, and the Tar Heels were able to stop it after losing by 40 points in the teams' previous meeting.
"Any offense, not just this, is how hard you run it, that's how good it is," Williams said. "When we play well, we really run it. Running the offense means how quick you can get into it without turning the ball over. When we're good, we really run this well and run it hard.
"Anybody with great ability, you can put the ball on the side and he can make a move. We want to get back to this when we're having trouble scoring. You can get to the foul line at the end of the game, or if we're up at the end of the game and you want to take time off the clock."
Consider this about the current Terrapins: While the offense has become second nature for seniors Steve Blake, Drew Nicholas and Tahj Holden, freshmen such as Caner-Medley, John Gilchrist and Travis Garrison are still trying to become comfortable with it.
"It's really been a big change [from high school]," Caner-Medley said. "Any time you have an offense that involves so many little things and so many diverse situations in certain offensive sets, really studying the offense is the most important thing."
Said Nicholas: "It probably takes a year or two to get adjusted and understand the different ways you can score."
Blake, who recently set the record for most games played at Maryland, said the offense is not as restrictive as it might seem.
"Not the way we run it," he said. "You've just got to understand when to get out of the offense and when to run it. I like getting out of it and running ball screens and stuff like that. But when you're in the flex offense, as long as you know when to run it and when not to, it will all work out."
Said Williams: "Once you have it in place and you have success with it, then you bring players in and they kind of see it and get into it. Because the team is winning, they kind of buy into it a little better. The key is to do enough stuff - we fast break as much as any team in the country. You have to have the flash."
Williams, too, has become less rigid in his approach over the years, allowing his players a bit more freedom to show off their individual talent. Though it's an offense that tries to hide a player's deficiencies, the ball sometimes finds its way into that player's hands with the shot clock running down.
"The negative thing with the flex offense is that it's hard to get the right guy to shoot it sometimes because it is a five-man offense, kind of equal opportunity," Williams said. "You have this offense, and then you have to incorporate certain things for your best players.
"What we've always tried to do is incorporate this into our fast-paced play. When we press and we fast break, there's a tendency to get out of control. ... This gives us the discipline necessary to be a good team on offense."
In Williams' coaching stops, first at American, then at Boston College and Ohio State and finally after he took over a downtrodden Maryland program, the flex gave his teams a chance to compete with opponents far more physically talented. Similarly, it helped Tom Davis compete at Lafayette (where he beat Virginia in the 1971 National Invitation Tournament).
"It's easier for your less talented players," Davis said. "If you have the most talented team in your league, you might not need this offense. But if you have got some guys in there that might need some help getting free, this offense might have some merit."
Results bring imitation
While the motion offense espoused by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville's Rick Pitino as well as their disciples is still more popular because it is deemed more fun and frenetic to play, the flex has regained its clout in large part because of Maryland's recent results.
Like any other concept, succeed breeds imitation.
"The idea is to win," Williams said. "We've turned enough guys over to the pros that they [critics] can't say anything anymore. I remember an NCAA show a couple of years ago where some pretty prominent coaches talked about it being out of date. But we were playing, and their teams weren't."
After some early doubts that the flex still worked, Williams has stopped stealing from other coaches and stayed with what brought him this far. He also has adopted the swagger Davis had when he used the flex. And no matter what happens in this year's NCAA tournament, he will use it again next season.
"You try to learn a lot in the offseason. You see what's hot with basketball," Williams said. "By the time you get into practice, most coaches go back to what they're comfortable with, what they know, what your teams do well. I know this better than anything else. I'm very comfortable teaching it. Not as an ego thing, but nobody's really stopped it, either."
Williams enjoys watching other teams imitate Blake's hand signals, thinking they know the play Maryland is about to call.
"We call plays, we change signals, so that they're calling out the wrong play and we'll get a layup," Williams said. "You want your players to have that confidence in the offense. If you execute correctly, it doesn't matter if the other team knows it's coming; you're still going to get a good shot."
At winning a game and, perhaps, a national championship.
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun