Does the Hi-Lo Fit Short Bigs? Beta 2.0
How much sense does it make to run the high-lo with short bigs?
Wooden ran the high post offense, whenever he had teams with centers 6-9, or under to keep the area near the basket open for the get-to-the-rim game and for rebounding. He ran the low post when he had great centers 6-11 or over (e.g., Jabbar, Walton and Washington). Wooden said he personally preferred the high post offense, but that a great, tall center had to be set up near the basket to get the most out of him.
Iba created the hi-low in the mid 1960s for his first Olympic team that Larry Brown played point guard on in order to have an offense that was quick to learn, and could make use of an abundance of big men he was able to draw from for a USA team. Brown took the offense to Dean and Dean added a few wrinkles and renamed it the Carolina Passing offense. Dean ALWAYS played with two tall bigs, because he could always find at least two recruiting in the heavy population centers of the EST back in the mid 1960s to 1980s.
Self has been able to keep the larder increasingly stocked with 3 to four fairly long bigs (at least if he exaggerated their height by two inches), either including one bonafide footer and rim protector, or a stretch 4 (e.g., Marcus Morris), or a stretch 5 (i.e., Kieff Morris). Stretch 4s and stretch 5s put so much pressure on pulling their men away from the basket that they are almost as good as having a foot rim protector.
One exception was Self’s first year, when he went with Wayne Simien at the 5. Wayne was a super rare wide body that was super athletic and had a back2basket game that was such sure money on the low block that Self could use slender Christian Moody for helping Wayne double and take dishes from Wayne and get to an Elite Eight doing it.
The other exception would be this season, when Self has been talking about 6-9 (actually 6-7) Perry at 4, with presumably 6-8 (actually 6-6) Bam Bam backing up Perry, and 6-8 (maybe actually 6-8) Cliff at 5 with 6-10 (actually 6-9) Landen backing him up.
One could also make a case that Cole’s teams had low standing height bigs, because it turned out 6-11 Cole was barely 6-9, and because Marcus Morris was really only 6-7 on a fully hydrated day. But…
Cole had incredibly long arms and long hands as his wing span measure in the field house display makes clear and so he played far taller than he stood, plus he was the quintessential mad stork with a Dodge Hemi Motor, when not injured in the knees. Further, Marcus was a stretch 4 and a stretch 4 with a rim protecting 5 is always a workable hi-lo combination. So: we have to count Cole’s teams among the classic hi-lo teams.
There is considerable discussion about the '08 ring team having low standing height among the bigs. The team started actually 6-9 Shady and actually 6-8 DBlock and subbed with actually 6-10 man mountain Sasha Kaun. Shady continues to play in the NBA as a 4, so Shady by definition was/is not a “small” big. DBlock was an athletic freak with skinny bouncy legs and a massively cut upper body. DBlock has a physique that has made a couple of NBA teams try to develop him as a 4, but his skills are apparently to limited for The Big Show. Still the body and development were there to be called a very strong and formidable big in '08. Cliff seems to have more skills and similar athleticism to DBlock, but he is a freshman, and he lacks DBlocks freakish upper body strength, at least as a freshman. Cliff should be orders of magnitude better suited to play hi-lo post as a freshman than was DBlock, but until Cliff walks the D1 walk for a season, the logical inference is that Senior DBlock was a man fit to play the hi-lo game and Cliff is at most a young man trying out the hi-lo game.
Don’t misunderstand me. You can play the hi-lo game with Herve Villlachaise and Miguelito Lovelace at the 4 and 5 and make it work. Self ran the hi-lo at Tulsa with some not-so-very-tall bigs and guarded, pressured, passed and shot their way to an Elite Eight. Self got to an Elite Eight with Big Wayne banging bodies and Bibles on the low blocks Self’s first season at KU. It can be done.
But can you go 40-0 today, and win a ring, with a hi-lo with a bunch of standing height challenged, non athletic freaks at the 4 and 5?
Remember, Wooden ran the table (32-0) and won the ring with a high post offense without a player over 6-5. And he won a ring the next season without a player over 6-8, or a true center, running the high post again. And he won another ring or two with the high post with 6-9 stretch 5 Steve Patterson outside and 6-8 Sidney Wicks and 6-6 Curtis Rowe on the wings.
