‘They’ve got the perfect team’: Anonymous coaches break down the Final Four matchups

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The Athletic has live coverage of NC State vs. Purdue in the Final Four.

All season it has felt like we were trending toward an epic national championship showdown between Connecticut and Purdue. Each team is one win away from making that happen, but tricky matchups await them in Glendale, Ariz. There’s NC State and DJ Burns Jr. and the live-and-thrive by the 3 Alabama Crimson Tide.

To help break down the matchups, The Athletic reached out to coaches who have faced these teams, asking them to take a break from the transfer portal to provide some analysis, (One coach told me I was the only person who wasn’t a transfer he had and would talk to on Tuesday. I’m honored.) For each team, at least four coaches — a mix of assistants and head coaches — were interviewed to provide an in-depth scout. They were granted anonymity in exchange for their candor. For brevity, I’ve combined their thoughts.

Purdue

The good thing for NC State is they have a week to prepare. Purdue is a tough quick turnaround scout because they’re so unique. Matt Painter is a wizard with his sets and his ATOs (after-timeout plays). He gets you thinking something’s coming, and before you know it, a guy is getting wide-open 3 or a guard is getting downhill for a layup. I’ve charted stuff in the past, and if there are 31 half-court sets, he’ll run 28 different plays. He’s got a deep playbook and a lot of stuff looks the same. And he really gets his guys to execute. He really stretches your defense in a lot of ways. It’s not like you’re gonna be able to see a play and be able to force them out of it. You’ve got to rely on some concepts and principles, and you better be sound.

Nothing does them justice until you’re standing out there with them. Mason Gillis and Trey Kaufman-Renn are really, really big, and they’re good players. And you felt Zach Edey way more than you can in any film session. That’s a different type of size.

We wanted to shrink the floor and get out to shooters, but they disguise their actions and they move people enough that it’s hard to just load up and pack it in the paint. You stress to your guys Edey’s gravity. He’s going to force double teams and put you in rotations and pull your defense in tighter to the paint. That was our plan, but it’s hard to execute with a 7-foot-4 guy out there who can do everything he does. Once he has it, he’s going to get to that jump hook, so you’re shrinking for no reason. Ideally, they want to get it to him in the middle of the floor. They call that middle third post-up action blast action. Anything blast is a high-low or basically a middle post-up. It gets you spread out so much, where do you come from? Unless Kaufman-Renn is in, and you dare him to shoot.

Their role players hit 3s. The three guys who take a lot of 3s are mid-to-high 40s from 3. It’s crazy. Gillis shoots the s— out of it. So are you going to play Edey one-on-one and take away those guys? Because if that’s the plan, he’s gonna go for 40 like he did against Tennessee. And it’s one thing if Edey catches it in the post, but if he catches it off penetration, you’re dead.


Mason Gillis is one of many weapons besides Zach Edey for Purdue. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

I think middle pick-and-roll with Edey and Braden Smith is the hardest thing to guard. Smith is one of the best point guards in the country. If you play drop coverage, it’s over. He’s really good at that pull-up elbow jumper, and he can make all the passes. If you go under, he shoots 3s at 40-some percent. He’s really crafty, and when you play drop, it allows Edey to dive and get underneath your big guy. And then when he turns back and posts up, he’s already under the hoop. So you got to kind of blitz the ball screen a little bit, keep Smith out of the paint, and then recover and close out to those guys and make them put it on the floor. Nebraska did that well. Their defensive system really counters what Purdue wants to do. They’re a no-middle team. They load up. They make you skip the ball. So Edey never gets a chance to really play one-on-one in the post. And they do a good job of running shooters off the line. So their defensive system actually counters what Purdue does great offensively.

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When the ball goes up, they’re elite. Edey is a monster on the offensive glass, but then they’ve got Gillis and Caleb Furst. They just pound the glass. And when they get an offensive rebound, then those broken plays happen and it gets kicked out and Fletcher Loyer for an open 3. Those are the back-breakers.

