Kansas was on the ropes. Down five against Stanford with 21.5 seconds remaining, it appeared the Jayhawks would fail to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the fourth time under coach Bill Self. This being March, though, a month where games aren't over until there has been a buzzer beater or an official review, the Jayhawks still had hope. After inbounding the ball to Frank Mason, the guard dribbled up the left side of court and handed off to Conner Frankamp, who promptly drained a three to cut the Cardinal's lead to two.
Frankamp's bucket, which briefly kept Kansas' 2014 tournament hopes alive, was the result of one of college basketball's most effective and famous plays. The play, known as "Chop," was created by Self prior to the 2006-07 season. Since then, it has become a go-to option for Self late in games, and it has spread so widely throughout college basketball, via imitation and adaptation, that ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla has taken to calling it "America's play." He says: "It has a hallowed place in college basketball's virtual playbook." You might see Kentucky's interpretation of the play in tonight's championship game.
Chop arrived on the national scene in the 2008 championship game between Kansas and Memphis. Everyone remembers Sherron Collins tripping as he came blazing up the righ side of the court, essentially throwing the ball to Mario Chalmers, who, after one dribble, buried a three to tie the game (later won by KU). But that game wasn't the first time Self had unveiled Chop in a desperate situation. (2007 Big 12 title video) Chalmers hit a similar shot against Texas (a team that had Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin) in the Big 12 championship the prior year, again taking the hand-off, using a ball screen, and then splashing the net from well beyond the arc.
"We had a lot of different calls for man or zone defense," says Joe Dooley, who was an assistant at Kansas for years and is now head coach at Florida Gulf Coast, "but we needed a late-game play." Chop is effective for two reasons: It is extremely easy for players to digest and learn, and it offers numerous options. When Chop is run to perfection, two scoring opportunities immediately present themselves. Self's first versions of Chop began with a dribble hand-off to a wing on the right side of the court (Kansas now runs the play on either side of the floor). Depending on how the wing is covered, he can either dribble into a jump shot, or use a ball screen from a big at the top of the key. If the defense somehow covers the handoff and the screen, there is a flare screen set opposite the ball to free another shooter.
Against Iowa State last season, for instance, the Jayhawks ran Chop for Ben McLemore, who flared after a Travis Releford screen and hit a game-tying three (another game KU won in overtime).
The goal of a good offense is to keep the five defenders moving, to force them to scurry around the court, heads swiveling this way and that. Not only does that defensive movement open up gaps in the half court, it also creates confusion—both are the essence of Chop. The ball and flare screens are so distracting that even when opponents know Chop is imminent, it is still hard to stop. "Even great defensive teams get caught ball watching at times," says Dooley.
When St. John's faced Creighton in late January, the Red Storm were on the verge of their first upset of the 2014 season. The game was tied with a few ticks remaining, and even though every single person in the building knew Doug McDermott was going to take the final shot in regulation, the Bluejays used Chop—a pass from Jahenns Manigat combined with an Isaiah Zierden screen—to give McDermott a wide-open, and game-winning, look.
"You stole my play," Self later wrote in a text to Creighton's coach (and Doug's father), Greg McDermott, according to C.J. Moore, a reporter for Bleacher Report who wrote about KU independently for years. According to Moore, Greg McDermott replied: "You owed me for all the years you battered my brain in."
As you might've guessed, Chop is for end-of-game scenarios. The play, as former Missouri wing Kim English tweeted recently, "is used by EVERYBODY that is down and have to go the length of the court." It is not a sophisticated play, notes Fraschilla, but "it is Kansas's go-to, quick-score play late in the game." And because of the manifold possibilities Chop creates, it is the perfect last-second play.
English is well aware of how many different looks Chop can create. During 2012's Border War—the last between Kansas and Missouri before the latter's move to the SEC—the Jayhawks burned his Tigers twice with Chop in the same game.
Kansas was down three with 21.5 seconds remaining, and Missouri, having accurately scouted the Jayhawks, knew Chop was coming and covered both perimeter screens. Matt Pressey switched on the hand-off, which prevented Tyshawn Taylor from using the ball screen. But Chop isn't the kind of play that can be derailed by one smart rotation. Kansas stuck with the play, allowing its second level of options to develop. After setting a down screen for the shooter coming off the flare, Thomas Robinson slipped to the baseline, received a pocket pass, and muscled his way up for a basket and a foul.
The Jayhawks again trailed in overtime when Self decided to run Chop one more time. And Missouri again knew it was coming and again couldn't do anything to stop it. As the Tigers got ready to defend the initial dribble hand-off, Tyshawn Taylor cut back door for the wide-open, go-ahead dunk.
This was Kansas at its most imperious, all but calling its shot twice, the two moments all the sweeter for having come against the Jayhawks' longstanding rivals. Poor Frank Haith, who was then in the midst of his first season in Columbia. It was the coach's equivalent of getting dunked on.
"Coach Self spends a lot of time wondering about late-game situations," Dooley says. Like Missouri, teams think they can stop it, but "the play was designed with a bunch of wrinkles," Dooley continues. "We added things based on how teams have defended it so it isn't just a one-trick pony. If A and B don't work, there is still C, D, and E." During his days on the Kansas bench, Dooley would occasionally get postgame texts from members of the opposing staff. They knew what KU was about to run, they would say, but even then the players got caught off-balance.
During the past two seasons, Chop has moved beyond the Big 12 conference and has now been used by dozens of teams.
Down two in the first round of the 2013 NIT, Kentucky turned to Chop for its final play: When Robert Morris flat-hedge Kyle Wiltjer's screen, the UK big immediately popped for a wide-open three (which he missed).
Hoping to avoid what would become a disastrous loss to Boston College, Syracuse modified Chop, and used only the hand-off for Trevor Cooney's three-point attempt, which fell way short.
Chop has even made several 2014 postseason appearances. UALR matched-up with Arkansas State in the Sun Belt quarterfinals, and the game continued for four overtimes, and might have reached a fifth overtime had ASU coach John Brady not called for Chop with roughly 10 seconds remaining. Melvin Johnson drove the lane after the screen, spinning and splitting two defenders to make the bucket and draw a foul.
Kentucky was the nation's youngest team this season, and while the squad wasn't necessarily familiar with Chop, the coaching staff had already run a variation of the play and were prepared when Wichita State unveiled Chop in the Wildcats' third-round NCAA tournament game. Not only did UK switch every screen, preventing that initial open look, but Aaron Harrison went over the flare screen and nullified Ron Baker's potential three-point attempt. The Shockers evidently weren't prepared to explore options C through E, and they had to settle for an off-balance Baker three that grazed the rim.
Chop achieved a sort of milestone during this season's Big 12 tournament. Kansas was paired with Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals. With the Pokes down three in overtime, coach Travis Ford tried to out-Self Kansas, calling for Chop. Kansas immediately doped out the play, and two defenders were properly positioned to defend Phil Forte's step-through three-point attempt.
It was an unwitting sort of homage. It was also an act of brazen folly, something like attempting a rearward maneuver against Napoleon. But maybe we can excuse Ford. Chop no longer belonged to Kansas, after all. It had gone viral. It was America's play now.
Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon.