Season of Change: Back to dribble-drive

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
8:10
PM ET
Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we turn our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules, and anywhere in between. We call it "Season of Change." Today: John Calipari's dormant dribble-drive motion is ready to re-take the stage.

Before, when John Calipari was still turning Memphis into an annual national title contender, he earned a weird, paradoxical reputation: To casual fans (or "haters"), Calipari was just some clever salesman who recruited talented players and rolled the balls out. In reality, the offensive system that reinforced this reputation -- the freedom-based, talent-reliant, dribble-drive motion offense adapted in the mid-aughts from then-obscure junior college coach Vance Walberg -- was totally, radically innovative. Calipari, as usual, was years ahead of his time.

And now it's back.

Calipari brought the dribble-drive to Kentucky, of course, but he never has leaned on it the way he did at Memphis. (Calipari's adaption of Walberg's system was less radical than Walberg's itself in the first place; Calipari added the "motion" himself.) The John Wall-Eric Bledsoe-Demarcus Cousins-Patric Patterson group had the right two-guard perimeter to pull it off (and often did) but was just as often better served simply banging the ball down low. The next season, with Brandon Knight at the helm, Calipari worked in even more of his traditional (both for him and for his profession) motion offense. In 2011-12, the national champs blended some of the spacing and penetration principles of the dribble-drive (as did last year's less successful edition), but just as often relied on more conventional pin-downs and high screens.

This season, though, Calipari has steadfastly promised more dribble-drive, for two very good reasons:

  1. He has the best talent in the country.
  2. He has the most dribble-drive-ready talent he's ever had at UK.

You can read more about the actual system all over the Internet, naturally; wonky primers are available here and here. In sum, the system relies on spacing two point guards or combo guards at the top, with two athletic shooters/wings in the corners, and a dominating, skilled presence on the low block.

[+] EnlargeJames Young
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyWith Kentucky playing more dribble-drive, James Young should thrive on baseline cuts to the rim.
Calipari's backcourt, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, were practically born to play dribble-drive; both are strong, physical guards who excel at getting to the front of the rim. Wing James Young -- an athletic, 6-foot-7 forward with a sweet left-handed shot -- will be an absolute terror out of the corner; I can already picture him blowing by late closeouts. Alex Poythress can do similar things out of the opposite corner.

That group alone is frightening to conceive. The interesting part is the frontcourt, and how Calipari ends up balancing minutes for Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, freshman center Dakari Johnson, and preseason SEC POY Julius Randle. Calipari has been putting Randle at the free-throw line for many of his possessions in practice, which provides an interesting wrinkle; Calipari probably will play Cauley-Stein and Randle together pretty frequently.

The more conventional motion wrinkles Calipari has run in recent seasons still will be present, dependent on the personnel on the floor at any given time. But with all of that skill and all of that length and all of those options, Calipari can open things up, spread his lineups out and give his players freedom to simply be better than their opponents -- which is exactly what the dribble-drive is designed to do.

It won't be Walberg's system in toto; it won't even be Walberg's system distilled. But what UK does in 2013-14 will be more dribble-drive-oriented than at any time in Calipari's years in Lexington. For opponents, this should be terrifying. For the rest of us, it sounds like a lot of fun to watch.

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