Lance Jones has made them better defensively. You can go at Loyer. Smith is good and he’s sound, but he’s small and I think you’ve got to make him play a little bit at both ends. I don’t like f—ing with Lance Jones at all.

You can offensive rebound against them, just because they don’t run a whole lot. They’re a very opportunistic running team. They’ll run off of turnovers, but they’re not going to run a ton, so you can crash.

NC State is not the easiest matchup, because I think they will move him around. And DJ Horne can iso and score. You look at some of the teams they lost to, it came down to Boo Buie and Keisei Tominaga from Nebraska, guys who can just iso you and score. That’s kind of what you have to do. You’ve got to move Edey around and make him guard different things. As good as Edey is at the basket, if you pull him out with a stretch five, he struggles. He doesn’t want to leave the paint. He’s gotten better at it, but that’s not what he wants. But even if you got a spacing five, they’ll put him on a non-shooting four or three, so you got to be creative on how you move Edey around. Because if you just go traditional, they’re just going to funnel everything to him and he’s obviously elite protecting the rim.

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NC State 

It starts with, what do you do with DJ Burns? There’s not a lot to memorize on the scout. They run like five things, but the main thing right now is Burns catching it in the post. You can’t deny him, so what are you going to do once he gets it? They’re not just standing there where you know who to rotate to and where they’re going to be. They’ll baseline cut. They’ll screen away. They’ll slip. They’ll dive to the rim. They’re hard to guard when it’s in there. They move really, really well.

You have to keep Burns guessing what kind of coverage he is facing. Double him, dig on him, play him one-on-one. He’s as good of passer for a big I have ever coached against. You cannot show him the same coverage every time down the court, just like a good pitcher facing someone who can hit. Can’t throw the same pitch. Have to mix it up. You have to force him to his right hand somehow and try to squeeze the angle on it. When you double, it’s best to go once he bounces it, because if he ever sees the double coming, those guys cut and are in pockets ready to shoot. It’s the old Larry Bird line. You double, and I’m gonna be in the opposite corner and you ain’t getting there in time and I’m going to make it. And Burn can just snap balls to where he wants it to go. Those guys are best when he’s doing that.

Horne is on a heater. I thought he was the second-best guard in our league behind R.J. Davis. He’s just such a good shotmaker. You can do your best job defensively, and he’s still making tough, shake-your-hand shots, especially late in the shot clock. He finished Marquette off with a few of those. That’s who should really scare Purdue, because Purdue doesn’t guard the ball great. When they set him a ball screen, drop coverage does not work against him. He will get downhill and score or draw fouls. Gotta get the ball out of his hands. You have to hard-hedge Casey Morsell as well. He has a very good pull-up jumper against the drop.

This is a different team than what they were for most of the season. Early in the year it looked like they weren’t cohesive. Now they’re so cohesive. They were playing a lot more guys early, and they’ve tightened up their rotation. In early January, Mohamed Diarra was barely playing. If you take out the Duke game, he’s been a double-double machine. He’s playing his a– off. He’s taken them to another level. Look at Michael O’Connell’s minutes during this run. They’re not taking him off the floor. Their role players are playing the game to win, and then you’ve got to two fastballs that can change the game.

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Their defense is underrated. They’re playing with so much physicality and confidence on that end. Their ability to guard the ball is elite. Those three guards can guard the ball and bully you off the ball screen, and Ben Middlebrooks is a high-level defender — in the pick-and-roll and low post. And one thing they’re doing more now is playing Burns and Ben together, because Ben can guard the four man.

With Diarra, he can cover up a lot of mistakes. They’re willing to give up some open 3s in their pick-and-roll defense. If one of their opponents during this run had made shots, they’re not here. Burns can get stuck on the perimeter, and Diarra can guard the post because he is 6-10, 215. So sometimes he ends up on the tag and they kind of switch and they load the paint so well and they’re so used to him being half out position half the time. You think you’re gonna get really easy stuff because Burns can’t move, but he does a decent job of taking up some space. His feet are pretty good. Diarra usually guards a guy who can’t shoot, and he mucks it all up. You gotta be able to flip them over and go to get some easy transition baskets, but they do a pretty good job of not turning it over.

