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BYU Basketball Film Study: Liberty Ballscreen Coverage

How the Cougars used scheme and Te’jon Lucas to break Liberty’s defense

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Brigham Young Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a while since BYU knocked off Liberty to secure a winning record in the Diamondhead Classic but with their game against Portland postponed, the Cougar’s victory over the Flames remains the last game against a D1 opponent. While it ended up being a narrow five-point victory, Trevin Knell’s bucket with 1:13 left in the game to go up five and help BYU have enough space to pull out the W was a culmination of a chess match the entire game between BYU’s ballscreen heavy offense and Liberty’s hard hedging ballscreen defense. Watching the game again showed how a series of tactical moves and Te’jon Lucas’ talent as a distributor eventually led to BYU building a nine point lead and eventually coming away victorious. Here’s how it all happened.

Setting things up

First off, let’s get some vocabulary out of the way. The biggest thing to understand is what Liberty’s base coverage was in these ballscreen actions. They employed a defense some call “hard hedging” where the big will try to wall off the ballhandler as they come off the screen. Behind them, one of the low defenders will sag into the paint to discourage the roll, more often stunting rather than switching to make the guard think twice about passing it to the roll man. The purpose is to take the ballhandler out of the play by having them pick up their dribble in a trap position or pushing them so far out of position they can’t make a play and the defense recovers. Here’s how it looks when it works.

Notice each time the ballhandler is pushed out of a playmaking position and the play stalls. Also notice that none of those ballhandlers is Te’jon. Te’jon’s possessions against the hard hedge tended to look more like this.

Rather than have the defense dictate what he wanted to do, Te’jon was more forceful in attacking the hedge and here, purposefully occupying the big so that when he picked up his dribble the big would be late to the roll. One thing Te’jon has impressed me with is his ability to get to his spots and get what he wants and he put on a masterclass in this game. But back to the chess match.

Starting to figure it out

Things really started going as the first half wound down. BYU started running a “horns” set with the two bigs elevated. The four man would set a dummy screen and clear out then a high ballscreen with Te’jon and Fouss would follow. With Caleb at the four he would clear out to the opposite corner for maximum spacing.

Notice the four man defender isn’t in a hedge, so in order to engage the hedging defender we needed a point guard/center ballscreen. In this play Te’jon knows that the hedge is coming so stops short, does a quick turn, and feeds the ball to Fouss, who has an advantage against a recovering defender. The downside to a hedge scheme is that against a guard like Te’jon, you are basically putting yourself at a disadvantage with either an open man somewhere or the big having to recover late like the 5 man does here to Fouss. As a result, Fouss has a comfortable post up and draws a foul.

With Gideon at the four, he pops and here, Te’jon really starts manipulating the defense.

Notice how Te’jon is able to avoid getting pushed back by the hedge by attacking it head on, not trying to go around it. This particular way of attacking the hedging defense I usually call stringing out the defender. The veteran move here is continuing to dribble into the big, holding him up and making it so that he can’t recover. This creates a soft pocket in the defense that Fouss can slip into and then get a catch against a smaller defender. The result is a foul and free throws.

Mixing it up

Now the staff knows they’ve hit on something with Te’jon attacking in these high ballscreens and they try out some different configurations. To finish out the half they went away from the horns configuration and called a great set with an action often called “Spain” pick and roll. The key element to this action is a backscreen for the five man after he sets a ballscreen. It looks a little weird here because of the hedge but watch Seneca hunt for the backscreen, abandon it when Te’jon keeps the big occupied, and clear out his man from help.

Some more terminology real quick. Notice how Seneca’s defender comes over and makes contact with Fouss, something called a “tag.” Usually the tag man is one of the lower defenders, like a weak side defender (Hunter’s here), who has time to tag the roll then recover to their man if a skip happens. The brilliance of the Spain P&R is that it messes with the defensive assignments, with the tag man (Seneca’s defender) raised up so high, that part of the coverage is taken care of but the big is too far away to recover to the roll and the corner defenders are stuck to shooters. Te’jon is so key to busting this coverage because of his poise after picking up the ball. The key for the defense is to recover when the ballhandler picks up the ball or passes it. Notice as Te’jon terminates the big knows it’s time to recover but the help he’s used to getting has risen too high because of the back screen Seneca goes to set and there is an open lane to hit Fouss at the basket.

