Sunday, December 23, 2012


Sorry for the long break since my last blog post, but we've been at a tournament in Las Vegas all week and I just got back. I'm headed out for some family time in the morning, too, and we'll be back up and running at NCC on Dec 30, so I won't post again until then.  But here are our Vegas results...

74 FGAs
32 Threes
23% ORBs
30 TOs
+8 Shots
Goals met: ZERO

COMMENTS:  You can see how we struggled again to get ORBs.  But after the game we watched film and I think the kids are finally starting to understand that against good teams you have to WILL yourself to get to the boards. 
       Oshkosh was very sound defensively, but we didn't do ourselves any favors with our offensive spacing: instead of playing on the fades and curls, we were positioning ourselves at the wings and curls...Oh, but wait! We don't have a wing spot.  Maybe that's why we didn't have any room to break down the defense with penetration.  
       Oshkosh was also one of the first opponents who has tried to run a ball control game plan on us, using a Spread-Delay 2-1-2 set, and our defensive reactions were just too slow to keep them from holding the ball on us (thus the slow tempo and low FGAs).
       And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why you need to play a tough schedule in the pre-season.  They expose your weaknesses and force you to improve.  Some of our previous opponents were weaker, and we frankly got away with playing half-speed defensively.  A good team will burn you, but that's how you learn!  As I always told my teams at ONU, "The key to success is failure."

95 FGAs
52 Threes
33% ORBs (60% in the second half!)
33 TOs
+14 shots

COMMENTS:  Much better performance against a very athletic Goucher team.  They attacked the press exactly opposite of the way UW-Oshkosh did in yesterday's game:  got it in to their quick PG and split traps all day.  Maybe we learned a lesson... against Spread-Delay pass oriented press breakers, you have to get up in their grill and force them to dribble and make bad passes, but versus teams trying to beat your press with speed, you must play the trap by keeping a cushion and containing the ball-handler, without giving in to the temptation to reach for the ball, which just doesn't work against quick guards. 
In general, we felt really good about the win, and about our third 100 point game in the past four games.  Now we head home for the Christmas break and are looking forward to the beginning of the CCIW season starting on January 2nd!  But before taking a brief holiday blogging sabbatical, I wanted to quickly recap the fall semester by assessing where we I think are right now: 

Exactly where we should be.  One of the things that relaxes me as a coach is understanding that it's nonsense to tell yourself, "We ought to be better."  No, you are exactly as good as you have any right to expect, given your talent level, practice habits, and strength of schedule.  So don't waste any emotional energy thinking you should be better than you are.  As my older cousin Darrell told me on the golf course when I was 13, "Doug, you aren't good enough yet to be getting this upset about playing bad."  Point taken.

BUT, regardless of where you are at this point in the season, you should be getting better.  You should be seeing improvement, and you should be pretty close to the "light bulb" phase of the season, where almost overnight the players seem to just get it, taking a quantum leap forward in their execution, and in their confidence.  That's one thing you'll notice about System teams:  barring serious injuries, they almost always are a lot better in January and February than they were in November. 

You might respond by saying, "Isn't that true of all basketball teams?"  No, it isn't.  A lot of non-System teams actually get worse late in the season because of the physical and emotional toll of grinding practices and lack of PT from your bottom five, who tend to then create drama's that eat away at your practice work ethic and game success.  System teams, on the other hand, tend to be (for the most part) comparatively happy.  Happy players are more productive players, I think, because fun is a pretty good motivator. 

In addition, from a technical standpoint the other thing that makes System teams better in the second half of the season is that
  • their offense flows more smoothly because roles are being accepted and players aren't needing to think as much, and
  • their defense starts to anticipate better and players begins to intercept or deflect to those passes they were just missing a month earlier.

In other words, your team after Christmas break will be happier, fresher, and smarter.  Why shouldn't they win?

So, until December 30, Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Paranoia and Game Plans

You know from my previous comments that I love Football Coaches, but goodness gracious, they are one paranoid group of individuals. 

I always get a kick out of watching the head coach or his offensive coordinator hold up a 4-color, laminated game plan by which to cover their mouths as they radio in the next play to their quarterbacks.  No doubt in the devious world of pro and college football, they must go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves from the opposing team's Coach-in-charge-of-Lipreading.

Admittedly, I did very much enjoy working as team manager for my college's head football coach, Dewey King.  Dewey was a wonderful, gruff man... and as paranoid as the rest of them when it came to varsity contests on Saturday afternoon.  But he also called plays for the JV games on Monday evening, where he had a decidedly less suspicious nature (Nobody gets fired for losing JV games). 

Dewey would send in the play via messenger guard:  "Split Right Pro Slot Near, Tricky Red X Flash Z Whirligig 436 Whammo" (You know how FB coaches just love their play-calling terminology!)  If the play made 10 yards, Dewey forgot all about his Football Coaches Creedo to be sneaky, and just yelled out, for all the world to hear, "RUN IT AGAIN!"  And he would keep doing that until the opponent figured out how to stop the play.  But normally, those sacred game plans and play calls are double-top secret to Football Coaches. 

I, too, like creating a game plan, having made this a habit over the past 15 years. Here's my process:

First, I tear out a sheet of paper from a yellow legal pad, fold it in half, then again into thirds to make a trifold that will fit in my shirt or jacket pocket (no laminating required).  Next, I take out my pencil (one color only), and divide the front cover of the tri-fold into 4 quadrants.  In the upper left quadrant goes a list of our offensive attacks:   Zone offense, Man offense, Dead Ball plays, and our Delay Game.  In the top right quadrant I list the defenses:  On and Off presses (plus any press variations we are using for this game), and our blowout or lead-protect defense (usually a 2-3 zone). 

In the lower left quadrant go our Sideline and Underneath Out of Bounds plays, and any last shot special plays we might (or might not) have ready for that game.  For easy reference, I circle any of the OB plays that can be used versus a zone.  Finally, in the lower right quadrant I write the opposing team, their coach, the date, and the names of the three officials so I know who I'm yelling at during the game.

On the back of this tri-fold I draw a half-court diagram and place on it the number's of our opponent's starting five.  Next to their numbers, I write the names of the five players in our "Finishing Group."

I then open up one of the flaps and write on the inside of the plan any key things I want the team to focus on for this game.  Usually, like every game, I write
"REBOUND!!!" along with a brief list of what we expect the opponent to do (1-3-1 Zone, 3-up Press Break).

During the game, while I'm sitting there on the end of the bench watching the world go by, I'll occasionally pull out the plan, and jot down (again, on the inside flap) any ideas or problems I see with our play, things to be corrected at the next practice.  Usually, I list things like "REBOUND!!!"  or "PGs get to the rim!" or "We have no IDEA how to run OB 4!!!"  etc, etc.

The odd thing is that I almost never refer to my plan during the game. But if I didn't have it in my pocket, I'd feel unprepared to make those few decisions necessary during a typical System game.  I must confess that it has become something of a superstition with me to go through this planning process, like tying my right shoe first before every game... or was it my left????  Oh no, I'm doomed!

So, yes, just like my paranoid Football Coaching friends, I too have a mental problems, and I too have a Super-Secret Game Plan of Universal Enlightenment... but I still don't use it to hide my mouth from the lip readers.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Favorite Goal

NCC 110- Dominican 68
102 FGAs
45 Threes
46% ORBs
43 TOs
+40 Shots

Versus a struggling Dominican team, we nevertheless had a quality outing.  Earlier in the week when we defeated a weak MSOE squad, we didn't feel as good about the win, but at least we are scoring some points now, and the reason is...

Rebounding and turnovers.  Of course.  As I've mentioned many times, there's no more important stat in System basketball than offensive rebounding, and you know a good performance when you see it unfolding, even before looking at the stat sheet.  Players are flying to the boards on every shot, tenacious in their efforts to outhustle opponents to every loose ball. 

The 110 points--pulling the press with 10 minutes to go--and our 102 FGAs (both new team records) were the most significant indications of how much better we rebounded and played defense this game, as each ORB and forced TO results in one more shot for our side.  We also reduced our fouling, with DU shooting only 18 three throws, and that kept the game moving, which led to meltdown, which led to extra shots, etc.

It felt really good to get a quality win under our belts, and as I glanced back over the stat sheet just now, I can see why it felt so satisfying.  We met my very favorite non-Formula goal...

All seventeen players scored.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Free Throw Press Drill

We've struggled in recent games running our "11" defense, which is nothing more than the back end of our press.  Once the ball crosses the half-court line we want our players to continue trappping and covering near passing lanes, especially lag passes (passes backwards or from guard to guard), and passes into the high post.

Why does this matter? Because unless your defense can get the ball trapped and move into open gaps almost instantly after each pass, opposing offenses will have time to see the next open player and pick your press apart.  We then find ourselves constantly 1 pass behind.

That's been our problem lately.  As we transition back into our backcourt (the opponent's frontcourt), we don't seem to grasp that we must move directly into "trap and lag" coverage and smother the passer's vision. I think this is due to our player's old conventional basketball habits... they still must be thinking, "Okay, we are out of the press now, and we need to set up our half-court defense, and--of course--protect the basket at all costs!"