They’ve got the perfect team. They all know the rotations. They all believe in their role. They all know they need each other. And they’re really tough to defend.

Connecticut

You can’t turn it over. If you turn it over, it’s two points for sure. They’re the best team in the country at going defense to offense. Your ability to get back is paramount, because the ball gets out so quickly on misses that they just lead to transition 3s, which has kind of been a staple for them. And when they’re not making 3s, which obviously happened the last game at the beginning, they’re gonna heat up at some point and their transition game is just gonna take off.

Their KenPom adjusted tempo is No. 315. They had the 10th-fastest tempo in our conference, yet the No. 1 thing is transition defense. They’ll never run a play off a miss. But on a make, they run their tempo and they’re just slow as hell and they will take 25 off the clock, but it’s all going to be constant movement in the halfcourt.

They have an immaculate playbook of different actions — staggers, wraps, flares, ghosts, pin-downs, zooms, post-ups. They have it all, and they have guys that can play with the ball and without the ball. They’re like the Golden State Warriors, when you watch Steph Curry and those guys and how they move without the ball using off-ball screens. It’s continuous off-ball screening. The four primary perimeter guys, including Alex Karaban, are interchangeable. So one time the play could run staggered screen away for Cam Spencer. Next time it could be for Karaban. Next time it could be for Tristen Newton. They don’t have a weakness on offense. They’re elite cutting. They’re elite shooting. They’re elite passing. They play together. They don’t care who scores.

The teams that beat them kind of just put a guy at the paint and just covered the rim with one guy, like Ryan Kalkbrenner or Hunter Dickinson. When Seton Hall beat them, they just stayed in the paint. Donovan Clingan had 14 points in 12 minutes before he got hurt, which changed that whole game. But they just stayed in the paint and said you’re not going to get shots in the paint. You’re going to have to make shots. That’s probably the only way you can do it, because if they can make plays in the paint and from 3, you’re in trouble.

You spend so much time on how to stop them, but the truth is, it’s incredibly hard to score on them because of what Clingan can do at the rim. Clingan is just a monster defensively. He’s the best defensive player in the country. It was a joke that Kalbrenner was Big East defensive player of the year . It’s not even close in our league. Clingan is just so big, and he can move his feet and he can make multiple plays. You can’t score at the rim because even when you’re not worried about him, you’re kind of worried about him. Then Stephon Castle’s an elite-level defender. Maybe the best perimeter defender in the country. And then you bring Hassan Diarra off the bench, who is basically the same. Just an elite-level defensive player. And they do a great job of hiding Spencer and not letting him get destroyed.

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They have Samson Johnson, the backup five, which is a good changeup when he comes in the game. He hedges a lot, so you gotta beat them with four-on-threes and hitting the roll man. They do a great job in help. They know their weaknesses. They cover them up pretty well. They’re going to be in a drop with Clingan. They’re going to hedge with Johnson. So you got to make sure your guys know the difference of how to move and how to play around it. You’ve got to move the ball and get them in space. Because Clingan plays drop coverage, you can screen on the ball and off and you’re going to have to make jump shots to beat them.

If Clingan gets in foul trouble, it is a game-changer. They have options, and I think they’re prepared for it, but it’s definitely not their best. When Clingan was hurt, they also went with Karaban at the five, and he’s so smart that he’s able to do that and that causes a whole ‘nother dynamic.  One other thing I don’t think has been stated enough is they foul a ton. They’re 10th in our conference at defensive free-throw rate. So I think you can use that against them at times.

You’ve got to pull Clingan away from the basket. If you can get him out away from the rim, you can really do some damage. You got to make some shots. You get decent shots against them. It’s not like you get nothing, but it’s not going to be your main guy. It’s going to be your secondary guys. When you think back to when Creighton got them, it was Steven Ashworth. It wasn’t Baylor Scheierman. It wasn’t Trey Alexander. It was Ashworth. One of your secondary guys has to make some plays. For Alabama, Grant Nelson is going to have to make plays.


