KU’s “Zone Fist Crack” play
Marvin Bagley stopped his backpedal in the middle of the lane, whipping his head quickly from side to side.
The freshman forward — stationed as the last line of defense in Duke’s zone against Kansas in this year’s Elite Eight — wasn’t going to be tricked this time.
Two possessions earlier he’d watched as KU’s Devonté Graham floated a pass over his head for an alley-oop to Udoka Azubuike. Teammate Javin DeLaurier remembered that too, yelling at Bagley from a few steps away to remind him to be alert.
None of it helped.
KU’s Silvio De Sousa did just as he was just told by coach Bill Self. He cut to the lane just as teammate Marcus Garrett screened Bagley, received a pass from Graham and finished with an uncontested layup.
The basket extended KU’s lead to 55-50 with 11:32 remaining, and while KU fans celebrated in the stands, coaches and basketball gurus across the country began to buzz about the clever inner workings of the play.
Gibson Pyper, whose Half Court Hoops Twitter feed has become a resource for coaches, called the set “AMAZING,” and the accompanying video of De Sousa’s layup received 1,300 retweets — the most of any in his account’s history.
“That was one of the best plays of March Madness,” said Doug Brotherton, a regional scout for the Chicago Bulls.
It was a key moment for KU basketball too.
The Jayhawks defeated Duke, 85-81 in overtime, meaning every point in regulation was pivotal to force an extra period. Though the play that resulted in De Sousa’s bucket might have seemed simple on first glance, its roots traced back more than six years and involved a number of elements. Among them: coaching savvy, good timing — and a bit of dumb luck.
Which leads us to today.
On Friday at Late Night in the Phog, when KU officially unveils its 2018 Final Four banner in the rafters, most fans will think back to the big moments against Duke: Svi Mykhailiuk’s clutch three, Grayson Allen’s jumper rimming out at the end of regulation, Malik Newman catching fire in OT.
That 11-second segment, though — the one that led to Graham finding De Sousa — deserves its own recognition too.
Now in his 16th year at KU, Self estimates that 90 percent of his team’s plays are ones he’s either devised or stolen from another team.
“This play though,” Self said, “has an interesting story.”
Yes, the scheme that resulted in De Sousa’s layup — the one that immediately went viral among coaches — found its way into the Jayhawks’ playbook in a most unusual manner.
It got there, Self said, by accident.
Bill Self’s voice echoed across the empty seats at Allen Fieldhouse: “OK, run it again.”
This was January 2012 — the practice before a game against Baylor — and the coach was curious about what was going to happen next.
The success from a few seconds earlier was a surprise, as KU was working on its zone offense when forward Kevin Young went completely off script.
This wasn’t new. Young, known for his basketball smarts, had earned Self’s trust to experiment in practice.
In this case, Young felt confident about his instincts. He knew the ball was going to be swung to his side, so when it was, he stuck his butt into practice defender Jeff Withey to clear space in the lane.
Teammate Elijah Johnson threw a pass intended for Young, but the ball never made it there. Thomas Robinson, while cutting to the rim, grabbed the ball in front of Young and quickly dunked it without a defender around him.
Self was immediately intrigued by the chaos. He stopped practice and huddled privately with Young, instructing him to repeat what he’d just done with a new wrinkle: He was to screen Withey instead of posting him up.
The new version worked just as well. Screen. Pass. Catch. Dunk.
Self had seen enough.
“That’s going to be our first play against Baylor,” he told the team.
The video proves Self followed through a day later.
On Jan. 16, 2012 — in a game at Allen Fieldhouse between third-ranked Baylor and seventh-ranked KU — the Jayhawks’ first opportunity for a set play came after the under-16-minute media timeout. Robinson cut to the basket, Withey shuffled into Baylor’s Cory Jefferson to throw the equivalent of a football block and Johnson fired a pass to the lane. A second later, Robinson finished with a two-handed slam.
Young, a reserve who was watching nervously on the bench, breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’d never put in a play before,” Young said, “so it was pretty cool.”
He hadn’t thought much about it since. KU ran the play a few other times the next two seasons, and after that, Young began his professional career, which recently included a stint with the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors.
On an afternoon this past March, Young shuffled quickly through an airport to find the closest TV on his way back from California. While waiting on his flight to Kansas City, he watched the last few minutes of KU’s Elite Eight victory over Duke.
He had no idea what had happened a few minutes earlier, just about the time his plane was touching down.
Self had run the play again — only this time, on a much bigger stage.
Malik Newman took two dribbles and two steps after crossing halfcourt, charging ahead without any hesitation.
