I saw something otherworldly at a high school basketball game the other day. Down 5-0 near the start of the first quarter, the Allen High School Basketball team passed the ball back-and-forth for the better part of three minutes before taking a shot.
It was uncomfortable to watch.
I remember looking around at the people sitting near me, and just like myself, they were glancing around nervously.
For context, we expected to be bounced from the playoffs at any given moment. This team was not unbelievably talented. There’s no superstar. Really, you’d be hard-pressed to find a star. It was somewhat rare that any of the players scored more than 20 points in a game. The best players on the team were 2-star recruits.
Furthermore, the team was entering the playoffs on something of a cold streak. Shots just weren’t falling right and the team was underperforming defensively. While the team had a good regular season, it seemed that a very short playoff run was in order.
Yet, before we knew it, we were 5 rounds deep into the playoffs, having beat four teams ranked in the top-50 in the state.
The fifth round looked to many eyes as the round in which Allen would finally fulfill its destiny and lose out of the playoffs.
Their opponent was Denton Guyer, the top-ranked team in the state, which had already beaten Allen twice in the year, once by more than 30 points. This team had two four-star recruits, both ranked in the top-50 recruits nationally. One of the two took an unofficial visit to the University of Kansas earlier this year.
In other words, when the team was down by 5 and started passing the ball around, the fans started to get real nervous. If we didn’t start scoring, how would we have a chance at winning?
While I don’t remember the exact sequence, we managed to score at the end of that 3 minutes, and then score again to tie up the game.
By halftime, Allen was up 17-11. They would go on to win 40-36.
Throughout, Allen focused on controlling the ball, which frustrated Denton’s players, and helped mitigate the noise that their large student section put out, as they were unable to chant for 3 minutes at a time.
The strategy seemed to directly counter how Guyer likes to play. I think in their dream scenario they force a team into a fast-paced game focused on shooting 3s, in which they excel. When they had to slow down their defensive weaknesses were more prominent, which seemed to frustrate the players.
The box score really tells the story of the game. In the fourth quarter, Denton scored 19 points, two more than the 17 points combined from the other three quarters.
What happened in the fourth quarter?
Denton was down and started doing the typical thing basketball teams do when they’re down—foul the other team quick to force them to shoot free throws instead of running time off the clock, and in Allen case, only taking the choicest of shots. Allen wasn’t shooting free throws very well, and quickly fouling allowed Denton to get back to doing what it does better than just about everyone—scoring quickly on offense. They had a chance to win the game late but were never quite able to close the gap.
I was telling a friend about this extraordinary game, and he said this:
And this is where [I’m] in the minority with all sports and games: If you exploit cheese and don’t play a fun or fair game, what is it worth?
Everyone else but me: “a win”
And, you know what, I completely understand where he’s coming from.
If you’re not familiar with the term, “cheese” is a term for strategy stemming from videogames that means, roughly, that the strategy is unorthodox and unexpected, though still legal.
Cheese strategies often rely on surprise and a lack of preparation. Put another way, it will probably only work once. Cheese, by its nature, is not the “optimized” way to play a game, which is why it is favored by underdog teams. In a more traditional matchup, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
But, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a fair game. No one should accuse Allen of cheating because they weren’t. And, while fun is one of the points of sports, your opponents don’t carry much of an obligation to make it that way for you. In fact, games are arguably more fun when both teams pull out all the stops and put their best strategies out on the court for the fans to see.
Of course, you could accuse me of just arguing in favor of my team, but ironically, the same school is often on the other side of the equation, just in a different sport.
Allen’s football team won state championships in 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2017, as well as advancing to the semifinals in 2015 and 2016. As a fan across that span, I’ve seen teams try a lot of trick plays and a lot of cheese. It rarely works.
I think the football coaches do three things;
- Scout extensively. If you know the cheese is coming, you can build a strategy.
- Have a strategy for countering the cheese. It doesn’t have to be optimal or used for the whole game, just when cheese is in play.
- Execute the strategy well.
So, what went wrong for Guyer?
Well, they appear to have known that Allen might stall. So, it wasn’t scouting.
Towards the end of the game they appeared to have found a strategy that was effective—it was just too late.
Really, it seems that the coaches really didn’t have an answer for the stall on a strategic level. They have enough talent to stop it, but they didn’t seem to have practice in the requisite parts of the counter, such as the full-court press or the quick foul.
While those “hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard,” shirts certainly are cheesy, I think that we can come up with something even worse.
“Cheese beats talent when talent is unprepared.”