Wrong.  Our 11 Press is merely a teaching tool, and perhaps they believe it must be "set up" first before trapping commences.  And they are so worried about giving up an occasional layup that they all five instinctivley run back inside the arc, rather than sprinting to a person (the ball handler, or the player(s) behind the ball-handler.)

These are hard habits to break, harder than I expected.  Maybe I was spoiled, because after my first System season at ONU we had enough veterans onboard that they could help train the newcomers on the proper approach to defense.  I guess I just didn't realize that with the entire team at NCC starting from scratch, it is going to take them more time to execute these radical (to them) defensive concepts.

But one thing that helped today was our "Free Throw Press Drill."  It works like this:  We put 15 seconds on the clock (or shot clock, in our case), and have the pressing team shoot a free throw.  After the make or miss, we jump into our "On" Press (we call it 55) or our Missed Shot Press as the opponent attempts to advance the ball into their offensive end.  The shot clock begins as soon as an opponent touches the ball inbounds (off a rebound, or the throw-in).

Once the ball is advanced into the frontcourt, however, the opponent moves into a "Box" set (2-1-2 alignment) and is not allowed to shoot.  Our pressing team, meanwhile, attempts to create a steal by flying to the trap while covering the lag and high post areas.  If they force a turnover, we break to the far end and score.  If the shot clock runs out before a steal, the offense wins the possession.

We motivate the drill by telling the defense, "Imagine you are down 2 points with 15 seconds to play, and every player on the opposing team is a 90% foul shooter."   It might even help to put the score up, but you get the idea.

I like this "Drill" because it is the most realistic way I can think of to teach players to run our 11 Press vs. a delay-spread offense, something no amount of conventional drilling will do.  Like all 5/5 System "Situation" drills, it teaches System habits by creating a game-like controlled scrimmage, and then teaching-correcting-polishing until the players demonstrate proficiency.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post several weeks ago, unlearning 10 years of conventional basketball takes time and there's no better way to accelerate the process than controlled scrimmaging of System situations.

With the start of conference play only 3 games away, we need all the "acceleration" we can get.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Blowout Plans

NCC 102- Milwaukee School of Engineering 49
91 FGAs
44 Threes
56% ORB
31 TOs
+48 Shots

As you can from the results above, we finally broke the 100 point barrier.  I'm hoping this will be like the 4-minute mile... within months of Roger Bannister's record setting performance in 1954 several other runners eclipsed this supposedly impossible goal.  Now that we've done it once, the next time should be easier.

We were happy to meet three of our five goals, but the game was essentially over at halftime, as we owned a 66-28 lead against a short-handed and rebuilding MSOE squad (who was actually 17-10 last year but lost several top players off that team).

A few stats are remarkable, such as the 56% ORB (70% in the first half) and the +48 shots, which was due partly to the fact that MSOE shot so many more FTs  than us (25-11) they didn't have to shoot as many from the field, and partly to our great ORB performance.  NOTE: The formula goals are not going to be a an accurate reflection of System performance in a game like this, and in such cases we take Coach A's advice and use halftime stats to project perfomance, in which case we met all five goals.

In addition to new school records for points in a half and in a game, we also had the opportunity to implement our "Blowout Plan" for the first time this season:  pulling off the press with three minutes to go in the first half, falling back into a 2-3 zone, playing our freshmen more minutes, and lengthening shifts to 1-2 minutes for the rest of the game. 

One thing we did not change was our offensive attack, continuing to run and shoot threes throughout the game.  System coaches differ in their feelings about this when the game is out of hand.  Our approach has always been to pull off as noted above, but to maintain offensive tempo.  After spending the last two months trying to hard-wire pace into their nervous systems, we don't like telling players to not shoot open shots, and not run the floor hard.  In high school I might do it differently, but for better or worse, on offense we keep running: win, lose or draw.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Get a Gun

We don't have a Shooting Gun at NCC.

When I discovered this unfortunate fact late last summer, Michelle and I talked about the possibility of buying one, but we didn't have any budget money available.  So, we have done our best to develop three point shooting skills without The Gun, and for the most part we are pretty happy with our perimeter shooting.

But one thing I've learned as a result of going Gunless this season is that The Gun doesn't just improve 3FG percentage.  (I suppose it does, but can't even be certain of that because as much as we used it at ONU, we never shot much above 31% from the arc.)  No, the thing The Gun really improves is timing. 

At Lake Forest last week vs. a tight 3-2 zone, our shooters passed up lots of opportunities to shoot the three because they weren't comfortable taking the shot off the bunny hop. The result? Our transition game became stagnant because we kept having to run half-court offense to create a shot, since we didn't have time to shoot without utilizing the bunny hop.  So how does a player gain confidence in shooting off the hop?  The Gun.

At ONU, we had a tradition called "Three Point Week" in which players (using the Gun) took as many shots as possible from the arc over a five day span, on their own time.  We usually held Three Point Week near the end of preseason conditioning, right before we started regular practices, and after we had given them plenty of instruction on shooting off the hop.  We even created a spread sheet, and posted a printout of our totals at the end of each day.  This spreadsheet also calculated each player's total shots for the week, and the team's total shots for each day, and for the week.  In addition, we used the "sort" function to rank players by total cumulative shot attempts at the end of each day, providing some serious motivation.  Nobody wanted to be at the bottom of the list.

But as I said, I didn't see a huge payoff in terms of FG% from this tradition, despite the fact that some years we put up close to 30,000 shots in a week using the Gun.  What we did see was an obvious increase in our player's comfort level with shooting off the bunny hop.  As a result, we had little trouble getting off a three versus most defenses... our players didn't hesitate at all on the arc!

At NCC, we are still hesitating, and this may be due to their unfamiliarity with the technique as a first year System team, or it may be due to our lack of a Shooting Gun.  It's expensive, yes.  But I'm convinced that the ability to shoot a three off the hop, with good rhythm, is a core fundamental in the System, and essential for creating quick shots.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you want to be a Big Shot, you have to get a Gun.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Looked Good on Paper

I'm a huge Dick Bennett fan.  Does that surprise you?  It shouldn't, because he's the guy that produced the video, Pressure Defense: A System, back in the 1980's.  I loved that video, and his "Push" defense was the foundation of my philosophy in the pre-run'n'gun era.  Maybe I just like systems.

After I'd been using the defense somewhat successfully for several years, I finally got to see his UW-Green Bay team play on television.  Guess what?  He didn't use any of that stuff anymore.  Talk about being disillusioned!  Kind of like finding out St. Paul was really a Buddist.

What happened was that after taking the Green Bay job, he had gotten more conservative and developed what he called the "Pack" defense: tight sagging man to man.  His original Push defense had looked good on paper, had even been successful for him in a DIII program at UW-Stevens Point, but he didn't think he could make it work at the DI level.  So he came up with the Pack.

No, I'm not going to tell you that I've decided to abandon the System, take a DI job (I wish), and go back to conventional basketball.  What I am saying is that we all tinker with our approach.   John Wooden tinkered with his high post offense and press defense from 1932 until 1962 before he got it just the way he liked it... and the rest is history.  The moral of the story is that you can tinker with everything, as long as you have a consistent philosophy.  Think of it as scraping the barnacles off a speedboat.

Our current "tinkering" at NCC has to do with the Zone attack which I described several weeks ago, and even provided diagrams to those who requested them.  I still like the basic ideas of this cutting offense. It looked good on paper, but my gut is telling me that we need a new approach.

This Zone Offense has great player movement, but I recall another Wooden warning, "Don't confuse activity with accomplishment."  Well, right now we have so much player movement that we are in danger of becoming a "chess basketball" team (move a pawn...move your rook...capture a pawn... two hours later, checkmate.  What fun!)  And despite my best intentions when we put it in, the fact that this offense is a continuity means that our players are more intent on passing and cutting than they are on scoring.

As I've related before, Paul Westhead said that the problem with teaching System players a half-court offense is that, doggone it, they are going to try and run it.  And that's all we are doing against zones right now... we aren't attacking the defense, we're playing catch.

So today we introduced our old ONU zone attack (we call it "One-Guard"), which I basically stole from Coach A:  best decision-maker in the middle of the zone at the high post, three shooters spotted up on the arc, and a big kid in the short corner running the baseline behind the zone.  Move the ball quickly until you can punch it inside to your decision-maker, who must score or pass to an open shooter for a score.  That's it... no muss, no fuss.  Nothing to really learn except "Get the ball moving and shoot the sucker."

It looked pretty good... and Michelle liked the results.  So, if you happen to catch the webcast of our next game and we aren't using the Pass and Cut zone offense I described earlier, just remember...

It looked good on paper.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Little Dutch Boy

NCC 83- Lake Forest 88
88 FGAs
51 Threes (12-51
42% ORBs
27 TOs forced
+11 Shots

We plugged one hole in the dike vs. Lake Forest College on Friday night, and saw two more spring open. 

Leak #1:  Our offensive rebounding, which has been a point of emphasis this week, was significantly improved, but this game we shot poorly from the arc (12-51, 24%), handled the ball poorly, and fouled too much. 

Leak #2:  We shot great from the foul line (21-26, 80%), but couldn't force enough turnovers (27) and fouled too much (24 PFs).  I'm hopeful that at some point everything will come together for one game, but this is very typical of early season System teams.

Leak #3:  In addition to our poor shooting from the arc, I'm concerned about those failed layup putback opportunities.  After the game I calculated our two point FG% and saw that we shot only 30% inside the arc in the second half!  Given that we teach our players to shoot only three-pointers or layups (i.e. inside the paint) we have to conclude that those misses were at pretty close range. 

Why do we miss what ought to be relatively easy chances like that? (I'll bet we are the only team in America with this problem right now!)  I can think of only two possible explanations:
  1. Lack of skill.  Against stronger opponents who can intimidate with their size it can be tougher to finish around the basket.  With all due respect to a solid Lake Forest team, this was not the case last night.  We know how to make layups, so what other explanation might there be?
  2. Lack of concentration.  This is the more likely explanation.  I've seen a pattern with inexperienced System teams of poor inside shooting early each season, and this may be due to the faster pace, higher adreline levels, or just lack of focus and discipline. 
On a related point, I find it interesting that when we are working on offensive execution in practice, our passes often require an acrobatic move on the part of the receiver in order to catch the ball, which might be thrown overhead, at their feet, anywhere but to the shooting pocket. 

Do we not have the skill to pass accurately?  No, it's lack of focus, the inability to concentrate on fundamental execution while learning to play at a new pace. So, as I remind players, "It's not good enough to just pass the ball in the general direction of the receiver!"  In other words, it's not acceptable to settle for sloppy execution.  Little things like passing and finishing layups make a difference, and require concentration... at least until excellence becomes a habit.

How do you solve these problems?  I don't know, but my experience has been that if you keep plugging the holes in the dike, eventually you either run out of fingers or you stop the leaks and save the town. 

So, keep plugging!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Minimalist BLOBs

My good friend, Olivet softball coach Ritchie Richardson, is the most organized person I know.  Despite being from Tennessee, he eats fried chicken with a knife and fork.  He also has the neatest office, desk, and files I've ever seen.  There's a picture of him in the dictionary next to the word "Fastidious."

I asked him about this once, always looking for organizational tips, and he said that in his work and personal life he believes in what he calls "Minimalism."  In other words, he's ruthless in eliminating the "stuff" in his life.  He tosses out paper, keeps his email screen clear, and has a very simple system or routine for organizing everything.  In general, he believes keeping everything in his life lean and mean.  And this approach translates to his coaching as well; his softball teams are a model of efficiency on the field.

Is your version of the System minimalist, or "maximalist?"   What I mean is, how complicated is what you do?  My first year coaching the System we had one press, one man-to-man offense, one zone offense, and two quick-hitters.  I long for those days, and should I ever be a head coach again am resolved to streamline our approach.  I'm convinced that the less "stuff" you have in your system, the better you will execute what you have. 

For example, how many Baseline OB (BLOB) plays do you have, and how few could your really get by with?  I know, the complaint is, "I have to have several plays or else the other team will scout us and take us out of our game."  But they'll do that anyway, won't they.  At least your league opponents will.

Why not try Gary Smith's approach:  One BLOB with multiple (freelance) options, and one SLOB.  I'm sure you can figure out a way to run a play that gives players freedom to just get open and score, flowing into your basic set.  Then you don't have to waste practice time developing the timing of all that stuff and can focus on running the floor hard and offensive rebounding. 

To illustrate, Grinnell uses an interesting BLOB:  Everyone runs in a circle in the lane as the inbounder takes the ball from the official.  At some random point, everyone in the circle breaks to a spot, with the best player ususally catching the ball in a scoring area (the fade spot) where he shoots or drives and creates.

Never forget, the more stuff you have in your offense/defense, the longer your practices, and the less likely you'll make it home in time for Dancing with the Stars.   So... consider making this your mantra:  no muss, no fuss.  Minimalist Basketball.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Right Ones

My all-time favorite sports movie has to be Miracle.  The similarities between what Herb Brooks did with the 1980 Olympic hockey team and System basketball is uncanny, and it starts with personnel.

I remember the scene at the beginning of the film when Brooks is evaluating prospects, and his assistant coach, Craig Patrick, asks him why some of the best players aren't on Brooks final roster.

Brookes replies, "I ain't looking for the best players, Craig, I'm looking for the right ones."

After eight years coaching the System, I still think that one of the most helpful things I learned about player selection was something Berea's (now Glenville State's) Bunky Harkleroad told me.  "Coach, when we recruit, the first thing we look for are hard-nosed kids who are willing to fill a role. Everything else is gravy."

Of course, we'd like to have shooters.  Can you run the System without them?  Sure, if those poor shooters are also hard-nosed offensive rebounders.  Can you run the System without quickness?  Sure, if those slow kids are hard-nosed defenders who will play all-out all the time, sprint to traps, and learn to anticipate (as fast as they can be expected to do so, given their slowness).

Will you win with hard-nosed, non-athletes? Maybe.  Maybe not.  But they are a lot more fun to coach.  It does take some talent to succeed in this game, but it takes heart, too.  If your are really bad, maybe playing slow will keep the school board off your back. 

But--given some minimal level of talent-- if you are going to lose anyway, why not go down swinging?  You might do better than you think, even without the best kids... as long as you have the right ones.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Smarter Than a Lab Rat

So far this season, we are shooting two fewer free throws per game than our opponents. But if we take out the first two games where we surprised the other teams with our System approach, we are shooting 13 fewer free throws per game!  In eight seasons at ONU our teams averaged shooting five more free throws per game than our opponents, due partly to our aggressive driving game, and partly due to our emphasis on "playing clean."

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, excessive fouling can be a problem, and we are not alone at NCC among System teams struggling with this in the early season.  Coincidentally it's been a subject of discussion on the runandgun chat group as well.  How do you coach a team to not foul as often?  What approach works best to correct this problem?  I could talk about drills you could do to improve in this area, but it all starts with two simple points of emphasis: Awareness and Balance.

The first step to improving awareness, and with it a commitment to reducing your team fouls, is to define those situations in which you are most often caught fouling unnecessarily.  You might respond, "All fouls are unnecessary!"  But this ain't necessarily so.  And maintaining balance is difficult due to the fact that in System basketball you are playing very aggressively, sometime at a pace beyond your players' abilities to control themselves.  John Wooden said that poor balance was the cause of most poor execution, and felt it should be taught like any other fundamental skill, and I think we can infer that fouling too is the result of poor balance.  (Try reaching in for a steal while maintaining perfect balance... not as easy as it sounds!)

How do you teach balance?  Emphasize keeping the head directly over the base (feet), not leaning forward or sideways.  Do "reaction drills" where players must change directions instantly, moving left, right, forward, and back at full speed. 

The alternative is to tell them to slow down and get under control, but you don't want to tell them that, do you? Okay then, while playing fast, does you team know how to pick it's spots?  I think an accidental foul while rotating for a steal is something we can live with.  We are being aggressive, may get a steal, and are forcing tempo. 

But we want our players very clear (aware) that two situations where we definitely do not want to foul are in a trap (bodying up or reaching), or in the lane (leaving our feet to block a shot).  Bob Belf in a recent chat group post adds "hipping the breakaway dribbler" or reaching in while running beside the dribbler.  Pretty dumb. 

Another aspect of awareness is helping players understand why fouling is such a no-no for System teams.  First and foremost, it stops the clock and the opponent gets to rest.  Second, it prevents us from maintaining a rhythm, breaking back after a rebound or even after a score.  Third, you get into foul trouble.  Fourth, they get a free throw.  Again, pretty dumb.  But do they players really understand this?  Help them see the importance of (to put it more positively), "Playing Clean!"

One last point.  I heard once that it's impossible to sneeze and keep your eyes open at the same time.  Something about how our nervous system is wired.  And in your playing days, did you ever notice that whenever you reached in for a steal your feet stopped moving? Try it sometime, and make your players aware of that simple fact.  Why do they do it, then?  Simple behavioral reinforcement... they got away with it once or twice, and occasionally are rewarded with a the lab rat getting a sugar pellet once every 10 times it presses the lever. 

But the rat eventually fouled out.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Post Play

A primary difference between the offense we used at ONU and the Grinnell attack is the involvement of a post player.  We included this element from our earliest System days for two simple reasons:  a) I was a post player and like teaching that aspect of the game, and b) we had good post players throughout my tenure at Olivet.  Reason enough to include some inside threat, especially since we were still consistently meeting our goal of creating half our shots from beyond the arc!  Why not a few layups, too?

This past week we made good progress in integrating our drive and kick series (DK) and the pass and downscreen series (DS).  These two continuities allow us to stay in a four-out set while giving offensive players two basic options: penetrate and kick to a shooter, or downscreen for a shooter.

