Lean Elements in NCAA Hoops?


Guest Post By Mike Thelen:

New Offense Leads Calipari, Memphis Within One Win of National Championship

Great article on the Memphis basketball team. Do you see the same Lean structure I see?

By nature, coaching is a business of copycats.

That puts John Calipari on the verge of becoming one of the most mimicked men in his profession.

The “dribble-drive motion” offense he uses is among the hottest things going in hoops these days, and his Memphis Tigers show it to the world for the final time this season in Monday night‘s championship game against Kansas.

The essence of the offense is to keep the middle clear, give the ball to playmakers on the perimeter and let them penetrate for layups or kick out to guys who come open.

Sounds like Lean. Give the leaders the ball, let them run with improvements.

It is controlled chaos, indeed, but it takes the effort of a good coach – one who does the bulk of his job in the practice gym, not calling plays from the bench on gameday.

“Sometimes I think we overcoach with certain things we do,” said the offense's inventor, Vance Walberg, who is in San Antonio this week rooting for Calipari and the Tigers. “All this does is show how simple the game is if you give your best players the ball and open gaps for them.”

Management as leaders! Give instruction, provide assistance, don't micro-manage.

Calipari was the first major-college coach to take the plunge. He started tinkering with it after a conversation with Walberg in 2003.

“I said, ‘Tell me about what you guys do,”‘ Calipari said. “He said, ‘You don't want to see it because you won't do it.”‘

Walberg had every reason to believe as much, in large part because he figured no big-time, big-money coach would risk his job on a system that a) has very little to do with calling plays and b) puts the players so much in charge of their system that it often looks like an uncoached mess.

Employee empowerment! Let the “experts” make the decisions and guide improvement.

“Instead of teaching them plays, you start really teaching them how to play,” Walberg said. “It's principles of the game. It's, ‘What happens if you go this way and you stop? What comes open? What happens if you go that way and you stop? What comes open there?”‘

Learning the concept and theory behind the tools! Tools aren't Lean, they are there to help you understand Lean.

Calipari said a coach must commit to a fair amount of letting go to turn his program, and therefore his fate, over to such an offense.

“You have to count on your team to be unselfish, you have to count on your team being able to make great decisions on the run, and you have to understand that what makes it good is they can feel unleashed,” Calipari said.

Teamwork! Trusting your Team. Working as a Team. How much more could you ask for?

The benefits can go beyond simply winning games in the present.

“You can go to a kid and say, ‘Do you wanna play a style where we're scoring in the 50s and 60s every night, or a style where we're in the 80s and 90s?”‘ Walberg said. “It's a style that gets you ready for the next level.”

Continuous Improvement! Lets look to the future, rather than tomorrow. A great use of Long-Term thinking, or at least long-term in the world of College basketball.

“The offense isn't for everybody,” Douglas-Roberts said. “If you can't play 1-on-1, this offense will expose you. But for me, it was good. I've never lost a game of 1-on-1 in my life.”

Lower the water! Expose rocks and remove them. You can't be uncommitted in this system.

The Tigers, of course, augment this style with plenty of good transition offense, trying for easy layups and 3-on-2 fast breaks.

Their opponent, Kansas, is also wide-open, but in a more traditional way, looking to drop the ball into post players – like Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson – in traditional strong-side positions, then kick it out for 3-pointers for Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers if the double teams come.

“The way they run their offense is different than the way we run it, but the philosophy's still the same: Get the ball to the paint,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said.

Indeed, Memphis does that differently.

The post player almost always will be on the weak side, looking for a backdoor cut if the ballhandler's penetration sets it up. The other four players will be on the perimeter, and whoever has the ball is urged to take it to the hoop and see what develops. If it doesn't work the first time, recycle and repeat with a different player handling the ball.

Kaizen! Have a theory, test it, evaluate and reset as necessary!

Some believe packing it in with a zone defense is the best way to neutralize this attack. In the regional semifinals, Michigan State tried that and was trailing 50-20 at halftime.

“We play two or three possessions of it a year,” Self said jokingly of the zone that Kansas largely avoids. “Without telling you what we're going to do, we have to be prepared to guard them in a way that gives us our best chance.”

Which almost certainly means man-to-man.

Nobody has stopped it yet this season, save Tennessee, which handed Memphis its only loss against an NCAA-record 38 wins.

If Memphis makes it 39, Calipari's gamble will have paid off with the biggest reward – the school's first national title.

Certainly, that would bring more converts.

There are plenty already. A Sports Illustrated story in February listed a few hundred who have bought in – from high school teams in Colorado all the way up to the Boston Celtics.

“In the typical year, I get 300 to 400 calls from coaches asking me about it,” Walberg said.

Buy-in through success, benchmarking contacts, sharing information. All Lean keys to success.

Congrats to the Kansas Jayhawks, the national champs…

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. The most glaring problem with all of this is if you actually watched the game the reason Memphis lost was because of this system.

    At the end of the game, the Tigers repeatedly went for poor 3s when they were down and only needed 2s – their players panicked and the letting the “experts” make the decisions completely backfired.

    They made a series of horrid decisions that resulted in horrid shots. More traditional play-calling (or “micro-managing” by your analogy) wouldn’t have allowed for such decisions… At least not the two or three times in a row that Calipari did.

    Otherwise, not a bad try. :)

  2. Interesting stuff to think about.

    Where the analogy seems to break down is with letting the players have free reign. Is this not like Deming complaining about how the MBA students shouldn’t be asked what new subjects should be added, because they’re too young and can’t/don’t know yet?

    But, the idea of teaching a system and then letting people execute is intriguing. Some coaches do border on micro management — it’s fun to watch kids just play sometimes.

  3. Like Lean, the goal here was to look at the concepts and theory, not just the tools. Elements of lean can be found in unique and different areas of our lives, if we simply stop and look.

    Drawing from learning that has taken place in one field, and using (or relating) that learning in a completely unrelated field, aids the effort of spreading Lean. First it was automotive manufacturing, then other manufacturing areas. Now it is spreading to hospitals and service arenas, and elements can even be drawn to education and coaching.

    Every opportunity helps combat the “We’re not Toyota, we can’t do that…” mentality. Can anyone else draw other connections in other fields? It helps broaden our own horizons as well as leaders.


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