When he was a player under legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., Horace Broadnax was a part of teams known for their ruthless defense. You had to earn points against those Hoyas — during their run to the 1984 NCAA tournament title, they allowed more than 50 just once, in the championship game against Houston, which had a pretty good center named Hakeem Olajuwon.
Those Hoyas also had a pretty good center in Patrick Ewing. Broadnax, meanwhile, was the backup point guard and thus intimately familiar with Thompson’s defensive principles.
Broadnax soon followed Thompson into coaching and leveraged those strict defensive tenets into three Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference coach of the year awards, including most recently in 2011-12 at Savannah State, when he directed the Tigers to the National Invitation Tournament for the first time in program history.
This past offseason, Broadnax decided to scrap the defense-first approach, at least temporarily. In its place, he installed a frenetic attack built around spreading out an opponent and taking the quickest uncontested shot available, preferably a three-pointer in transition.
After what Broadnax described as a rough go to the start the season, his players have taken to the offensive overhaul in recent weeks, with Savannah State now on a five-game winning streak. Included in that run was a 73-70 victory over Howard on Saturday at Burr Gymnasium to keep the Tigers (9-12, 6-2) in the hunt for the MEAC regular season title.
“It looks crazy, but you’re trying to teach them how to play,” Broadnax said. “You’re teaching how to think real fast. You’ve either got the shot, and if you don’t, you’ve got to get it to somebody else. If not, try to get a layup. We’ve got some rules and some structure to it, and they really have to think.”
Entering Monday night, Savannah State led Division I in both three-pointers attempted (40.7) and made (14.1) per game. The Tigers also ranked 14th nationally in scoring offense (85.0), having reached 100 points in four games and 90 four other times.
Further illustrating Savannah State’s pace is that 44.3 percent of its overall field goal attempts in a game come in transition, according to hoop-math.com, which computes advanced metrics in college basketball. One glaring consequence of Savannah State’s breakneck clip, though, has been that it is allowing opponents to score an average of 94.3 points ; that total ranks 346th out of 347 schools in Division I.
It is, in short, a significant shift in operating procedure from that which Broadnax spent countless hours learning under Thompson. Georgetown’s opponents never averaged more than 66.8 points per game in any of Broadnax’s four seasons, and during his junior year, the Hoyas ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense (58.9).
“The points that we’ve been giving up, he’d probably say, ‘Horace, you’re a jackass,’ ” Broadnax, referring to Thompson, said with a laugh.
Yet there are several nods to Georgetown’s all-time winningest coach despite the Tigers’ preference to shoot three-pointers, which college basketball didn’t implement until the 1986-87 season. Broadnax’s team presses frequently, beginning at three-quarters court, and typically traps as soon as an opponent crosses half court.
The defensive approach is intended not only to create turnovers but also to speed up opponents to the point of late-game fatigue, allowing Savannah State players cleaner looks from beyond the three-point arc.
“I don’t mind the up-tempo as long as it’s done with intelligence, but the threes, that’s something he’s absolutely right,” Thompson, a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, said last week when asked for his assessment of Broadnax’s offensive philosophy. “We always had very good big inside players, so it would have been very foolish for us to just throw up threes.”
The Tigers have no Ewing, Mourning or Mutombo. In fact, they have just one center at all, 6-foot-10 junior reserve Maricus Glenn, a reality that in part contributed to Broadnax retooling the offense. No other player on the roster is listed as taller than 6-7, and among the tallest members of the starting lineup is 6-5 sophomore guard Dexter McClanahan, who had a game-high 29 points against Howard.
McClanahan went 6 for 11 from three-point range in that game, including three in a row during a run late in the second half that put Savannah State ahead to stay. He leads the Tigers in three-pointers made (52) and is one of three players with at least 40.
Notably, all 46 of senior guard Casey Wells’s field goals this season have been from beyond the arc.
Savannah State went 15 for 51 on three-pointers against the Bison. It was the second-most three-pointers the Tigers have attempted in a game and the third time they’ve shot at least 50.
“We try to shoot the ball a lot, so sometimes defense takes a back seat,” McClanahan said. “You go to the gym, and you just shoot threes and play around. To be able to play like that on this level, it’s good. It’s fun. It’s real fun.”