A third way to create a three-point shot is what we call "Post Inside-Out."  Normally, getting the ball inside is more for the purpose of creating a good inside shot.  In our offense, although this is certainly an option, we use the post as an additional point of attack.  That is why we train our post players to always catch, chin the ball, and look over their inside shoulders before making any post move.  This look inside allows them to see if a player is open at the top for a three point shot, often coming off a weakside downscreen.

But if we have a strong inside player, as we often did at ONU, we also will encourage them to attempt to score inside.  However, we limit their post moves to three specific options: the Power Move, the Layback, and the Spin Move.  All three of these options are set up based on the post player's ability to "read the defense" before making the appropriate scoring move.

  1. Power Move.  This is an old standby, which everyone teaches.  Our post catches, chins, and looks inside.  If the post defender is leaning to the high side, we teach our players to dropstep, take one hard dribble and score the power jumper.
  2. Layback Move.  We originally developed this move because some of our post players at ONU were small and overmatched inside, and could not create a shot over the defender, so... we decided the only thing to do is create "separation" via the Layback move.  Again: catch, chin, look inside.  If the post defender is not there (i.e. is sealing the baseline to prevent the Power move), we step with the inside foot, dribble, and take two more steps to complete the layback, shooting off the glass on the far side of the lane.  Think of this as an off-side layup:  three steps, one dribble, and very difficult to block.
  3. Spin Move.  The last move in this sequence has our post again catching, chinning the ball, and seeing inside.  If the post sees no defender, she starts a Layback move by stepping with the inside foot towards the middle of the lane and taking a dribble... but if the defense then jumps to the inside to take this move away, our post then drop-steps with the trail foot and spins back to the outside for a power jump shot.
The beauty of the three moves is that they follow the "path of least resistance."  We don't force anything, we just simply take what the defense chooses to give us! 

"But," you ask, "what if the defense doubles down on the post?"  Well, how many coaches do you think will encourage a post double-team vs. an offense that averages 45 three-point attempts per game?  Not many.  Which is why our post players at ONU tended to shoot such high percentages.  As I've noted before in our book, we had one season in which all three low post players shot over 60% in league play.  And two years ago our post player led the nation in FG percentage, shooting 67% for the year.  Not bad for a 5-8 player.

As with any System team, we use the three-point threat as our primary weapon.  But the Olivet Attack also uses the perimeter threat to set up our post game.  Unlike conventional offenses which are "inside-out" oriented, we are an "outside-in" team.  And this week we plan to work on integrating that final weapon into our offense!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Day of Rest

What is your approach to off days?  This being Sunday, I thought I'd write about the various approaches that coaches have to taking days off during the season. 

  1. No Days Off.  When I was an assistant coach at West Texas State during the early 1990s, NCAA rules allowed a team to practice and play every day... so we did.  Our head coach felt we could always find something to improve on, and since we ran four presses, three half-court defenses, seven BLOBs, six SLOBs, and 30+ offensive sets, it did take us awhile to work on that stuff.  And we were not unusual in that respect... most college coaches today have similarly complex offensive and defensive schemes.  For System teams, however, this is not a sound approach.  We believe that rest is as critical to performance as work.
  2. Sundays Off.  When the NCAA legislated to require one off day per week, many teams began taking Sunday off, unless the game schedule makes it necessary to take off another day (example:  You play on Monday, so you practice Sunday and take off Tuesday).  At ONU, being a church affiliatated, we were required to take Sundays off... which was fine with me!
  3. Day Off After a Game.  Andy Hoaglin at Jackson Community College told attendees at the RunandGun Clinic this fall that his team always takes a day off after a game.  His feeling is that this gives players a routine, and is something for them to look forward to.  "But" asked one coach, "what if you have multiple days playing every other day?"   Andy pointed out that his team did indeed have a stretch of games like that for almost two weeks, during which they did not practice!  I think it was something like 7 games in 11 days, and as I recall, JCC won them all.  No practices at all, just fresh legs and happy kids.  Of course, he was winning a lot too, and how this would work after a loss is hard to project.  But I like the concept.
  4. Change of Pace Practices.  Instead of an off day, at ONU we would sometimes just have a different type of practice, usually involving some type of contest.  One day it might be our "Skittles Free Throw" contest, where players could earn Skittles based on how many free throws they made during a certain period of time.  Or we might have a Free Throw Tournament, with brackets and playoffs.  Our favorite was the annual, "Dodgeball Day" in which we divided into teams and played the old favorite.  We did have one rule:  No hitting in the head. :-)
  5. Surprise Days Off.  Our other approach at ONU was to occasionally surprise players with an extra unscheduled day off.  After a weekday win, we might post on the locker room door, "Have a nice day!"  One time, we had the team dress out, shoot some free throws, then gathered them together and told them they could go home if they wanted. They didn't.  Instead, ten minutes later as I walked back through the gym, they had chosen up sides and were scrimmaging.  But the big kids were playing guard, and the guards were playing inside.  Needless to say they were having a blast. 
The point is, when you get to the place in System ball where your kids want to come in on their own even if you give them a day off, you've got it made.

Have a nice Sunday!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ticking Time Bomb

NCC 88- Central (IA) 83
FGAs:    81
Threes:   47
ORBs:    17%
TOs:       26 forced
Shots:   +10

NCC 94- Luther (IA) 77
FGA:     83
Threes:  40
ORBs:   24%
TOs:      37 forced
Shots:    +15

Coaching college basketball is SO glamorous! 

Sorry for the layoff since my last blog post on Tuesday.  I didn't see my wife and cats for four days, getting back home at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday night (Friday morning), then getting up again at 9, taking care of a few errands, then back to Naperville for a short practice, and topping it all off with a recruiting night on the town.

But you don't want to hear about my sad life.  The good news is that--despite the Formula numbers--we actually looked like a System team again with our second and third straight wins on the road in Iowa against (previously) undefeated Central College, and (previously) 3-1 Luther. 

We gave Central some excellent opportunities to work on their free throw skills by putting on the line 46 times.  That, along with the other Formula numbers you see above, make it hard to understand how we won.  We shot only 53% from the foul line ourselves, 23% from the arc, and were -29 rebounding.  The most telling stat was our 17% ORBs.  But Central seemed a bit uncomfortable with the pace, shooting poorly from the field.  It's interesting that we could shoot 11-47 from the arc and still outshoot our opponent: 38% to 34%!

Luther was a different story.  The press was outstanding, forcing 37 TOs.  Our players were very active and seem to be anticipating well.  But once again our offensive rebounding was awful at 24%.

This is a ticking time bomb.   It is our Achilles heel.  It will catch up with us eventually if we don't start making it a matter of priority. We absolutely must improve in this area, and our demonstrated inability to score 100 in any game this year reflects that reality.  We hit 17-40 threes vs. Luther (42%) and still only scored 94 points!  A System team has to rebound well on the offensive boards or else will risk losing games on those nights when shots just won't fall.

Now don't get me wrong.  We are thrilled to be 4-2 right now.  We are seeing tremendous improvement in almost all aspects of System performance.  Except one.  Tick...tick...tick...

I've had two conversations with System coaches the past few days, and felt like a hypocrite telling them how essential offensive rebounding is to System success when we are doing such a substandard job of it ourselves.  Here's the bewildering part, though:  we know we can do it when we want to... we just don't want to very often.  How do I know we are able to be a solid ORB team?  In the second half of our win at Benedictine last Saturday we got 53% ORBs after really emphasizing that point at halftime.  Then we get 21% ORBs over the next two games.

"What drills do you use to improve offensive rebounding?" asked one coach.  My answer:  there ain't no drills (at least, there aren't any that you aren't already using).  There's only this... make it a big deal!  It's not what you talk about, it's what you emphasize. 

Are you emphatically emphasizing this point with your team?  Give them feedback on their ORB performance at every halftime and after every game.  Preach it... sell it... plead, beg, demand.  Do what you have to but never forget...

Offensive rebounding is the most important stat in System basketball.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Road Trip

Walking out the door for a three day road trip... the very reason I tried to retire :-)

No posts while I'm gone.  See you on Friday!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What's a College For?

This week Grinnell's Jack Taylor scored 138 points to break the NCAA single game scoring record.  I couldn't let that milestone achievement pass without a comment.

First, most of the things I heard about the performance were positive.  But there were a few comments that questioned the idea of one player, or one team, scoring that much.  One coach said to me, "That kind of gimmicky performance gives small college basketball a bad name."

I don't agree.  We all know there have been System critics since the day it was created.  Something this different is bound to be criticized, if for no other reason than that it is different.  If the complaint is based on the supposed "sportsmanship" issue, we've all heard that before.  And what does it matter, really, who scores the points?  If the issue is the margin of Grinnell's victory, this is an odd time to bring that up.  They've been winning big for a long time, and that's the nature of the System.  The Grinnell System is designed to maximize offensive production, at the risk of giving up a lot of points.  Grinnell has been beaten handily in the past.  So have my teams.  So has every System team.  When you choose this style, that's the risk you take, and despite what some critics might believe, I know that Grinnell does not routinely run up the score on opponents.  Quite the contrary, Coach A routinely slows the game down when his team has the game won.  He's always done that. 

