Terps' muscle puts `flex' back in style

College basketball: The `flex' offense, which features constant cutting and screening and all five players in motion, is gaining converts thanks to Maryland's success under Gary Williams.

Ncaa Tournament

March 20, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - 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.

Gonzaga has run it for years with three different coaches, two of whom worked under the man who gave the offense its name, former Santa Clara coach Carroll Williams. Wisconsin-Milwaukee used it to earn its first bid to 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.

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