Marshall basketball coach Dan D’Antoni was angry. His team had been down 20 points at halftime during a late December non-conference game against Pittsburgh (“We looked like we were running in mud,” he said), had exploded in the second half, scoring 1.45 points per possession on a variety of back-breaking 3-pointers and half-court cuts that led to easy layups, and still lost. Any team that can drop 68 points in 20 minutes should win the game, but the final score was 112-106 in favor of Pittsburgh. “We booted it,” he said. When a reporter questioned whether the team’s high number of 3-point attempts might explain the loss, he got testy.
Decked out in his customary Marshall basketball t-shirt and a dark blazer, D’Antoni unspooled what he referred to as his “daggone analytics story”: “The last two championships have been Cleveland and Golden State,” he said, talking about the NBA. “What did they do? You don’t see anybody post up. They just spread that thing out and go.”
D’Antoni became an overnight exemplar of analytics. But can an NBA blueprint remake a mid-major team with subpar talent in the NCAA?
When I asked D’Antoni about his quote, he said that he didn’t mean to embarrass the reporter but, “I could’ve said, ‘Of all those five players on the floor, how many of them do you think we had rated higher for college play than [Pittsburgh] had?’ And we’re within a few points of them. That’s like going to the playground and giving the other team the first five picks, saying, ‘Let’s play,’ and then when they win, saying they outcoached us. Give me a break.”
This is D’Antoni’s third season at Marshall, after roughly a decade as an NBA assistant, where he coached alongside his younger brother, Mike, in Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles. Thus far, his tenure has mostly been a success. Before he arrived in Huntington, Marshall had been known more as a stepping stone for rising coaches, such as Billy Donovan and Donnie Jones, than for any on-court successes: the team had finished under .500 nine times since 2001-02. The Herd won 17 games in 2016 (the record marked Marshall’s fifth-highest win total in the 2000s) and quickly notched 14 wins this season before a three-game losing streak the past two weeks sapped some of the squad’s momentum. Now tied for fifth in Conference USA, the Herd have an uphill climb to make it to the NCAA tournament. They face arguably the conference’s toughest February slate — UAB, Old Dominion, and Middle Tennessee all loom during this next week; they’ll likely need a run through the CUSA tournament to make it to the dance.
D’Antoni isn’t your usual coach. As I prepped for our interview, I read an article about D’Antoni that mentioned he once said he hugged a tree in his front yard each morning. When I asked D’Antoni about it, he said, “I believe there is a connection between here and somewhere else, and since the tree is a living thing, I connect through it and thank it for everything I have been fortunate to have.” But perhaps even more compelling is his attempt to transform Marshall, a team composed of borderline DI players, a walk-on, and an ex-DII player, into one of the nation’s most analytically efficient offenses.
“If you do just the ordinary, you’ll lose, so you have to do something unusual to beat people more athletically gifted than you,” D’Antoni said.
For the Marshall coach, that means streamlining an offense so that his players are executing each possession with the intent of taking the most efficient shot possible. And D’Antoni knows all of the percentages. “I’ve told our players the numbers forever,” D’Antoni said. “When you look at offense, it’s not about the overall scheme — it’s about the actions within an offense, and you have to know the best odds for scoring.” Using data culled from the NBA, which D’Antoni contended still applies to the college game, a corner 3, which is worth 1.27 points per shot, is the best shot in basketball. The next best shot? “Any other three,” he said. A lay-up — “a clean lay-up,” D’Antoni stresses — is even better: 1.8 points per shot.1
Which is why Marshall never stops shooting. Roughly 43 percent of the team’s attempts are from beyond the arc, squaring Marshall within Division I’s top 50 (per Ken Pomeroy), and according to Synergy Sports, Marshall scores 1.08 points per spot up (1.17 points per catch and shoot), which is bested by only 23 other DI squads. “I don’t know if there is another team in the country that does as many shooting drills as we do,” said Austin Loop, a junior guard with the third-best overall offensive rating in Division I and who has converted 49 percent of his 3’s. Perhaps not coincidentally, Marshall scores at one of the country’s most efficient clips, dropping 1.11 points per possession, which is the highest ever for a D’Antoni-coached team (and good for the top 60 nationally).