But if the complaint is that it's somehow "wrong" to go outside the commonly accepted definition of "good basketball," in an effort to see what an individual player or a team is truly capable of, then I don't get it.  This game and this performance were examples of why Grinnell is good for college basketball.  And make no mistake, this was a landmark performance. To say, as my coaching friend did, that the performance was "gimmicky" is to ignore the fact that Grinnell played a fantastic game.  How is a 1.44 Offensive Efficiency Ratio (i.e points per possession) "gimmicky?"  Grinnell played a great game...  they just didn't play a great game using a conventional approach.

No, with 1800 other colleges in America dedicated to playing ball-control basketball, isn't it refreshing that there are one or two that are trying new approaches, and testing the limits of the game?  Isn't the purpose of going to college to "test your limits?"  Colleges and universities are not just places to earn a degree in order to get a higher paying job.  They are environments where we explore the boundaries of knowledge and human performance. 

That's what Jack Taylor did.  He showed what a college basketball player is capable of.  Grinnell has been pushing the boundaries for 20 years, demonstrating 22 nights a season from November to March that teams and individuals can do extraordinary things under the right conditions.  Grinnell has been a laboratory for such performances in exactly the same way that an exercise scientist at the University of Iowa uses his lab to measure and improve human performance.

The only difference?  At Iowa, they do it in the basement of the Chemistry Building, and publish the results in a prestigious research journal.  At Grinnell, they do it in Darby Gym, and broadcast the results on ESPN.

Well done, Grinnell College.  Well done, Jack Taylor.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

It's Not What You Think

NCC 96- Benedictine 91
93 FGAs (goal 90)
60 Threes (goal 45)
42% ORB (goal 40%)
33 TOs (goal 33)
+16 Shots (goal +15)

My first year coaching the System in 2004-05 was an education.  I felt like I was starting all over.  I was starting all over.  So much of what I thought I knew about basketball was being challenged by the wise System coaches I learned from: David Arseneault, Gary Smith, Bob Belf, Bunky Harkleroad, Ron Rohn, and many others whose posts I read each day on the RunandGun chatgroup.

So much of what I thought I knew about basketball was wrong.  It wouldn't have been wrong had I been coaching a conventional game, but it was wrong for the System game.  What "wrong" things did I believe? 
  • That giving up layups matters. 
  • That you should focus most of your time on developing your halfcourt offense and defense.
  • That offensive rebounding is just one (relatively minor) aspect of the game. 
  • That the shooter should always crash the boards. 
  • That patience and working the ball are the keys for an efficient, productive offense. 
  • That taking a quick three in transition is unwise.
  • That fouling the driver to prevent an easy basket is no big deal. 
  • That forcing a team towards our basket is suicidal.
  • That scouting opponents is the foundation of defensive success.
  • That failure to box out is the reason opponents outrebound you.

The System focuses on other things, things which ought to be obvious, but for some reason are not obvious to everybody.  It focuses on the "Formula for Success," the five goals listed above (and please note for the time being that not one of these goals has anything to do with boxing out... more on this in a moment.)   Today, for the first time at NCC, we met every goal.  Five for five.  We scored 57 points in the second half, and knocked down 17 threes (both are new school records).

What you cannot see above is that we got outrebounded badly (again) in the first half, which led to an argument among the coaching staff at halftime.  "We have to box out!"  That was the consensus of four of our five coaches.  I'm embarrassed to say I was the lone hold out.  Embarrassed because I don't enjoy being the killjoy, and I don't like contradicting my fellow coaches.  They are smart people who know basketball.  But I know System basketball, and I know that the key to rebounding is effort and hustle and a commitment to getting to the ball.   And I know that focusing on a technique (boxing out) rather than on an attitude ("I'm going after that rebound!") is ultimately self-defeating.

Dennis Rodman wasn't the best rebounder in the NBA in the 1990's because he was the biggest or the quickest. He was the best because he had a burning desire to get to every loose ball.  EVERY loose ball.  He was a great rebounder because rebounding was his priority.

If you are going to coach System basketball, you had better start by assuming that most of your initial instincts are wrong.  Or at least need to be questioned.  When an opponent breaks your press and scores, is your first instinct to become more conservative?  When your offense is not scoring consistently, do you start thinking about some cool plays you can run, "just until they get back on track"?  When your team fails to rebound well, do you assume it's because you aren't boxing out?  Well, maybe you're right.  Maybe you aren't boxing out worth a flip, but that not why you are rebounding poorly.

Today, we played real System ball for the first time.  We didn't box out any better in the second half than we did in the first, yet we dominated the boards on both ends of the court.  Offensive rebounding and defensive turnovers are the two most critical stats in System basketball.  Why?  Because turnovers and rebounds lead to extra shots, and getting extra shots is what makes the System work. Is it any coincidence that the key to these two stats is effort?  Not pre-planned rotatations.  Not perfect technique.  Not boxing out.  Your players can have the best technique in the conference, but if they lack one other essential quality, they couldn't get a rebound if it hit them on the head.

What is that one essential quality?  It's not what you think.  It's not technique, it's heart.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Comfort Zone

I think we are going to introduce a new defense to our team next week.  We will call it the Comfort Zone, and it will be an 0-5 alignment:  nobody guarding the ball, and five defenders in the lane playing for the rebound.  Should be very, very easy to master.

Pardon the sarcasm... I couldn't help myself.  Though we were pleased with our improvement in Wednesday's game, after watching the video tonight after practice it's clear to me that we still don't understand System intensity... we still want to be comfortable.  But eventually, I hope and believe, we will get it, even though at this point the statistics verify what I'm seeing on the video.  The fact that we are averaging 32% ORBs and 28 defensive turnovers in our first three games is living proof that we are not yet playing hard.

At Olivet, we had a mantra, a team motto that I stole from Dean Smith, then slightly revised to fit my beliefs about what it takes to be a winning team:  Play Hard, Play Cool, Play Together, Have Fun!

Play Cool means play with composure, under control but at maximum speed, no trash talk, no worrying about officials' calls, etc.  Play Together means we are a team and will be unselfish, which sometimes means:  If you are a shooter, you darned well better quit worrying about your field goal percentage and shoot the ball.  Never pass up an open rhythm-shot under the misguided impression that this makes you a team player... to do so is, by our definition, selfish.  Play Together means that everyone must do their job for the good of the team.  So, Rebounders:  rebound.  Screeners: screen.  And Shooters: shoot! 

Have Fun reflects my belief that enjoyment of the game is the greatest motivator! All teams go through "down times" but when we lose our zip and sparkle for more than a day or two, we need to be asking "Why?" and fix it.

Which brings me to Play Hard. Every time we broke a huddle at ONU our team said "PLAY HARD!"  Every game as we left the locker room before taking the floor, each player reached up and slapped the door frame, where we had painted the words, PLAY HARD!  It's that important.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that just because the System is designed around the concept of playing fast that your team will play fast.  "The System won't work unless YOU work" is another of our mantras.  I know this sounds obvious, but I'm telling you, it's not obvious to some players!  They might think that all they have to do is shoot 50 threes and run something called a fast break and they are playing System ball.  Ain't necessarily so!

If your team seems to be struggling, try the following experiment.  Watch a video of your team for five minutes. Then pop in a video of a good System team.  See anything different?  I'll bet the first thing you notice is how much faster and more intense the good System team plays. 

Honestly, I am amazed that despite playing 40 second shifts, it hasn't dawned on our players yet that there is no need to pace themselves!  But that's what they are doing... playing at a conventional basketball pace for 40 seconds at a time. 

There is nothing more central to System success than plain, old-fashioned effort. Your team can do everything else right, but if they don't play hard, nothing works.  At NCC, so far our best defense is still the Comfort Zone. 

I truly believe this team is going to get it eventually.  But if we are still playing the Comfort Zone in January, we'll be in trouble, because as long as we insist on being comfortable, we'll never get in the Zone.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

NCC 87- Monmouth 98
93 Shots
63 Threes
29% ORB
28 TOs
+13 Shot Differential

Before heading out to our Thanksgiving family gathering, I'll update our progress!  As you can from the Formula Goals above, we've made some improvement, setting school records for FGA and 3FGA, and 3FGM (16-63). 

The +13 shot differential is a little deceptive... you can see that we did not meet our ORB goal (40%) or our TOs Forced goal (33), so how did we manage to have 13 more shots than our opponent?  Free throw differential, though not a System goal, accounts for this.  They shot 19-32 from the line while we wer 11-19, giving us about 6 more opportunities to shoot field goals instead of FTs. There were two reasons they shot so many more FTs than us:  First, we beat the snot out of them, lacking  defensive discipline while reaching, bumping, and chesting up on every trap.  Second, our game officials were new to the System and... say no more... it will even out eventually). 

Also, we did create 6+ shots  via our TO Differential... we had 22 but forced 28, so even though we didn't meet our defensive goal we did at least gain some extra shots here.