Second half, things heating up

After the success of the end of the first half, BYU started the second half trying to get to the same high ballscreen action. After some early decoy action where Caleb terminates the normal offensive flow to reverse it, they get to a high ballscreen but Liberty is ready to sit on the roll a little harder. Look how Caleb’s defender slides deep into the paint here.

A solid adjustment from Liberty to clog up the lanes more and a bit of a personnel mismatch for BYU to have Caleb in that corner instead of someone the defense will have to worry a little more about.

Now the chess match really takes off. BYU starts to be more intentional with where its pieces fall. This time down they go ahead and look for their more normal ballscreen action, since that will end up with Caleb in strong side corner and puts the best shooter on the floor in the weakside corner.

Here again is where Te’jon’s unique skillset really helped the Cougars. I don’t think anyone else on the team comes as close as he does to executing this quick turn and wrap around pass. With the angle of the pass changed and the weakside defender having to respect Alex more, there’s slightly more room to get a tough pass to Fouss (also, great catch by Fouss). We didn’t make this three but it was open.

Next time down is the pay off from the last few possessions. BYU finally puts it all together on an out of bounds play. After the inbounds they’ve got Alex in the weakside corner, side ballscreen to make the bottom defender have to move as far as possible, and Caleb pulling his defender up high. Again, it all starts with Te’jon not allowing the hedge to dictate where he goes.

I’ve commented on it before and I will later in this article but I love how Te’jon uses ballfakes and body movements to manipulate the defense and create open shots. Remember, the previous play he kinda forced it into Fouss on the roll and BYU had been hitting the roll hard the last few times out of the ballscreen. This time Te’jon gets around the hedge then gets Alex’s defender to overcommit to Fouss by slightly downshifting then throwing a dart to Alex once he sees the defender has sold out on the roll. Just beautiful.

Wrinkles

With the three point line now unlocked in the high ballscreen, BYU looked back to see if it could take advantage of the roll again. This time they raise everyone high (no corner shooter on the weakside) but notice that even though Alex does a good job of attacking the hedge, he can’t quite connect the same way Te’jon can.

Also notice how long Caleb’s man can stay to throw off what Alex is trying to do. Caleb’s still trying to find his shot so his man feels all right staying really long and letting the five recover to knock it away. To counter that I really like what happened the next time down though I’m not sure how intentional all of it was.

This time we have the weakside lifted again but moved Te’jon back on ball and put Caleb in the strong side corner. At first his man is able to stay long again but Te’jon creates a lot of time for himself by trucking into the defender then keeps Caleb’s man guessing with some ball fakes. The last awesome wrinkle that really works is Caleb’s cut to the basket, helping add to the defender’s indecision and creating a slight window to get Fouss the ball for an and-1. I’m not sure how intentional that cut was, might have just been an on the fly read from Caleb, but it helped to create that window.

Now let’s have some more fun by shuffling personnel again. Instead of Caleb in the overload corner, put a good shooter there and keep everyone lifted still to create as much space down low as possible. Where the low man felt all right staying a long time before, they can’t with Alex there. I like how we pause to make sure everything is right here then Te’jon takes care of the rest.

My favorite thing about this play is that the bottom defender is the same one that over committed to the roll in the play where Alex got a three on the weakside. He doesn’t want to make the same mistake here so he freezes on Te’jon’s gather just enough to let the pass in. Guy just can’t catch a break.

The Eventual Counter

After getting exposed a bit Liberty finally throws out a counter. Instead of a long hedge they change to more of a stunt at the ballhandler to get into their recovery quicker. Unfortunately for them, Te’jon is ready for this and just gets downhill. With Fouss doing a good job of sealing of his man from help, the path opens up right to the hoop.