The high post offense’s strength is four perimeter guys that can shoot the long ball AND slash to iron. It distributes ball handling between two guards (the 1 and 2) out front and two high wings (the 3 and 4) and puts a burly, or else extremely athletic short post man at the 3 point line near the top of the free throw circle. That high post man has to be extremely active and a fine passer for he as much as the point guard is making the entry passes to the wing cutters, the lobs, and on occasion putting the ball on the deck and driving into the paint. The high post played properly can put more pressure on a defense than any other offense going, because it eliminates ball reversal to get the ball to both sides. This is the great forgotten secret of the single high post offense and this is why is should come back into use.
The only virtue of ball reversal is that it makes defenders slide more than offenders.
The vice of ball reversal is that during reversal there is almost zero threat of scoring UNTIL the ball reaches the opposite wing. This means that for perhaps a third to a half the seconds of a possession, the defense is not being stressed with the immediate threat of being scored on. Anyone that thinks through a team energy budget understands that this is basically giving a good defensive team a long rest, because good defensive teams are in such good sliding condition they are unstressed when sliding during ball reversal. This fact is why Self has resorted to resuscitating Iba’s old weave. Ball reversal does not deplete a good defense’s energy budget the way forcing them to actively guard a weave which IS a threat to transition into a scoring attempt at any moment.
But the weave is spatially inefficient and taxing to the offense also. And it invariably grows riskier in its passes the longer it runs. So: while the weave is a good occasional wrinkle to throw at a team, it is a flawed tactical solution to the problem cascading from depending on ball reversal in the hi-lo scheme.
The high post offense solves this problem. The moment the ball bogs down on the wings it goes immediately to the high post and the high post man is in position to pass suddenly to a high wing (1) and a low wing (3) on one side, or a high wing (2) and a low wing (4) on the other side. This symmetry paralyzes the defense’s ability to help. It forces one on one isolations. It enables all cutters to be cutting at 45 degree angles all of the time. Wooden studied for years and concluded that the 45 degree cut is the hardest cut for a defender to defend. Thus every second of every possession the ball can return to the high post and the suddenly 4 of 5 offensive players ARE IN SCORING POSITION.
The problem with the hi-lo is that unless the ball is in the high post hands, the offense is always moving to one wing, or the other, to initiate attack, and so is always attacking a defense always over shifted and in position to help. Basically the hi-lo creates a 3 men in attack position against a 5 man, overshifted help defense. It attempts to compensate with ball reversal but ball reversal is very flawed as a tactic for reasons discussed above.
The hi-lo is designed to compensate another way for the over shift. The ball goes into the high post, but here is where the high post becomes almost useless without a dominant low post player. When the ball goes into the high post in a single post offense, the middle is open and four men are in instant position to attack on 45 degree angle cuts. But in the high low, when the ball goes into the high post, the low post is clogging the lane and there is an imbalance of 2 players on one side and 1 player on the other side. This allows a defense to shift to help one side. But worse still, it means none of the cutters is in position to take his man to the rim without confronting the low post defender. And if you have a low post offender that is not a skillful scorer off the dish, then this is the worst of all possible worlds for a hi-lo offense.
(Note: now do you see why Self has insisted barely 6-8 5 Cliff Alexander learn to jump hook? If he can’t get a shot off inside when his man moves to shut off the slasher to the rim, Cliff is absolutely useless at 6-8 in a hi-lo offense. And if the low post is not an offensive threat in the hi-lo, then everything defaults to the stretch 4 and sooner or later, unless the stretch 4 is a future NBA all star, some D1 defense in the tournament will have a lock down defender at the 4 that shuts down your stretch 4 and your hi-lo turns into a bunch of slow ball reversals and unopen threes mixed with occasional desperate slashes without screens to the rim.)
The dominance of the hi-lo depends heavily on MUA low post play, and great outside shooting. If you don’t have both, it is, frankly, a stupid offense to play. It is stupid to play it, not because you won’t win a lot of games with it, but because you probably won’t win the big games against a team with dominant low post play and great outside shooting, unless that opponent just plays in the bottom third of its performance distribution, which is only a 33% probability.
When you have a great low post player, and 2-3 great outside shooters, the hi-lo is a marvelous offense for obvious reasons. It gives you the best of the low post offense and some of the best of high post offense.
When you don’t have a great low post player, don’t play it.
The high post is not without its flaws either. You have to have either a big burly high post that can pass accurately and pot the triceratop, or you have to have an incredibly athletic high post that can put it on the deck from 23 feet out and get up above the rim on the drives.
The high post also requires a lot of good perimeter players.
The talent on this KU team could play either offense and do well.
But the only way this team can win a ring, IMHO, is playing the high post superbly.
The team’s vulnerabilities at the low post are going to surface sooner or later, most likely in March when there is no second chance, too.
So: my answer would be NO!