The score was tied 45-45 at the half, but again we lost our focus after intermission.  It will take this team some time to realize that they must fight the tendency to have a lull after halftime.  My teams at ONU did this all the time, and it's very frustrating to play well for the first 20 minutes, then stink it up the first five minutes of the second half.  But this highlights the reality that System success is all about focus and maximum effort, and when we have those letdowns, it shows up pretty quickly on the scoreboard.

You can see, too, that we shot poorly from the arc (25%) and the line (58%).  This is also a normal early season occurance.  Players just need time to adjust to the faster tempo.  They've played their entire lives at one speed (i.e. SLOW), and until they adjust to this new speed they'll feel like they are in a hurry, rushing their shots.  It's an art to learn how to sprint the floor, then instantly calm down, relax, and knock down a three at the end of the break.

But we are making progress.  Like the Pilgrims, we can't expect a bumper crop the first winter in the New World... so we must hang on, and hope that the harvest comes in before we starve to death.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

To Drill or Not to Drill?

Early in my career a coaching friend of mine told me that the head coach he worked for did nothing but scrimmage the entire practice. 
I remarked to my friend that this seemed like a poor way to teach the game, an inefficient way to master an offensive or defensive system. To my surprise, he told me his boss was one of the most successful coaches in Illinois basketball history.  Yet I still believe this coach's success was in spite of his scrimmage based practices, because pure scrimmaging allows relatively little opportunity for giving feedback.  His teams eventually learned what to do (after all, if you scrimmage for 2 1/2 hours every day, you'll eventually figure it out!)  But this haphazard, unfocused, inefficient, approach meant that practices ended up being far longer than they needed to be!

On the other hand, we've all known coaches who are "Drillmasters."  They disdain scrimmaging, and break the game down into the smallest detail, and yet the teams they coach somehow never seem to reach their full potential.  Tell them their team has a problem attacking the press, and rather than working against the press, they create a press-attack breakdown drill.  They are so focused on teaching the fine points of the game that their team never learns to play the game!  I knew one such coach whose players were the most fundamentally sound of any team in our league, yet they routinely finished near the bottom of the conference standings, because their mastery of individual fundamentals never seemed to translate into solid team play.

Could it be that the correct approach is somewhere in between these two extremes?

For example, yesterday I mentioned that we'd simplified our practice plan in order to address the problems we were having with running the floor, and with trapping on a missed shot.  We decided to spend 30 minutes on one drill that addressed the two major problems we'd been having.  We call this drill "5/5 Blockout," but a more accurate name might be "5/5 Blockout, Break, and Press." 

We start by having a coach shoot, while Team A blocks out Team B.  Team A rebounds the miss (or inbounds the made shot), and breaks to the other end as Team B falls back into a half-court man or zone defense.  If Team A scores, they will immediately move into their full-court press against Team B.  If Team A does not score, they run our Missed Shot Press.  Team B attacks the press, and play continues until Team A again gains possession following a rebound or score.  We then substitute and reset the drill, using the interval to discuss any corrections that need to be made.  Eventually, after we've learned the drill, we will begin keeping score using the game clock, awarding 2 points for a trey, 1 point for a basket inside the arc, and playing to 5 or 7 points.  Alternately, we might just see who is ahead after playing for 10 minutes.

The reason I'm going into such detail here is that I think this sort of situational scrimmage drill work is exactly what a team needs to master System basketball. By never going more than 1-2 cycles, we reap the advantages of using a live, realistic scrimmage format, while still allowing the coach to give continual feedback to players after each "bout." 

Yes, players can improve by simply scrimmaging for the entire practice, and they can improve via breakdown drills.  But when players are learning a new system, I have come to believe that the most productive way to practice is the "whole method" controlled scrimmage.  They need to see the big picture, and you need to correct them as they execute realistic game situations.

Sure, you do need to occasionally break down your offense/defense into its parts, and drill those parts!  But you also need to break the complete game down into its situational parts, and drill those 5/5 situations using 1-2 cycle controlled scrimmages until players have mastered them. 

Fast break after a score... press after a missed shot... offensive attack following a dead ball... defending an opponent who is trying to hold the ball on you.  Create 5/5/ drills to work on these situations, while making sure your team is also leaning to convert defense-to-offense and offense-to-defense. 

Master the situations, and you'll master the System.

"But I TOLD them!"

As you can imagine, Michelle and I weren't too happy with our 70 point outburst on Saturday.  Yesterday morning we watched the video and were able to determine after just a few minutes that the players have reached a "decision point."  The initial enthusiasm and newness of playing System Ball has worn off, and they are realizing, "Hey, this is really hard!"

We see them reverting to comfortable old habits:  running back to defend the basket after a missed shot, turning down open three-point looks, etc.  In short, they are playing it safe.

I remember when I taught high school that a common topic of discussion in the teachers' lounge was how the students just weren't mastering the material.  "I told them that ____ was going to be on the test and they still missed it!"  Same thing with our players.   We told them and told them to trap the missed shot, yet the only thing the opposing rebounder saw of us on Saturday was the backs of our jerseys.  And we saw more jogging out of our players on the fast break than the warmup at a cross-country meet.

We told them.  Yes, but we didn't teach them.  As John Wooden was fond of saying, "You haven't taught until they have learned."  But how do you teach so they DO learn?

Well, the mistake I've been making (MY fault, not Michelles!) was assuming that we could do a lot of breakdown drills with this team before they'd really mastered the pace, before the tempo was "hardwired" into their nervous systems.  Before running, trapping, and shooting quick was a HABITToo many drills, too few live 5/0 and 5/5 teaching situations. 

Maybe I could drill more with my veteran System teams at ONU.  But this team needs to get those habits down first, and there's no better way to do that, in my opinion, than creating 5/5 situations and just working on them for 20-30 minutes until you start to get what you want!  One Cycle, full bore, stop, correct and repeat.  That's it.

Here was our plan:
25 minutes- Warmups and 100 Threes
15 minutes- 5/0 Transition after a Rebound: sprint the floor, score and press
30 minutes- 5/5 Blockout and Break, then press on the made OR missed shot

Pretty simple, huh?  It was amazing that for the first 5 minutes they almost refused to sprint the floor.  For the first five minutes they almost refused to trap the ball following a missed shot.  Whistle blows... "Everybody back!  Do it again!"  over and over.  Eventually it began to dawn on them, "Hmm, they really do mean it."

Now don't get me wrong.  We have really good kids.  Really coachable kids.  But they had arrived  at their Moment of Truth:  "Are we going to be a System Team, or aren't we?"  and it was just easier for them to follow the path of least resistance, the comfortable, familiar approach. 

It's at times like this that you realize why they pay you the Big Bucks:  because you are the leader.  Once your team says, "Yeah Coach, we wanna run the System!" then you have to do what it takes to help them succeed.  From that point on, it ain't a democracy any more.  You are the leader, so LEAD!

You want to know why so few coaches run the System?  Because when players reach this point, it's hard to push them past it, and the coach begins to say, "I'm not sure this will work... maybe next year." 

This won't be the last time we struggle this season, but it is a stepping stone in our development.  We'll have our ups and downs, but if we coaches can stay focused on the simple things (Run hard! Trap hard! Rebound hard!), and if we can keep after them until the kids get it, we have a chance to help this team eventually succeed.  

So when your team hits the wall, figure out how to get them to DO what they are supposed to do. Remember, you haven't taught them until they have learned... and they won't learn by just being told. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The "Wheaties Theory"

My brother gave me a call tonight.  He's been a System enthusiast since we started running and gunning in 2004.  He said he'd listened to our Tipoff Tournament online, and enjoyed the comments of the two college students who were doing the announcing.  Their commentary indicated they apparently hadn't done a lot of homework about the System before the game.  "We're sure Coach Roof is going to get on these girls at halftime about taking too many threes!" they said. 

Well, I was in the locker room at halftime, and I can assure you that she didn't mention anything about taking too many threes, but she was a little concerned about missing so many.  Typical early season shooting woes.

On a more positive note, my brother told me that our intrepid announcing crew did mention how much energy and enthusiasm the team played with, "more than we ever saw out of them all last season!"  I'm guessing they thought that we were enthusiastic in spite of--rather than because of--taking all those threes.

That reminds me of the nice gentleman who took me by the arm after Saturday's game and asked me, sincerely, "Tell me Coach, what is your feeling about taking a player out of the game who is on a hot streak?"

Although I expressed concern for his expression of concern, I told him, "That doesn't really concern us." 

I explained my belief that "hot streaks" are a statistical myth, that a shooter will sometimes hit two or three treys in a row because the law of averages dictates it, and that the odds of that player making (or missing) the next attempt are no greater than they would be had she just missed three in a row.  I also pointed out that our main problem right now is making one in a row.

I don't think he believed my analysis, because most people are unquestoning believers in the "hot streak" theory.  (I, on the other hand, believe in the "Wheaties Theory," which I will explain below.) But if you are as intrigued by statistics and probability as I am, take a look at the fascinating book Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb.  He explains that many things which we believe are cause-effect relationships are simply random occurances, statistical "freaks of nature."  So you have to be careful about making such assumptions.  As Oakland As GM Billy Beane (of Moneyball fame) has shown, many time-honored coaching maxims are are either dead wrong or should at least be questioned.

