Hoops Rules – Fast Break: Stop at the FT line

I’ve talked about this ‘rule’ many times but I’m going to stress it again: The middle man on the fast break does not cross the free throw line! That is, if he comes up the floor, in a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 situation (even 4-on-3), he stops his forward motion before he gets to the free throw line … though he KEEPS HIS DRIBBLE ALIVE. He can even stop farther back, in back of the 3-point line. That’s no problem. But he breaks down the geometry of the fast break if he crosses the FT line, which lets the defense jam up everything.

I’d heard of this ‘rule’ before but I had it hammered into me in 1954-55, my freshman year in college, at Illinois. The Head Coach was the great Harry Combes, an early master of the fast break. The Varsity and Freshmen practiced together and they ran the famous “Continuous Fast Break Drill” for 45′ … minimum … every day. Every single day. Forty-five minutes and no rest. They were in fantastic physical condition, of course. And, they were trained to run the fast break, to fill the lanes, how to cut … everything.

His big thing … and I mean big … was that the middle man did not cross the FT line. If he did that, he had to run a lap around the court while the drill continued. No exceptions. Guard Billy Ridley and Paul Judson had All-American mention that year but, if they broke that rule in practice, they ran a lap. Needless to say, after the first week, NO ONE EVER CROSSED THE FT LINE. And that’s the way it was in games. They ran the fast break down the throats of teams. It was like watching them practice … and practice makes perfect.

I later corresponded with Billy Ridley about all this. He said the one thing he remembered most about the teaching of the incomparable Harry Combes was that rule. Billy was just 5’7″ tall but, of course, he had incredible speed and quickness, a killing jump shot off the dribble and just great passing ability on the break. When they got the ball to Billy early, he was off and his teammates were running like a herd of deer at the sound of a gunshot in the forest. It was like watching an Olympic 4 x 100 relay team in action.

The great John Wooden, at UCLA, stressed the same rule! He ran the same drill (he called it the “11-Man Drill”). They said he put 6-7 chairs on each FT line, like a ‘wall,’ to discourage his middle men from crossing that line. We all know how that worked out: 10 NCAA titles and the greatest fast break ever seen in college basketball. The first thing to a successful fast break is getting out of the blocks in a hurry, after a steal, an interception or a defensive rebound. That one-tenth of a second makes all the difference in the world.

But, the MOST IMPORTANT thing in a successful fast break is KEEPING THE GEOMETRY: middle man back, cutter left and cutter right. That forms a triangle. If the middle man crosses the FT line, he ‘flattens’ the triangle and the defenders can deflect his pass. I was the luckiest coach in the world to have the unforgettable lessons of Harry Combes and Billy Ridley. The Rule: The middle man on the fast break must never cross the free throw line.

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Dan Peterson

Dan Peterson

Long-time Head Coach of Olimpia Milano in the Italian Serie A1