'Who' doesn't matter as much as 'how'
A coach must prepare every player to be the hero when it comes to a last shot.
There was no secret who'd take Florida's last shot. Every one in the Springfield Civic Center knew it would be drawn up for Matt Walsh.
Walsh was in that zone players talk about. On his way to 27 points that November night against Arizona, he had been hitting every shot he was taking. And with Florida down by a point with 7.3 second to play, he was Option No. 1 as Billy Donovan gathered his Gators during a timeout.
Or, was he?
Turns out, Walsh would be the decoy. Christian Drejer, inbounding the ball, found an open Bonnell Colas cutting to the basket. Colas had slipped behind Arizona's Channing Frye. He was so wide open that he easily laid the ball in the basket as Florida beat the Wildcats, 78-77.
It's hard to blame Arizona for leaving Colas alone. He wasn't Florida's optimum choice for a last shot. In fact, he'd missed his only other shot of the game and the game-winning basket was his only two points of the night. But, the opportunity to use Colas had been discussed in Florida's huddle -- two timeouts earlier.
The scene on the sideline during a last-second timeout often determines whether a team wins or loses as much as the players who take those buzzer-beaters. Inside a team's huddle can be one of the most hectic 30 seconds for a coach. But like the player who winds up with the ball in his hands, the poise shown by a coach is the key.
Who the coach turns to, and how clearly he goes over the instructions for each player, can be the difference between those X's and O's working or not on the court. A coach's demeanor can also determine how the player handles the pressure of taking that last shot, as well as how prepared those players around him are to create the chance to take the shot.
"You want the ball in the hands of someone who can make the play, not always the person making the shots," Florida coach Billy Donovan said of the Gators' final shot. Against Arizona, Donovan did just that by ensuring Drejer, who Donovan said has the Gators' highest basketball IQ, inbounded the ball.
"Remember, Michael Jordan to Steve Kerr? Jordan had the ball, but passed it off to Kerr to make the shot. I didn't say to Colas that he had to make the shot. You don't do that because you're putting a lot of pressure on a player."
The Gators' final play wound up being a perfect example of a second, or third option working well enough in a final possession. Donovan had prepared Colas for the possibility that he might have a say in the outcome.
"I told Bonnell that there could be confusion by Arizona once we screened, and if that happens then someone has to roll back," Donovan recalls. "They took Matt Walsh away so he rolled to the basket."
When Arizona did exactly what Donovan suggested to Colas it might, Drejer executed his coach's wishes with a pass to Colas, who was so wide open, not to mention right under the basket, that it didn't matter he hadn't shot the ball but once in the game.
Coaches will agree on one thing when it comes to drawing up last shots: Get the ball in the right position, not the right person. Donovan says shooting the ball is the easy part of any last possession. If the ball gets into the hands of the player its designed to find at a particular spot on the court, there usually isn't time for the player to think about shooting as the clock is winding down.
And, again, it all goes back to those huddles, which often look chaotic during those final possessions. But, it's up to the coaches to look through all the surface emotions and into their players' faces -- their eyes -- to see if they really do want to be the one to make the play.
Gary Williams has his youngest team ever at Maryland this season, yet the Terps have already been tested in several close games. So far, they've made more right than wrong decisions in beating Wisconsin in overtime and then-No. 1 Florida on the road, 69-68.
What Williams has done in light of his team's lack of experience is keep everything simple. He doesn't confuse his players with variations of plays they feel comfortable running, especially in the final seconds. As a result, his confidence has grown in Chris McCray, Nik Caner-Medley and John Gilchrist. And those players' confidence has grown with every play drawn up for them late in games.
As simple as it sounds, Williams wants his point guard Gilchrist to spread the floor and make something happen in a final possessions of a game. It was the same when Juan Dixon was running the Terps' offense, as he would just take over the play and ensure Maryland wouldn't be left without an option. Williams still has to give more instruction during those huddles, but he was pleasantly surprised that his players showed no fear about the pressure situations, so far.
But it's a fine line.
"You've got to know your team," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "You've got to know who wants that shot. And you've got to have more than one. You've got to have a play for man or for zone. You have to know your players have the confidence to handle that situation, the inbounds pass, and be able to read the defense."
Those words in the huddle are first heard in practice. Coaches work on end-of-game situations in every preseason, as well as throughout the year, developing multiple options. It helps when there is player who can create something out of nothing when a play breaks down, someone like Dwyane Wade last season for Marquette.
You've got to know your team. You've got to know who wants that shot. And you've got to have more than one. You've got to have a play for man or for zone. You have to know your players have the confidence to handle that situation, the inbounds pass, and be able to read the defense. ”
|— Tom Crean,
Marquette head coach
But it also helps when a play that players have run hundreds of times in practice ends up being the one a coach draws up in the huddle.
Christian Laettner's shot to beat Kentucky in the1992 NCAA Tournament remains one of the most famous examples of a team being prepared to pull off the unthinkable in the most pressure-packed situations. Cincinnati's fullcourt, multiple skip-pass leading to Melvin Levett's dunk to beat Duke in the Great Alaska Shootout is among the most memorable regular-season endings. And yes, Cincinnati had worked on the play in practice before running it to perfection a few weeks into the season.
But even the best-made plans don't go as scripted. Cincinnati had a last-second shot designed for Steve Logan a couple seasons ago against Marquette. But the ball ended up in Donald Little's hands, who wound up being the hero in beating the Eagles.
"And we've got more guys that are capable (of making late shots) than in the past," Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins said.
But the psyche of a huddle before that final possession is delicate. Coaches are all but in agreement that pointing at one player is almost too much for that player to bear.
"If you do that, then the other guys say they can't score," Memphis coach John Calipari cautions. "You want everyone walking out of the huddle thinking they can make it. You're not going to have five options, but you want guys going to the rim and who ever has the first good shot, should shoot it."
And there is always the extreme to all the strategies -- just letting the players decide things on their own.
Like other coaches, Purdue's Gene Keady doesn't always see the need for a timeout. Instead, he sometimes likes his players to just play. He doesn't want them coming out of a timeout too uptight.
"I don't care who takes the shot (on this team)," Keady said. He just wants it to be a good shot, a shot within the offense, even in the final possession."
The dynamics of every coach's huddle is different. The only consensus being, every player better prepared in case the ball ends up in his hands.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.