That's what Paul Westhead believes, too.  I met Coach Westhead at a recruiting event two summers ago.  What an honor that was, and what a fascinating conversation we had!  At one point I made a comment about how I thought some component of the System "caused" something to happen, and Coach Westhead replied, "You have to be careful about making assumptions about what causes what in basketball.  There's a phrase in Latin (Westhead was an old English teacher): Post hoc ergo propter hoc, which means 'after this, therefore because of this.' " 

"You can't assume," he went on to say, "that just because one thing happens after another thing that the second thing was caused by the first."  And just because a player makes three in a row, that doesn't mean that the third bucket was caused by hitting the first two.  Maybe it was, or maybe the shooter just happened to get lucky.  Or maybe that shooter has spent many more hours in the gym than normal!

So although I don't want to make the post hoc ergo propter hoc mistake, I'm still pretty sure of two things: 
  1. A player who makes three in a row will be too tired in System ball to make four in a row, so you might as well go ahead and sub her out along with the rest of her unit, and
  2. If you take enough threes, and you practice long and hard enough, eventually you will score a lot of points.  Or, to put it another way, "The harder you work, the luckier you get."
Which reminds me of what Bob Richards, the Olympic pole vaulting champion from the 1950s, once said.  Richards was the first athlete to every have his picture on a box of Wheaties, and when asked whether he did, in fact, actually eat Wheaties replied, "I sure do, every morning!" 

When pressed further to give his honest opinion about whether Wheaties had been the cause of his becoming an Olympic champion, Richards admitted, "Well, I don't know about that, but I will tell you this:  a bowl of Wheaties every morning and 10,000 hours of hard work will get you anything you want in life."

Growing Pains

NCC 70-ALMA 67
76 Shot Attempts (Goal-90)
48 Threes (Goal- Get half our shots from the arc)
38 Turnovers forced (Goal-33)
33% ORB (Goal- Rebound 40% of our missed shots)
-12 Shot Differential (Goal- Get 15 more shots than our opponent)

My first year with the System in 2004 was a roller coaster ride.  We started out respectably, then had two blowout losses to strong opponents.  It was at that point that I was confronted with a choice:  stick with it, or revert to "safe" basketball.  Let me tell you, when you are down 52-12 at halftime, as we were in our fourth game of the System Era back in '04, you do some real soul searching about the wisdom of your approach. 

To quote the great Paul Harvey, "And now you know the rest of the story."  We did stay with the System and eventually made it work.  By Christmas we were 8-8, and finished the year something like 21-11, winning a conference title. 

There were two reasons we didn't go back to ball-control basketball.  The first was that I knew the System would work, because Coach Arseneault had done it Grinnell (as had my friend Bunky Harkleroad with his women's team at Berea College in Kentucky).  That's one big reason I have such respect for Coach A.  He developed the System without a safety net. 

The second was that I didn't want to rob our players of the opportunity of becoming a great team.  It didn't look pretty early in the season, but I was trusting that if we stuck with it, we'd have a chance to do something special, to go beyond the norm in pursuit of our dream about how the game could be played, if only we were able tolerate the growing pains.

And yes, it was painful at times.  The growth process always is.  And it is painful at NCC this season.  We are playing shorthanded, with 8 freshmen and sophomores playing big minutes right now until we get everyone healthy.  And we are thinking, which is a bad thing, because players who are thinking are not reacting.  They are mentally processing what to do, instead of just doing it.  Those millisecond differences are huge in a System based on reaction and anticipation, differences made even bigger by the fatigue factor.

"But," you might be thinking to yourself,  "you won your first game!"  True. But it wasn't a particularly good game from System standpoint.  We did have our moments, but the "minus 12" shot differential is a telling number.  Our offensive rebounding is deficient right now.  We aren't getting enough second shots to meet our FGA goal of 90. Admittedly, one reason we only got up 76 shots was the other team was beating the snot out of us every time we drove to the basket (Note: We shot 40 free throws in each of our first two games!) 

On the bright side, we are shooting that many FTs because we are actually a pretty good driving team, and once we learn to shoot threes while playing at System pace, our scoring will go up dramatically.   But right now our early season perimenter shooting is not good, something that is absolutely predictable for a System team...  until it gets comfortable playing at System pace. So, we don't get overly concerned with 3FG%, but going 7-48 from the arc isn't going to win many games. That's going to take time, but it will happen.

Meanwhile, we just have to grit our teeth and hang on until we "get it."  Or, we can put in the Flex.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Correction Practices

75 FGA (Goal-90)  (We also shot 39 FTs)
41 Threes (Goal- Get half our shots from the arc)
32% ORBs (Goal- Rebound 40% of our missed shots)
25 TOs Forced (Goal- Force 33 turnovers)
+0 Shot Differential (Goal- Get 15 more shots than the opponent

Given how much we have to learn this time of year, it would be nice if the other distractions were kept to a minimum for our first game.  Unfortunately that was not the case last night.  With five of our eighteen players in street clothes, it was a challenge to put the shift chart together, but despite some rough patches, we survived!

The game was close through much of the first half, but after leading 38-37 with about six minutes to go, we had a "reverse meltdown" (we got tired and let the opponent go on a run).  The run continued into the second half and we fell behind by 30, 81-51.  Then we went on a run ourselves to lose by 12.  It could have been worse, but it was nice to finish the game on an upswing. 

One thing that struck me as odd was how the other coach seemed to be concerned that his team might actually score 100... as if we'd care!  That was thoughtful of him, but 100 is just a number, and for a System team, it's "Live by the sword, die by the sword."

The other interesting thing was the write-up on the NCC athletics website, noting we had just scored the 4th highest total in school history, 84 points!  Ironically, I was thinking after the game, "Our offense sure needs a lot of work," so that website note put things in perspective.  But we'll be fine, and when we get the squad back to full strength in the next week or so, we should see a lot of improvement.

After getting home, I stuck the DVD in and watched until I got tired (it's hard to sleep after a game anyway).  My usual routine is:
  • Use a legal pad as I watch the game, and jot down the name of the player and what they need to be corrected on ("Shelly- ORB rule!"  or "Dana-Rotate to lag on 55 press", etc, etc.)
  • Sometimes, instead of writing a name down,  if there's something that everyone at a position needs to hear I'll write the number of that position ("1s-Attack the rim!" or "5s-Play 'Cat&Mouse' defense when high post catches a pass.")  If the whole team needs to be more aware of something, I'll write something like: "All-Get excited when we hit two threes in a row!"
  • I'll then transfer my notes to a spreadsheet, inserting a player name (or positon number, or "All") into column A on the spreadsheet, and the comment/correction into column B.  After inputting all the information, I can then simply use the "Sort" function for column A, and all my notes to a particular player (or position) will then be grouped together.  Print it, and hand out these targetted notes to the team. 

We still watch some of the game video, but this process of handing out targetted notes actually is a much more efficient way to pass along info to players, because as you know, watching game film can be somewhat random, even when you can use technology to "cut and splice" the DVD. 

Using this process, you'll develop a very good overall feel for what your team is doing well... and what it isn't.  We then will often follow up the next day by having a different kind of practice.  We call these "Correction Practices."  Rather than doing our normal routine, we'll just warmup, shoot threes, and then walk or run through the major situations we need to improve on. 

The mistake we make as coaches, I think, is that we drill too much and emphasize too little. Drilling without understanding or attention to detail can actually be counterproductive. So, go ahead and use the drills to provide a structural format, but after setting up the drill take a minute to really emphasize the concept or technique they need to improve.

For example, on Monday, our team will need to work on their press pickups.  Our players were not getting matched up quickly after a score last night, so we'll "walk & talk" through that situation, then possibly go live for just a few reps to make sure they have the idea. 

In  our normal practices, of course, we are doing in-depth work on one specific situation (Zone attack, Fast break after a score, Missed shot press, etc), but in a Correction Practice we might work on anything, and the emphasis is more on improving our understanding as opposed to improving our game-speed skills. Typically, we will do about one of these Correction Practices each week. It's also a nice way to rest their legs after a hard game.

As some coach once said, "It's not what you say, it's what you emphasize that matters to players."  By using this approach to team development, imagine how many small details and points of execution you can improve on throughout the course of a season!

That's one reason why most System teams see a quantum leap in their development about halfway through the year.  At some point, all these little things come together.  That's when the light bulb goes on.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tolerating Ambiguity

With the our first game coming up on Friday evening, and our plans to be on the road recruiting several nights a week, our practices and this blog are, of necessity, about get shorter.

A player stopped by the office today to ask some questions about practice, and to express concern that some aspects of the System were still confusing to her and some of her teammates.  "How do we know who to pick up in the press?  When do we rotate?  On offense, when do I attack the rim versus dribbling out to the arc?"

