Was Florida Too Reliant On The Pick And Roll?

Like most teams in college basketball the Gators relied heavily on the pick and roll this season. In modern basketball the pick and roll is as prevalent as ever, and most team’s offensive schemes revolve around variations of the set, with many actions simply the window dressing that sets up the spacing for a ball handler and a big to get into a two-man game.

Florida’s offense had some high highs and low lows this season where they showed they could score with the best of them for stretches but also went ice cold against teams that neutralized their half court attack. However, when you look at the entire season, Florida’s offense wasn’t bad. They finished 27th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric which is the second highest ranking in the Mike White era and they improved drastically from last season’s dismal 61st placing.

When you look at what changed between last season and this season you’ve got to start with the personnel, particularly the insertion of Kerry Blackshear Jr. who certainly changed the complexion of Florida’s pick and roll offense. With Blackshear in the mix the Gators used him a ton of screening actions where he would have the ability to either roll hard to the hoop or pop out to the three-point line for a catch and shoot opportunity. With Nembhard’s individual scoring ability improving from his freshman to sophomore campaign this was also an opportunity to free him up offensively as the defense would often be so concerned with Blackshear that Nembhard could find some time and space to make a play.

At the beginning of SEC play the pick and roll was effective but as league play went on Florida’s opponents started to figure out what they were doing and defend the Gators in a way that they weren’t going to be able to get easy looks off their favorite play. This resulted in the Gators losing three of their last five games, with each loss featuring at least one five minute or longer scoring drought that ultimately sunk them.

This begs the question—was Florida too reliant on the pick and roll this season?

To start, we’ve got to establish just how many pick and rolls the Gators ran. In total, when you look at both direct shot attempts from pick and rolls as well as the derived offense that came from that action, the Gators used pick and rolls on 36.9% of their offensive possessions.

Of course, I know that number doesn’t mean a lot to you without context so let’s put it into perspective. For starters, the Gators used the pick and roll on 28.3% of their possessions last year, so clearly they ramped up their usage of the set this season. That 28.3% number from the 2018-19 season is also interesting for another reason.

The national average for pick and roll usage in division one basketball in 2019-20? 28.3%.

So, as you now know, the Gators used the pick and roll an average amount in 2018-19 but used it a lot more this season. In truth, they actually ran more pick and rolls than just about anyone in college hoops. The only teams that ran more pick and roll than Florida at 36.9% were:

Northern Colorado
Michigan
North Carolina State
UMass
Florida International
Tulane
Tennessee Tech
George Washington
Illinois State

Now, I simply could have said that Florida was 10th in the country in pick and roll usage this past season but I wanted you to see what teams were ahead of the Gators.

When building a college basketball team and identifying the direction of a program it’s important to look at what’s working in the modern game and look for trends of top teams to see what works and what doesn’t. Yes, some teams are going to be able to instantly come in and reverse a trend and do something revolutionary and win in an entirely new way but in actuality, that doesn’t happen very often.

That brings us back to the list of teams that ran more pick and rolls than the Gators. There are only two power five teams ahead of them, and while Michigan had a solid 20th ranking in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ranking NC State was at a pedestrian 42nd.

Looking at the other programs…you aren’t going to find many good offensive teams.

Simply put, Florida’s pick and roll usage doesn’t exactly put them in elite company nationally. This is where it would be wise for the team to look at national trends and make some schematic decisions based on what that tells them. In this scenario, they should know that if they’re going to run the same steady diet of pick and rolls they’re likely on a trajectory to a similar offensive outcome to what they had this year—good, but not great.

When looking at national trends there is definitely something else that’s worth noting as it relates to pick and roll usage:

The best offenses in college basketball were also the best pick and roll teams.

This was an interesting finding, as it might have been expected that the teams that were best at pick and roll efficiency would run them more often. Take a look at this:

Gonzaga was the best offensive team in the country last season according to KenPom, and they were also the best team in the country in pick and roll offense. They used pick and rolls 23.3% of the time.

Dayton was second in the country in offensive efficiency and was 8th in pick and roll offense. They used pick and rolls 28.6% of the time.

Creighton was third in the country in offensive efficiency and they were 27th in pick and roll offense, and they used them 26.8% of the time.

It is clear that there is a correlation between the ability to score efficiently out of the pick and roll and having an overall productive offense, but it’s also clear that you can’t be too reliant on the pick and roll if you want to be great. Only Dayton used pick and rolls more often than the national average and it was by a fraction of a percent, and Gonzaga was the most efficient pick and roll team by a points per possession perspective but they chose to use them relatively sparingly.

