The very best plays don't need to be overly complicated. If the defense demonstrates a fatal flaw and show no sign of actually fixing it, there's nothing wrong with continuing to attack it. Don't needlessly complicate things, especially when you're coaching college kids.
That was Mercer's strategy in upsetting mighty Duke. Throughout the game, the Blue Devils failed to defend the simplest of plays: the high pick-and-roll. Mercer's guards were able to create openings, and Duke's big men were consistently late to close those up. Toss in a few diversions that prevented Duke from keying in on the simple action, and Mercer got whatever it wanted.
Take the key sequence in the game: Daniel Coursey's three-point play with 1:07 left to give Mercer a five-point lead it wouldn't relinquish. This was a beautiful outcome, but it really wasn't that complicated of a play.
In fact, it was the same play that Mercer tried earlier in the possession. As Langston Hall dribbled up the left side, Jakob Gollon ran over to the right block to set a screen for Coursey. This screen-the-screener action is designed to give Coursey a head start as he meanders over to run the high pick-and-roll with Hall. If executed correctly, Coursey's defender ends up a step behind, which affects how Duke defends the pick-and-roll.
But initially, this doesn't work. Amile Jefferson does a nice job of trapping Hall and preventing him from turning the corner, and the rest of the Duke defense is in good enough position to prevent the rolling pass to Coursey.
So, Mercer resets ... and tries again. Gollon again comes down to screen for Coursey, then runs to the corner to occupy his defender. Coursey again comes off that little screen and sets up on Hall's right for the pick-and-roll.
This time, though, Jefferson is not where he's supposed to be. Hall does a really smart thing here, throwing in a little crossover to make Jefferson think he's going left. As soon as Jefferson leans that way, Hall goes behind his back and begins going right. By the time he's accelerating, Jefferson is unable to cut off the right-handed drive.
Now, Duke is in trouble. Quinn Cook, Hall's primary defender, is well out of the play because he expects the trapping Jefferson to step up and divert Hall's path away from the hoop. Rasheed Sulamoin is the next-closest defender, but he can't commit to the drive too much because that'll leave 47-percent three-point shooter Anthony White wide open from the right wing.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Tyler Thornton makes a huge mistake. There are many ways to defend the pick-and-roll, but Duke has committed to a strategy where two players trap the ball. In order to prevent easy rolls to the rim, the defender on the opposite side needs to slide down just enough to close the passing lane, then rotate back to his own man. This is known as "tagging," and it's not an easy thing to time properly. Nevertheless, executing the tag correctly is the difference between a big man getting a dunk and the play failing entirely. Duke has surely practiced this defense over and over, so Thornton should know better than to miss his assignment just to stay with Bud Thomas.
And remember that initial screen the screener action? By this point, Gollon has fanned out to the right baseline, which puts Rodney Hood in an impossible position. He must simultaneously help on Hall's penetration, prevent the pass to the rolling Coursey because Thornton blew his assignment and prevent an easy pass to Gollon. It's a vicious pick-your-poison scenario. Given the circumstances, Hood does the best he can to zone up all three.
But it's not enough thanks to Hall. The Mercer point guard has to make a quick decision as he pops free. Does he drive all the way, find Gollon or hit the rolling Coursey? He ends up doing the latter thanks to an incredible one-handed pass while looking at this window.
Three-point play, game put away.
This was an exceedingly simple call by Bob Hoffman, but it worked because of everything he noticed in the previous 39 minutes. Duke had major issues defending ball-screen action all day; it got so bad that Mike Krzyzewski benched lottery pick Jabari Parker on this play and several others. Hoffman did enough to make this high-ball screen look a little different than the others, and his players showed poise in running it back when it failed the first time.
Sometimes, simple really is the way to go.