Breaking down the men's No. 4 seed at the 2018 D-I College Championships.
May 23, 2018 by Cody Mills in Analysis with 0 comments
It’s August 2017, and the preseason buzz around Brownian Motion is tangible yet muted. It’s a classic “yeah, but” conversation.
Brown lost in the regional game to go, so they should be on the radar.
Yeah, but it was a one-bid region that UMass had locked up tight. They were never a real contender.
B-Mo’s ‘17 roster was young. Many of their most talented players were underclassmen returning for 2018.
Yeah, but they didn’t exactly show sparks last year, so what’s there to be excited about?
Brown’s incoming freshmen class featured some of the best high school talent in the country.
Yeah, but they’ve had talent like that before and never made a serious run. Plus, they’re just freshmen this year; it’ll take a little while for them to be difference makers.
A middling performance at the 2017 Classic City Classic had the “yeah, but” doubters smirking, but B-Mo took a hairpin turn at the start of the 2018 spring season. They burst out of the gates at Florida Warm Up by upsetting #1 Carleton, which launched a blistering run to the tournament final, forcing their way into the national spotlight.
And they then kept on right on running. Subsequent solid performances at both the Stanford Invite and Easterns earned B-Mo a pool 1-seed at Nationals.
While Brown’s program has certainly known success in its storied past1, 2018 has proved an emphatic reintroduction for a program that had missed Regionals as recently as 2012, when Brown-B qualified for Regionals but the A-team did not. Given the recent rise to national prominence, the style and personnel from Brown might be a bit unfamiliar to the uninitiated, so this piece will try to break down the general profile and strategic style of Brownian Motion 2018.
It’s also important to note up front that while this article will (hopefully) be informative about tactics and personnel, it’s not going to torpedo their strategy. The analysis that follows is something that each of their upcoming opponents at the College Championships will have already done themselves; I guarantee that Nick Kaczmerek has watched all the available film on Brown like I did, and then watched it again. At the end of the day, you’re not going to beat Brown unless you earn it.
A Qualitative Look
When evaluating Brown holistically, three descriptors come to mind: talented, deep, and smart. Those three concepts manifest themselves on both sides of the disc and comprise a formidable collection of traits.
B-Mo has quietly collected an impressive amount of decorated youth ultimate players over the past three years, from WJUC players to underrated Seattle and Bay Area youth stars. It’s not just the old World Juniors (WJUC) names–Mac Hecht and Eli Motycka–getting it done. Their sophomore class features three starting handlers (Ken Noh, Solomon Rueschemeyer-Bailey, and Henry Laseter) and the much-acclaimed freshmen class boasts the talent of WJUC recruits John Randolph and Dylan Villenueve. Make no mistake, Brown’s underclassmen represent world-class talent.
The result of a wealth of young talent coupled with accomplished upperclassmen is Brown’s greatest gift: their depth. They leverage that by spreading top talent across both lines and, uniquely, allowing both squads to play O-points. When the regular O-line is broken, it rarely plays again. Instead, the regular D-line takes over immediately and plays smoothly.
This works the other way as well, though far less frequently. The O-line is able to play Brown’s junk looks and will occasionally play a defensive or throw those looks on a turn. While many programs will stack their O-line with their top players and hope to scrounge a break with their next 10, Brown distributes the work (and talent) across their lines. The direct result of this is twofold: fresher players and sharper D-line offense.
To illustrate the above point, here is an example of the regular O-line setting Brown’s trap zone look after a long turnover in the endzone:
Conversely, check out Brown’s regular D-line running a clean pull play after receiving off the brick:
And just to emphasize how comfortable the regular D-line is on offense, here’s an example of them absolutely shredding a zone:
Finally, Brown plays a smart game. They are well-coached and their on-field intelligence persists at both the team and individual levels.
On the team level, they have a variety of offensive opening looks that make it harder to anticipate their pull plays. On the defensive side, they liberally throw out two different junk looks (from both lines!) to complement their matchup defense to keep opponents off balance.
On an individual level, their team IQ is visible in the players’ decision making, both on the disc and off. Those in non-throwing roles rarely force a bad shot or sit on the disc for too long, and cleared cutters do an excellent job of keeping space open for active cutters. The players are bought into their role-playing system that concentrates the action on their top players. Brown plays a savvy game, where they don’t give up anything cheap on defense and rarely concede unforced errors on offense.
As alluded to above, Brown’s offense features a clear delineation of roles that centralizes the hardest work on a few players. However, it’s not Florida-level exclusionary. Even the less-featured cutters on the line are free to hit open unders downfield; just don’t look for them to break the mark or huck.
The focal point of the offense is, as one might expect, pseudo-cutter Mac Hecht. Hecht will make the most difficult throws for his team and is often the only real threat to target the deep space. He’s the engine, but two less obvious keys to the offense are reset handler Ken Noh and pseudo-handler Henry Laseter. In tighter games, B-Mo will look to increase the dynamism of their line by also starting John Randolph downfield.
Let’s walk through the standard form of a Brown O-point against matchup defense. It’s a beautiful thing because, while they might come out in a variety of formations, the arcs of the offense are often the same.
Step 1: The Pull Play
The sets vary, but the goal is always the same: get the ball to Hecht and put him in a position where he can use his throws.
In side stack, that usually means centering to him and isolating Laseter. In vert, that usually looks like centering to Laseter and isolating Hecht at the ace to get him power position. And in their preferred horizontal set, it means running one of a handful of plays that start Hecht downfield and get him an under and let him continue to Griffin Kao.
When Brown is in kill-mode and crosses over John Randolph from the D-line (on big points and late in the season in important games), Randolph becomes the primary continuation and also gets a few counter plays where he is the first look and Hecht is second in the string. Take a look at two of Brown’s common sets, a side stack centering to Hecht:
And a horizontal set where Hecht makes a long cut under from the weak side wing, easily beating a defender who is often looking to help deep:
When defenses play straight matchup, Brown runs their plays very cleanly and chews up yardage. It was no surprise to see UMass consistently throw transition defense at Brown in the Regional final. Brown leans on their initial pull play to jumpstart their offense and are vulnerable in the dump set when it’s disrupted. Washington exploited this to great effect at the Stanford Invite, earning numerous short field turns after gumming up initial sets. Whether it’s good defense, a simple handler lane poach, or a full on junk set, disrupting Brown’s pull play is one of the best ways to generate turns against them. Here are the disrupted versions of the plays above.
The side stack:
The horizontal stack:
And the vert stack:
Keeping the first pass out of Hecht’s hands is key. Forcing him out is the logical way to do it, but Laseter and Noh’s mark-breaking abilities make it difficult to shut him out completely. Though this is a dump set, this short lefty backhand break from Noh is the type of shot that will routinely get the disc into Hecht’s hands, regardless of how his defensive matchup plays him on the open side:
Step 2: Isolation
In the only late-season film of Brown, they seem to have mostly done away with their vertical set off the pull in favor of side and horizontal stacks, both of which will look similar after the first downfield pass if done correctly. B-Mo will usually ride the isolation cutting space that results from their completed pull play down the strong side of the field until they have to initiate a dump set. It’s usually during this isolation phase that Henry Laseter (the player who was centered to) slips downfield and Mac Hecht (who was in the cutting string) joins Ken Noh in the reset space or at the top of the stack.
On critical possessions, Randolph can make his way toward the backfield as well. During this phase, Brown’s inactive cutters are adept at keeping the strong side space open for the live cutter to work. Here you can see how Noh and Hecht become the primary resets, despite starting as an off handler and downfield cutter, respectively:
However, if the same defense that broke up the pull play has also stagnated the isolation cutting, Brown will quickly abort this phase of the offense and transition to Step 3. Early in the season, most any defensive wrinkle that stopped the pull play would knock B-Mo out of isolation and into vert stack. By season’s end, they had gained enough poise to weather UMass’ transition junk stopping their pull play, maintain their shape, and generate isolation cuts after Zoodisc transitioned to matchup. (They could even punch through the junk if they had Zoo had not transitioned.) Though the junk initially disrupts the play, rather than falling into disarray, B-Mo is able to retain their cutter spacing:
Step 3: Dominator Vert
Like many offenses, Brown will fall into vert after their initial pull play has advanced. By that time, the three people around the disc are usually Noh, Hecht, and either Laseter or Randolph (who is particularly devastating in this phase). They run classic vert stack handler motion, albeit outstandingly. It’s a three-man game until they can free up the ace to throw a break-side continue pass. It’s a simple rotation that is nearly impossible to stop because of how comfortable each of them is breaking the mark and how patient they are.