This would suggest that when you use pick and rolls too often, they’re going to lose some of their punch and defenses are going to adjust.

I showed how often Florida went to the pick and roll last season but I haven’t yet said how efficient they were which is a relatively important piece of the puzzle as we sort through their pick and roll usage.

The Gators finished 195th in the country in pick and roll offense.

That number is fairly disappointing considering how often they went to pick and rolls and truthfully it’s surprising given the fact that they were a solid offensive team on the whole.

The Gators were at 0.84 points per possession on pick and roll attempts. Overall they were at 0.94 PPP on the season and 0.92 PPP in the half court. When you put those numbers into perspective, the pick and roll actually became a less effective set than the other offense they were running, and their heavy usage of the pick and roll and the way they continued to go back to it might have hurt them.

If you need further evidence to support that overuse of the pick and roll might have hurt the team as the SEC season went on, how about this. In Florida’s first 7 SEC games they were at 1.1 PPP in pick and rolls, but in the final 11 games they dropped to 0.76 PPP. Now, it’s definitely worth noting that this dip in pick and roll production also coincided with Omar Payne’s drop in minutes, something I have written about in other articles, it also helps paint the picture of the fact that Florida may have been too pick and roll dependent.

Practically speaking, there were a couple of reasons why Florida’s pick and roll offense wasn’t incredibly potent. First of all, Florida wasn’t able to generate quality threes out of the pick and roll when teams sold out on protecting the hoop against the roll man or against the ball handler getting all the way to the tin. Florida only shot 30% on threes derived from pick and rolls, and even with the analytic value assigned to threes that number isn’t good enough. Pick and rolls resulted in the Gators shooting 50% at the rim which is near the national average, but factored in with the lack of threes the team was making it brought their overall efficiency down.

In addition to them not excelling from three or at the rim, they settled for far too many mid range jumpers created out of the pick and roll. 16% of their pick and roll possessions ended in a mid range jumper, plays in which they converted at a 38% clip, or 0.76 PPP, also not a sustainable number for putting together consistent offensive production.

Pick and rolls are as trendy as it gets in modern basketball but for the sake of discussion let’s look at something on the opposite end of the spectrum—the post up. In some basketball circles that’s a dirty word, something the analytics community has tried to largely limit in the 2020 version of the game.

What if I told you that Florida was a better post up team than a pick and roll team?

That might come as a shock to you but it’s the truth, and it isn’t particularly close. The Gators were at 0.91 PPP on post up possessions, a number that easily beats their pick and roll number. Of course, they ran three times the pick and rolls that they did post ups, but you’ve got to note that considering how effective they were when they threw it into the block perhaps they could have done it more.

How about the transition game, something the team was never considered to be that effective when you heard the coaching staff or media discussing it.

While they didn’t have a ton of attempts, the Gators were at 1.11 PPP in transition, easily better than any of their offensive sets in the half court.

Why do I tell you all this? It’s to show that the Gators were effective in other areas of the offensive game and they probably didn’t need to go to the screen and roll as much as they did late in the season. It seemed like they felt it was their best offensive option, and in some cases it was, but they certainly could have looked to other areas of their game like playing through the post or pushing in transition to get the points they needed.

If they’re going to continue to use ball screens in volume next season they may need to add variety to the way they run the play, something they did earlier in SEC play but went away from near the end. When the Gators were at their best they were usually multiple styles of ball screens such as the “wedge” ball screen (screening for a player away from the ball who then goes to set the ball screen), the “drag” screen (a trailing big setting the screen) or the European ball screen (with a second big sitting under the rim sealing a help defender while the main ball screen is ran) to augment the primary way they use the action, which is a typical modern spread ball screen with a lifting wing. Later in SEC play they abandoned the wedge ball screen and the Euro action and, well, we saw how opposing teams were able to adjust.

Florida started the season wanting to play a free flowing style of dribble drive offense before they realized it wasn’t going to work and they totally changed up their philosophies to Princeton-style look that was more structured and it showed that the coaching staff can be malleable when it comes to their offensive attack, and it’s likely they’ll be looking to change up the playbook next season with an evolving roster. When working on their scheme and how they want to look offensively it would be wise to look at how they might have been too reliant on the pick and roll this season and how using it less often could make them more efficient when they do choose to use it, just like how it worked for Gonzaga, Dayton, and Creighton. The pick and roll is always going to be one of the most important parts of any team’s playbook and getting the most out of it could be the difference between Florida’s offense being good or great.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.

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