Hoops Rules: Fast Break – Horizontal = Disaster

How many times have you seen a beautiful fast break end up in a catastrophe, just because the wing man on the right tried to pass to the wing man coming in from the left? That is, there was a 3-on-2 fast break and the point guard made a nice pass to the cutter coming in from the right side. So far, so good. But, no. The right wing man, who sees a defender coming for him, tries a HORIZONTAL pass to the cutter coming in from the left. The second defender, dropping down from the free throw line, picks off the pass!

I had that happen, of course. And, it bothered me no end. I finally installed one of my ‘rules.’ It was this: Horizontal = Disaster. No player wanted to hear me say “Horizontal equals Disaster!” As I ‘outlawed’ the bounce pass one year, I also outlawed the horizontal pass on the fast break. That brings me to another lesson I picked up from Harry Combes at Illinois: If that wing man is stopped, he should PASS THE BALL BACK TO THE POINT GUARD, THE MIDDLE MAN.

Harry Combes was a stickler for this. If the middle man passed, a VERTICAL pass, to the right wing cutter, then the middle man had to take two steps to the right, so as to give that cutter an easy pass back out, a VERTICAL pass. I was stunned at how effective this was. Here’s what happened: the right wing man passed back to the point guard at the right elbow (maybe even a step out from there). There was a defender on the cutter-passer and a defender on the point-receiver … and NO ONE GUARDING THE OTHER CUTTER.

What happened next? Well, another VERTICAL pass, from the point guard to the left wing cutter, who was wide open under the basket. I saw this happen in practice every single day. What’s more, as I saw every home game the 1954-55 Varsity played in legendary George Huff Gymnasium, I saw this work in games. They blew defending Big 10 Champion Indiana into the next Universe with this simple two-pass reverse. Players like Harv Schmidt, Billy Altenberger and Bruce Brothers would be wide open under for an easy two.

Even if there is no pass to that other cutter, it’s a sound policy because THERE IS NO TURNOVER. Oh, a player might just complete that horizontal pass every so often but the odds are against it. That’s only logical, because the defense is DIVING down to the basket to intercept or deflect that pass or defend the receiver. But they are NOT denying the pass back to the middle man. He is wide open. I’d see Paul Judson get that return pass for a wide-open shot or a killing assist. It was like money in the bank.

So, I took my cutters out of the ‘spectacular assist’ business. Every player I coached knew I was overboard on this matter. They knew I would take a player out of the game if he tried such a pass … even if he made an assist. I took out the great John Gianelli for this in Milan. He wondered why. I said, “No cross-lane horizontal passes. Get the ball back to Mike.” No problem. He went back into the game. The rule: Horizontal = Disaster.