Offensive Philosophy, Tim Cluess

Zach Schonbrun, NY Times (

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — It was after one of Iona’s easiest practices of the season, in which the team spent about 45 minutes working on — gasp! — its halfcourt offense, when Coach Tim Cluess ambled over to a folding chair in the empty gym, crossed his legs and began to enumerate the reasons he disdained the current state of college basketball.

“The product stinks,” he said.

The scoring average in Division I is as low as it has been since the 1950s, and Cluess has about a dozen theories why. He can be cagey about issues surrounding his team, like injuries and the daily particulars, but on the topic of basketball in general, Cluess is not reticent about letting off a little steam.

His vexations include N.C.A.A. rules restricting summer workouts (“Let them play as much as they want”), the nap-inducing 35-second shot clock (“Go 24, don’t go 30”) and the declining skills of players coming out of Amateur Athletic Union leagues (“How many guys can shoot the ball nowadays?”).

But mostly, his blame for the trickling pace of the game focuses on too-zealous coaches unwilling to loosen the grips on their players, which is why Cluess might be considered college basketball’s resident libertarian. The Gaels (24-6) are the only Division I team to average 80 points a game in the last four seasons. And their record over that span is 91-39.

“I will never, ever play the game the other way,” Cluess said. “We’re not going to play like everyone else, just because every other coach is doing it. I’d throw up.”

Cluess’s offensive philosophy — the one he has used to lead the Gaels to three N.C.A.A. tournaments in the last four years and a 16-2 record in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this year — is intrinsically basic. Run-and-gun. Pace is imperative. Remember Mike D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less attack with the Phoenix Suns? Too slow, Cluess says.

It is not a free-for-all; the art of the fast break requires precision and repetition, so players can adjust to shooting quickly without rushing. But Cluess is also a vigilant observer of the flow of the game, and part of harnessing that is allowing his players the space to make plays on the fly.

His disregard for the other 99 percent of teams has seemed only to calcify over the years. As analysts fret over the future of offense, Cluess shakes his head.

“What’s happened? We’ve accepted mediocrity,” he said. “How many teams play differently out there now? If you really look at it, there are probably 10 to 15 offensive sets that 90 percent of Division I and N.B.A. teams run, in one form or another.”

The fastest warm-up drill in the country might take place at Hynes Athletic Center, where the Gaels start their practices with the shot clock at five. Then there are four-on-three drills, then three-on-two, then a scrimmage with the shot clock at 10. The early days of training camp are often spent on an outdoor track. Turnovers bring push-ups and missed free throws bring sprints.

The program runs on an endless reserve of energy. It is a requirement for a coach whose relationship with offense might seem, at first glance, like an obsession. At a practice recently, Cluess’s channeled focus during half-court drills appeared almost trancelike; he seemed not to notice as two young women, shooting video for a piece on guard Isaiah Williams, suddenly encroached on the midcourt huddle, a sacred place in basketball. The assistant coaches quietly ushered them away; Cluess can be known for his temper.

Entering Friday, there were 215 Division I teams shooting below 35.1 percent from 3-point range this season. Iona, at 40.5 percent, was tied for ninth in Division I, with more 3-pointers made than all but one other team.

“If you talk to most guys and ask them, ‘Where do you play your best basketball?’ most of them will say, ‘At the park,’ ” Cluess said. “They’ll say, ‘That’s where I’m at my best because I’ve got the freedom to do what I can do.’ ”

“People think, ‘They play free, you’re giving them all this freedom,’ but it’s hard,” the assistant coach Jared Grasso said. “It’s hard to get your guys to play that fast all the time, to also share the ball, not turn the ball over, and those are things we’ve done at a really good clip.”

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