Tristen Newton makes UConn go. (Brian Fluharty / USA Today)

They’re also streaky from 3. Newton had a horrible game in their last game and they still won by 25. If it’s a big game and they need him, is he going to 0-of-6 like he did the other night? Most likely not. He’s been incredible this year, and I don’t think he gets the love he deserves. But if he’s not right, or if he has a game like he had the other night, they are vulnerable.

Alabama

They are obviously so analytically driven that they’re very disciplined in terms of their shot selection. Unless you play you play an up-tempo style too, you want to try to keep the possessions lower than they want. It’s easy to say, harder to do, because they’re really good at pushing the tempo and getting the possessions higher, because that’s really a big goal of theirs is higher possessions and pace of play. It’s not that they got this ultra-fast push point guard. They get it out of the net and they make simple spray passes up the sideline, and they just prey on teams not being great in their defensive transition. If they’re open and it’s early, they don’t care. That’s what they want.

If you don’t shoot it, Nate (Oats) is gonna be upset and potentially take you out of the game. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a 25-27 percent 3-point shooter. Jarin Stevenson hasn’t shot great all year but he took eight 3s against Clemson and made five. They want their possessions, and they believe in open 3s and rim shots and stay away from non-rim 2s. They’re eventually going to make it, and they’ve done their research and believe it, so they play with great confidence in that way.

In the halfcourt, it’s really hard to scout them because they’ll come out with new stuff every single game and run that for a while, and then they’ll go back to run something they’ve run six or seven games ago. They just run a lot of stuff that’s good basketball and simple spacing. They force you to break traditional defensive rules. You have to eliminate assisted 3s. They are going to make guarded 3s because they’re good players. But if you only give up the guarded 3s, they might make between eight and 11. If you give them the other ones, they’re going to make 15-plus.

You have to try to keep Mark Sears and Aaron Estrada going to their right hand as much as possible in ball screens. Sears is so good. Until you get out there, you’re like he’s not a great athlete. He’s not super, super fast, but he’s really good at using his off-hand to clear space when he’s driving it. And he’s got that strong, bulky body and he’s got great experience and he shoots it so well that it’s not like you can play off him at all. To me, he’s a poor man’s — and never very poor — Jalen Brunson. He’s one of those guys, send him right, send him right and it doesn’t matter. He’s still gonna get to his left hand.

When Sears and Estrada do get downhill, you have to tell your big not to help uphill because they want to get to the rim and they’re not going to take mid-range shots. So wait until they get to the rim and jump straight up and put your hands to the ceiling and try to make them take tough shots at the rim.

You’ve got to make them guard. They just try to strip and rip. On the strong side, if the penetration is happening from the slot and you slide a shooter to the corner, they’ll lose sight of their guy. They’re heavy to the ball because they want to create as many turnovers as possible so they can keep it a high-possession game. You’ve got to attack them in transition, but if you don’t have anything in your primary, you have to make them sustain on defense to hopefully tire them out. Make those guys get into their legs some. They have individual players that you can try to attack matchup-wise defensively, like Grant Nelson. If you have a quicker guy, you can get by him and if you have a physical player, you can score on him in the post.

They want to beat you from the 3-point line.  So they do everything in their power to defend the 3. And some gaps are open. You have to be able to drive the ball. The paint is incredibly important. You’ve got to win the battle of the paint. However your team does that. If it’s driving the ball, if it’s posting the ball, you have to win the battle of the paint.

Someone commented that UConn’s destroyed traditional teams. Well, Alabama is not traditional. Alabama is different in terms of how they play offensively, and I think that would be the style of play that would give them the most problems. I don’t know who in their right mind would ever pick against UConn right now with the level of play and how they’re beating people. But to me, a team like that would have the best chance.

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(Top photos of Lance Jones, DJ Horne and Donovan Clingan: Kevin Jairaj, Junfu Han and Winslow Townson / USA Today) 





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