The next time down, though, Liberty barely shows at all and is able to clog things up a lot more late in the clock and effectively keep everything accounted for.

So what’s the solution BYU counters with? Just slow down a half second and be patient with that roll. Hold the pick a half second longer then roll like crazy. It’s a small adjustment but it works wonders the next time they get around to the ballscreen action.

That slight slowdown is enough for the defensive big to feel like he has the time to take a one foot stunt but then it’s too late. Caleb is gone, the strong side corner feels like he needs to tag, and Te’jon is ready to quickly pick it up and hit Gideon in the corner for a big three.

Let Te’jon cook

Now that BYU’s found all sorts of different ways to attack in different configurations, it’s time to go back to what it all started and just let Te’jon do his thing. If you recall, what really kicked off this whole thing was a “horns” set towards the end of the first half. BYU went back to that play three times in a row and Te’jon showed what makes him such a valuable player to have.

First, Liberty is still in mostly a one step show, the big isn’t trying to wall anything off, just stepping out one step to discourage the drive. Te’jon drives right by the big like he’s not there, brings the ball across his body to make it look like he might hit Trevin on the wing which gets the tag man to take a step back towards Trevin, then caps the sequence off with a dime right past the defender’s ear.

Now Liberty doesn’t quite know what to do. Te’jon just burned the one step show the last possession so they decide that maybe they should try to go back to a hard show again to hold him up a little. BYU runs the exact same play and gets a similar result. This time Te’jon adjust to the harder show by initiating contact which ends up opening a lane for him to drive and now he’s downhill again. Too easy at that point to just flip it to Caleb for free throws.

Finally, BYU goes to the exact same set a third time. The hard hedge actually does a good job of rerouting Te’jon this time but at this point he knows the passing lane will be there if he stays aggressive. He drives right down the retreating big’s back, holding the help man (who has to worry about Gideon) with his eyes. The bottom defender freezes for just a half second and Te’jon has the angle he needs to whip it to Caleb for more free throws.

The great thing about these three plays is that the end result was the same, Caleb with a catch right at the basket, but the way it was achieved was slightly different, a credit to Te’jon’s skills as a distributor. His ability to defeat the purpose of the hedge and string out the defense opened up his passing as he manipulated the strongside and weakside defenders to get the ball to the roll man. At this point, Liberty was just about cooked.

The last gasp

The last piece of this adjustment battle came right at the end. Liberty finally decided to abandon any hedge at all and go under all ballscreens. It worked pretty well the first few possessions they made the switch.

It didn’t take long, though, for BYU to figure out that this last adjustment meant it was open season on paint and ripe for floaters. All it took was a few reversals and someone looking to live in that middle of the paint area. Te’jon and Trevin stepped up to the task. It took a few reversals for Te’jon to see a spot he liked and he got some help from his man getting stuck on Fouss’ screen.

Then Trevin was all gas after a timeout and got to that floater he’s really been looking for off of penetration.

They both hit fairly tough floaters to help seal the game but it wouldn’t have been as easy to get into the paint if Te’jon hadn’t already tortured the defense and forced Liberty out of their usual scheme. At that point it was a Fouss bucket off a post up mismatch created from this same type of adjustment and free throws put the game away.

A perfect match

When all was said and done BYU scored 48 points in the second half to the tune of a pretty blistering 1.36 points per possession. It wasn’t an accident that Te’jon had 6 of the team’s 7 assists in the half either. He had the perfect mix of aggression and patience to exploit the scheme Liberty threw at him and the staff did an excellent job of helping him succeed through multiple play configurations and shuffling personnel to places that would stress the defense the most. His ability to manipulate defenders with pace, body fakes, and pass fakes coupled with his confidence and ability to fit passes in tight windows was a joy to watch. It’s not often you get to see a perfect match of scheme and talent against a specific defensive coverage and it left me hoping that some team will try to hedge again and we can see a similar chess match play out.