When I was a freshman at Notre Dame, I played for John MacLeod. One of the first days of practice he came into the locker room and had our entire team come out and practice lining up for the national anthem.
We also practiced pre-game layup drills, how to huddle during a timeout, being introduced for a game and everything else we would do in the course of a game.
Included in that was going over and over every situation at the end of a ball game. How to foul, when to shoot the 3 and, most of all, what to do in every situation with time running out. By the end of the preseason we had covered every way to win and lose a game.
Now I will admit that while we stood and listened to a tape of the national anthem play, I thought my coach had absolutely lost it. But this type of preparation came in handy in late-game situations. I came to embrace that level of preparedness, such that now I hate calling a timeout and allowing the defense to set up for a final possession.
By knowing what to run and how to run it, the offense always has the advantage, whereas there is so much uncertainty coming out of a timeout.
Understanding all that, here's how I view end-of-game situations:
Down one, under 20 seconds left
First, you must look to score right away. That way, you can still overcome a miss, as there is still time to foul and get one final possession.
I like running very familiar plays in big situations. In the Tournament, teams may watch tons of film on you, but rarely do they know your play calls or plays you may have run early in the year. If you go back and practice some of those, they work like a charm in the postseason.
I also like running counters to plays that I have run all game long. If you have been screening for the shooter with single screens, I like to have the big men set the screens a step further out than they are used to, so they have an extra step to catch a pass if they slip the screen.
Defenses tend to overplay the shooters in key situations and playing for a layup may sometimes work. Whatever it is, run it quickly and make sure it is one you have practiced.
Also, do not be afraid to run some complex screens away from the ball, as long as your best ball handler has the basketball. Using two shooters to screen for a big man will work late in games, because no one wants be beaten by his man, and if they do not help, the big man will be open.
Lastly, you must have schooled your team on how to react if the defense switches on everything.
Tie Game, Under 20 seconds left
Too often coaches just run "1-4 flat" – point guard (or leading scorer) at the top of the key and everyone else clearing low, looking for a pull-up jumper or penetration and pitch. Otherwise, they run a high post "rub" (pick and roll) looking for the same thing.
There is nothing wrong with that, but having the posts screen for one another on "flat" sometimes creates confusion and crossing the wings may do the same thing.
Whatever you do, the ball should be in the hands of your best passer first, your best scorer next and a post player after that. This way, if there is a trap or if someone forgets the play, the passer or scorer can make something happen on his own.
Also, the shot should go up with five or six seconds left. Practice should tell you when to begin the play. Second-chance shots are often the plays that actually win it, so everyone should crash the glass after the shot goes up (except the point, of course.)
On defense, up by three
Always foul (and this, too, should be practiced) with less than eight seconds left and put the other team on the line. I have seen one game this year lost on a missed free throw and made follow (Nevada vs. Boise State), but I have seen more than 30 games this year lost after allowing a last-second 3.
On defense, up by one or two or tied
If the offense calls a timeout, I would switch to a zone until the first pass, and then match up in man-to-man. The confusion alone is worth several seconds and a different play call.
Secondly, if there is a player who has been dominating, I do not let him touch the ball. If he does, I make him give it up with a quick double-team on a pick-and-roll. The last two things a coach should tell his team is how many timeouts they have and how to play the pick-and-roll.
Some coaches like to switch all screens, but I would only do that if it is something I do in the course of a game. I like man-to-man and I believe that if you deny the best player the ball and allow others to catch, you can goad the other team into avoiding its best player.
Steals are not important, so don't reach, don't foul; contain the dribble and challenge every shot without fouling. Make the other team beat you with a difficult shot and, oh yeah, BOX OUT!!!
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This weekend, here's what I would look for from each team:
Bruce Weber runs only a handful of sets, but the Illini move the ball very quickly. Because Weber trusts all of his players' ballhandling skills, they usually have several passes before the meat of the play takes place.
Illinois likes to run a set that has Deron Williams cut off of a UCLA-style high-post screen and then exchange with another guard once in the post, bringing Williams out to the wing. The post (James Augustine) who screens for him catches the basketball and then throws it out to Williams as he pops out to the wing.
Then Augustine goes to set a pick and roll for Williams. With the lane wide open and the other three teammates occupying their men on the other side of the court, Augustine then slips the pick before he gets to Williams, and he usually gets a wide-open dunk.
Illinois ran this at Wisconsin, at Ohio State and in the NCAA tourney for easy baskets.
Pitino gives his guards tons of freedom. He runs an average number of sets, but the Cards run them all very well.
Just like in the Marquette game during the C-USA season, Francisco Garcia will get the ball and look to create off the high-post rub screen. Louisville does something that is en vogue now in college hoops – the big men do not choose a side on which to set the pick and Garcia will pick a side at the last second.
Roy Williams runs only a handful of sets and they are easy to see coming, but difficult to stop.
Carolina always has tremendous spacing and the Heels rarely forget or blow a play. Picture this, Marvin Williams at the top of the key, Sean May at the right block, Rashad McCants at the left wing, Jawad Williams (or Melvin Scott) at the right wing and Raymond Felton out high coming off a high rub, going from right to left.
He will fake dribbling off the screen, reverse pivot and as he does May will shape up and Felton will throw it into May for two.
Tom Izzo has more sets than the other three coaches combined.
I think that he might go to a set he likes in which Hill dribbles the ball to the left side of the 3-point arc, Shannon Brown pops to the corner, Maurice Ager is at the top of the key, Alan Anderson flashes to the high post and Paul Davis allows himself to be fronted in the low post.
This is a page out of the triangle offense that isolates Davis in the post. If MSU can go for two, look for this to be run, but if not, the Spartans have plenty of others to choose from.
Doug Gottlieb is an analyst for ESPN and co-hosts GameNight on ESPN Radio.