One of the nation’s best shot-blockers stood in his way. Wendell Carter, Duke’s 6-foot-10 freshman, waited in the lane, preparing to swat away any potential shot attempt with his right hand.
Newman kept coming, though. He stuck his right shoulder into Carter’s body, creating contact and drawing a foul with 16:06 left.
The foul was Carter’s fourth, and it set in motion the events needed for a successful KU possession four minutes later.
Assistant coach Norm Roberts was in charge of the scouting report for Duke. And he knew that with Carter out of the game, the Blue Devils faced a dilemma.
Bagley — Duke’s other star big man — was not as good of a defender. He also was not comfortable playing as the center man in Duke’s zone, which was his responsibility when the team went to its small-ball lineup.
After a short time with 6-foot-11 Marques Bolden in the game, the Blue Devils substituted to go small. That left Bagley on his own in the middle, a detail that Roberts identified right away.
“We said, ‘Let’s run some action,’” Roberts said, “‘and make Bagley guard something he hasn’t seen before.’”
The perfect opportunity came after a media timeout.
KU had gone over its zone plays the day before at practice, but Self wanted to give a refresher on one in particular. He pulled out his markerboard in the huddle, reminding each player where he was supposed to go.
“He just said he knew it was going to work,” Garrett said.
There was good reason for that.
Roberts believes one of Self’s best qualities as a coach is his ability to examine all 10 guys on the floor and process what each is doing. In this instance, Duke was playing its outside defenders up near the three-point line, a second-half adjustment that was likely to leave certain passing lanes open.
Self knew exactly the play he wanted, scribbling out the one that Young had dreamed up back in 2012.
A few seconds later, as Graham dribbled the ball upcourt, KU’s coaches watched every tiny-but-important detail play out right in front of them.
There was De Sousa faking a ball screen, attempting to occupy Trevon Duval for a half-second, just so he stayed out of a potential passing lane.
There was the shooter Mykhailiuk positioning himself in the corner, with his presence there stretching out the defense so the interior would remain open.
And there was Garrett, at the exact right moment, coming up to screen Bagley while clearing a path to the basket for De Sousa.
“It doesn’t work all the time,” Roberts said. “In that game, in a big moment, it worked.”
The maneuver helped set history as we know it, with KU advancing to its first Final Four since 2012.
Meanwhile, in coaching circles across the nation, the play’s ripple effect had just begun.
Doug Brotherton could barely keep up with all the requests.
After making a presentation to 40 coaches at the Jay Bilas Camp in June — and showing them a handful of plays that could work for their teams — Brotherton realized that one generating extra attention was KU’s zone set.
“You could see the coaches light up,” Brotherton said.
The intrigue was evident afterward too. Brotherton had coaches at all levels approaching him, asking him to email a diagram for future use.
Brotherton was happy to share, while also saving the file on his own computer for the girls high school team he coaches in Houston.
“Hopefully that’ll be something we run after a timeout that helps us win a really big game in February or March,” Brotherton said. “The same way it did for Kansas.”
In Greensboro, N.C., Ben L. Smith high school coach Derrick Partee saw a rival coach talk about the play on Twitter and is going to put it in his offense next year, believing it’ll be a good way to get his big man the ball.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Robert Simmons has already run the play in both practice and scrimmages with his middle-school team. He first saw it live while watching the KU-Duke game at his home.
“I thought it was genius,” Simmons said.
Though it won’t have the same fanfare as Self’s “Chop” — the famous motion that opened up Mario Chalmers for a three-pointer in the 2008 national championship game — it’s likely that this KU creation will have a long shelf life of its own.
And though it will have different names in different places, it’s likely to still be known by the same word in the Jayhawks’ locker room.
Self has always done this with his playcalls. If he gets an idea from an NBA team, he might name it “Celtic” or “Laker.” Or if another coach suggests something new, he might use that person’s first initial in the title.
That’s why the name of this play has never changed.
“You know what we call it?” Self said. “We call it, ‘Young.’”
Some day, after his playing career is over, Kevin Young says he wants to become a coach. He’s always thought it might be something he’d be good at.
This, he says, just gives him an extra bit of confidence.
“I didn’t think they still ran it,” Young said. “That’s really awesome.”
Self did more than just watch Young’s idea in practice. He tweaked it and called it the next day. He saved it all these years later.
And then, in last season’s most important game, he brought it back out.
Making a Final Four typically requires some of the same elements: Coaching savvy, fortunate timing, good luck.
Self had all of those, and in this case, fate didn’t hurt either.
And who’s to say a happy accident can’t be part of KU lore.