“We go over every stat that the coaches keep,” Ryan Taylor, Marshall’s senior stretch-4, said. That includes game-by-game plus/minus reports, which are presented to the Herd via a white board in their locker room, as well as intensive film sessions and Synergy analysis (provided by D’Antoni and the rest of the coaching staff). “Coach D’Antoni wants us to make at least 36 percent of our 3’s, which equates to 52 percent on 2’s,” Taylor elaborated.2 “Taking 3’s is easier for us — since it is farther away from the basket, it isn’t contested, and then it opens up our offense even more.”
D’Antoni didn’t naturally warm to this style of play. During his initial years as a high school coach in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he coached conservatively: “My teams were constantly posting up and taking contested 2’s, which are essentially worthless. Those shots only count for .78 points and are the worst shot in basketball.”
His thinking didn’t change until a late-1980s conversation with Mike, then playing in Europe, who relayed the revolutionary impact of the 3-point shot overseas. Dan began to eliminate post ups and mid-range jumpers, and he emphasized 3-point attempts and pick-and-rolls. He continued to fine-tune his offensive approach after he ditched the high school ranks and followed his brother to Phoenix as an assistant, where the two coined the phrase “athletic ball,” a concept D’Antoni brought with him to Marshall: “Instead of a player creating a scoring opportunity, you move the ball quickly so that the ball creates the opportunity. That way, a player who isn’t as athletic but is skilled can play against anybody. As long as the ball is free flowing, it’ll get to the place where that guy is capable of making that shot.”
As Mike explains, “Something has to be athletic enough on the floor if your players aren’t, and the ball zipping around accomplishes that.”
That’s being put to the test at Marshall. D’Antoni arrived at the college game at a fitting moment. Since 2002, DI’s 3-point field goal attempts rate — the percentage of shots taken beyond the arc — has jumped from 32.1 to 36.2 percent, the highest it has ever been. What works for Cleveland, Golden State and the majority of the NBA — spacing the floor through the 3-pointer — has finally begun to saturate the DI level, and thanks to the years D’Antoni spent on the NBA sidelines, Marshall has been a leader in this strategic shift (the Herd’s 3-point attempts rate jumped from 34 to 42 percent in his first season).
As the team’s 14-11 record makes clear, though, change takes time. What D’Antoni is preaching clearly works at the NBA level, but his players are not of that caliber, and the learning curve — even 90 games into his tenure — is still much steeper.
During Marshall’s recent losing streak, the Herd made just 30 percent of its 3’s and scored an anemic 1 point per possession. D’Antoni spends each practice teaching his players what constitutes a good shot from a bad shot in his free-flowing and fast-paced offense, but the line separating the two is still very much open for interpretation when the players take the court.
“If you watch us play, we still take a lot of bad shots,” said former assistant coach Chris Duhon, who spoke with FiveThirtyEight before he resigned in January after an arrest for driving with a license revoked stemming from a DUI. “We haven’t mastered that process yet.”
“Obviously they take some bad 3’s, but heck, if I coached any other way, they’d take some bad 2’s,” D’Antoni said. “But I don’t want players looking over their shoulders to see what is a good shot or not. Our offense gives them a freedom to play the game and use their own smarts to create good shots. Let them choose.”
This is the only way D’Antoni knows how to coach, and as a self-described “gunslinger,” the only way he believes Marshall will succeed is through what he calls his ‘organized chaos’ offense. “There is more to it than just saying, ‘Here’s an analytic game plan, let’s do it,’” he said. “I may have opened up how the game is played, but I never want to stand pat.”
He continued, “I am a big believer in risk. You have to know how to bet, know the odds, and have a feel for everything. How far along I am with my coaching and whether it’ll work, I don’t know. I tried to figure out the odds, and I just know what I’m coaching at Marshall presents us the best odds for winning.”