They’re willing to bounce it around to each other for as long as they need to to find the look they want, all the while slowly advancing upfield with upline cuts and breaks to the ace. While the handlers clearly have strong breaks, the cutters are also confident in continuation and are well-trained in both their instinct to throw a quick continue-break and in their timing of the continue cut.
Here is a specific illustration of the three-man game that Brown is very willing to fall into once in vert (though in this particular case it was perhaps a premature endzone set). Though it’s cut off in the clip, Randolph’s upline cut at the end will result in a goal:
The complement to this type of motion is downfield continuation, which can come off of handler blow-by cuts to the break side or dump swings, both of which happen in this short clip:
While Brown’s O-line is very young–regularly featuring three to four sophomores, a junior, and a freshmen–the D-line is more bimodal. Standout fifth-year Eli Motycka leads the cutting corps and senior Ned Dick is a reliable handler, but behind them, the key cogs are Randolph, fellow freshmen Villenueve and Azeez Adeyemi, and sophomore Rueschmeyer-Bailey. And, similar to how Randolph is borrowed by the O-line, Hecht will crossover (often as the deep in a zone) when the D-line is in kill-mode.
Brown has a nice set of defensive wrinkles they can throw at an opponent to try to generate turns. This season, they have shown a pair of strong zone looks, as well as high-IQ matchup defense. Here the handler defenders smartly poach the lanes to break up the pull play:
The zones, in particular, have been effective tools for B-Mo, earning them scores of turns from Warm Up onward. When in Florida, they primarily played a double-trap three-person cup. This look particularly punishes teams who struggle with properly showing continuation cuts when swinging off the trap sideline, as well as teams with shaky upside down throws:
Plus, breaking the sideline trap itself isn’t always trivial and can hand Brown’s athletic wings (like Villanueve) an easy block:
At Stanford Invite, Brown debuted a 2-3-2 zone that was fundamentally force-middle in the middle third of the field, and then trapped throwers in the sideline. They briefly stifled the Washington offense with this set, punishing the groups of handlers who crowded the disc and allowed themselves to be guarded by the front two covers (leaving no continuation open downfield as the cutters were then playing 4-on-5).
While their zones are strong, the real differentiator of this D-line is their ability to play offense. In addition to literally converting O-points for Brown because of their unique subbing strategy, the offensive competence of the D-line means that they convert breaks at an abnormally high rate.
The first choice look for the D-line offense is to get the disc in the hands of Motycka and let him continue to Randolph (preferably with Motycka’s incisive backhand). When they receive pulls, that pair is nearly always the string. Again, if you don’t remember, Eli Motycka has a fabulous backhand and John Randolph can run all day.
It’s not a one-trick offense, though. Rueschemeyer-Bailey is comfortable marshaling the vertical handler set to gain yards, Villenueve is a thrower who is unafraid to huck to a matchup he likes, and Adeyemi is a speedy deep threat.
If you give up the disc, Brown’s D-line offense is going to punish you. The potential flaw in the plan, however, is that Brown can’t always force their opponents to give up the disc. Their smart matchup defense can perhaps disrupt a pull play, and their zones do a good job of probing handler corps for weak spots, but if a team can stay patient against their junk, Brown struggles to generate turnovers. Their matchup defense is not a liability by any means–Randolph and Motycka can hang with most quick cutters and Villenueve can handle most deeps– but they have no dominant takeaway defender.
With their talent, depth, and intelligence, Brown presents a challenge for any opponent. Their intelligence and dedication to a solid system on offense and variety on defense will keep them competitive in any game and keep them grounded from giving away a loss to lesser opponents2.
Their elite talent will allow them to continue to execute in even against the toughest of matchups, and their superior depth will help allay the fatigue that could threaten to damage their discipline. Don’t let their inexperience on the big stage fool you–Brown is a high-floor team that will be a tough out for anyone in the field.
They produced three Callahan winners in Fortunat Mueller (1999), Justin Safdie (2000), and Josh Ziperstein (2005), as well as college titles in 2000 and 2005. ↩
They have not lost to anyone outside the top eight seeds at Nationals except for Cal Poly-SLO ↩