At the heart of all her questions is a desire for definitive answers.  Having heard these sorts of questions before, I'm sympathetic but not overly concerned.  The nature of playing a creative offense and defense (as opposed to a more structured and rigid style) is that many of the decisions are left to the players.  There is no "pattern" to learn, just principles and options.

I know this may be distressing for players who are used to the security and comfort a play-based set offense can give, but that's the price we pay (in the early season) for making the choice to base our game on choices.

Remember in the movie Miracle when Coach Herb Brooks is diagramming an offensive scheme for his hockey team before practice, showing them the multiple decisions they can make in just that one set.  He concludes by asking, rhetorically, "What does that give us, boys?  OPTIONS."

I worked for a great coach many years ago who told me on more that one occasion, "When you give a girl two options on a play, you've given her one option too many."

Insulting?  I don't know... he'd been very successful operating from that approach.  But I've since discovered that the System, though difficult to execute efficiently at first, eventually outpaces more regimented styles.  It's been one of the most satisfying things in my career to see how female athletes can learn to play with choices.  It is hard for them at first to tolerate the ambiguity, but when the light bulb goes on... wow!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sloppy is as Sloppy Does

Back in the 1970s, John McKay, after winning 4 national championships at USC, went on to become the first coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers where his team lost it's first 26 games.  In the post-season press conference following one such loss, McKay was asked what he thought of his team's execution. He replied, "I'm all for it."

Have you ever had one of those practices where you feel like everything you've been working on has gone in one ear and out the other?  We had one today where it seemed like players needed to be constantly reminded about properly executing the little things that we've been working on for weeks! 

Example:  Our rule for offensive rebounding is: "If you shoot the three, then you rotate to the top for a "second chance three," while the other four players crash the boards using their "wedge" technique to secure an offensive rebound."  Now of course we don't expect them to have totally mastered this yet, because after all, they have been coached to "follow your shot" since they were big enough to pick up a basketball. But when you see players forgetting this simple concept on almost every possession, you've got to conclude that they just are not focused and prepared to practice well.

Why is this?  How do we explain this tendency of players to revert to mediocrity, to take the easy way, the path of least resistance?  Why do we coaches have to be constantly vigilant to correct mistakes in execution?  Well, although my instinct is to blame the players, I know that doesn't accomplish anything.  The right question to ask is not, "What's wrong with these players?" but rather, "What can I as their coach do to get them to execute our system at a higher level?"  After all, the only person on the team whose behavior I have direct control over is me.

Given that reality, what can I do to generate high standards of practice performance?  I've said this before, but every successful coach I know was very organized and demanding.  So here are some of the practice routines and expectations that I think set the right tone, and hopefully minimize those Sloppy Days:
  • Give each drill a distinct and easily remembered name.  Repeat this name often (before and after the drill, as a reminder) until player commit the drill name and drill setup to memory.
  • After calling out the drill name, tell players the precise location where it will be run, and the particular groups they will be in,   For example:  "Groups of three at each basket!"; "3 lines, on the baseline!" (or at half court); "2 teams: Reds and Whites, Red's ball at half court!"  or "3 teams: Reds, Whites, and Blacks, on the baseline, Blacks pressing Reds!" 
  • YOU MUST HAVE THEIR ATTENTION AND COMMUNICATE CLEARLY WHAT YOU WANT!  Make sure everybody is listening, demand eye contact,  and speak distinctly.  Call out the necessary information (once again: drill name, location, and groups), then get them started!   Sometimes in a loud gym, you might need to "gather" players together to change drills... but its worth the few extra seconds it takes to make sure you are being heard.
  • Seniors are required to get to the front of the line (since they know the drills) while newcomers get in the back and keep their eyes open... then do what the seniors do.
  • Players must start the drill immediately upon getting things set up... the coach doesn't need to tell them to start! If they aren't underway in 10 seconds, somebody is not taking leadership!
  • Always rotate the same way:  Offense to defense to the end of the line.
  • Always execute at game speed unless "walk through" is clearly stated.
  • Have an assistant or a manager move the ball rack to the most efficient location on the court for transitioning from one drill to the next. 
  • Players don't chase loose balls... have an extra one at hand to start the next rep immediately.
  • Scrimmage play stops only on the whistle, and there are no boundaries.
But even when you try to run a disciplined practice, you'll have occasional sloppy practices, as we did today.  So aren't these organizational details a lot of bother?  As long as you at least take the time to write down your practice plan (say, on the back of an envelope ten minutes before workout), isn't that sufficient?  Can't we just expect players to stay focused in practice without thinking through and planning these picky structural transitions?


Monday, November 12, 2012

Trusting Your Gut

Today was a Zone day as we approach our first game on Friday.  We figured it best to work on zone early in the week because we'll probably not see any this weekend, but must be prepared, just in case.  Plus, by working on zone stuff today, that frees us up on Wednesday and Thursday to polish our Man attack, press reactions, and dead ball sets.

We also have to start thinking about two other situations that could arise (and which we haven't had time to work on yet).  First, what if we get way ahead?  And second, what if the score is close late in the game?  So, we worked today in practice on our "lead protect" and "blowout" defense, which for us, this year, will be a simple 2-3 zone, a defense that we stole lock-stock-and-barrel from Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. 

And next week, our plan is to put in the Flex offense (just kidding!  Relax!) Anyway, we like the 2-3 because if we are protecting a small lead, it is a good, safe, plain vanilla zone that covers the arc well and keeps us in good rebounding position.  And it is also a good, safe defense that we can fall back into when we are blowing out an opponent (knock on wood) and need to call off the press. The 2-3 meets both these objectives for us this season!

Not every System coach agrees with this approach, however, and there seems to be some sentiment for just "blowing and going" full-bore until the final whistle, no matter what the score.  So what's the best plan?  I know this is an issue that concerns some new System coaches, having had a lot of questions from them over the years about what to do when the game is winding down and their team is protecting a small lead.  My answer, for better or worse, has always been the same:  "You're a coach... trust your gut.")

You might protest that this is an unfair answer, since most of System basketball actually contradicts what your gut may be telling you!  For example, in the first few weeks of our System experience, many of us would call off the press after giving up a few easy layups, if we were listening to our gut. 

But late game situations are different from what came before (in my opinion), and you might just decide to quit pressing, fall back into a packed zone on defense, and hold the ball on offense (if your friend, the gut, is telling you to do that.)

I hope this heretical opinion doesn't mean that the System Police are going to come and kick my door in, but when you think about it you have to admit that having one minute on the clock is different than having 32 minutes left.  What I mean by this is that the System approach is all about playing the percentages.  Over a full game, the law of averages are in your favor if you are adhering to the famous System "Formula for Success."  But with 60 seconds to play, anything can happen.  The law of averages doesn't necessarily apply because there aren't enough possessions for you to play the percentages in any meaningful way, so.... trust your gut.  If you want to play more conservatively and protect the lead by dropping back into a zone, do it. 

On the other hand, if you think that by continuing to attack with the press you will disrupt the opponent, possibly force a turnover and thereby give yourself the best chance to win, do that. 

But you won't get booted out of the System Club if you decide to play it safe.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Ghost of System Past

I've been doing this since 1977 (coaching, not writing blogs), but fortunately about seven Christmas Eves ago in my pre-System days, I was visited by some Spirits who warned me to "Snap out of it!"  Or words to that effect. 

What did I need to "snap out of?"  Well, micromanaging my team, for one thing. Running Shell Drill every day, for another.  Oh, and last but not least, teaching way too many plays.  But even now I haven't totally learned my lesson, and (to paraphrase Marley's ghost) "it's during this festive time of year that I suffer most," because it's during the preseason that I am most tempted to overcoach, particularly during a preseason as long as this one! 

We've finally entered the last week of preseason practices and are looking forward to our home tournament opener this coming weekend.  I'm glad that we've had time to put in the things we need for our first game, given that we are starting from scratch, but there's no doubt in my mind that with a veteran System team, five weeks of preseason would be way too long!  I've heard Coach Arseneault mention on a few occasions that Grinnell's fall break comes in mid-October, and rather than keep his players around for that whole time, he prefers to just send them home.  Now I understand why.  With DIII practices beginning on October 15, and the first games played on the weekend before Thanksgiving, it's tough (no, make that impossible) to maintain an edge for that length of time!

That's certainly one of the issues many System newcomers have to come to grips with: avoiding the temptation to put in too much, just because you have the time to do so.  This stuff isn't rocket science.  Yes, there are some things to learn, and yes, players can improve their skills throughout the preseason practices.  But honestly, there's no reason a high school team with just two weeks of practice couldn't put a decent System product on the floor right away. 

One of the reasons this is true is that the System is not "timing" oriented.  A structured offense tends to rely on precision (remember "chess basketball?"), but System ball is more about concepts and effort. 

A second reason is that if you keep it simple (as you should), there's not as much to learn as you might think!  But my problem has always been that I do like to teach a variety of dead ball plays, and that's what eats up your practice time.  I've always admired Gary Smith's approach at Redlands:  he didn't teach any deadball plays, but instead just used specific called options within the offense.  Example:  Just call "Trail" as a play out of your normal offense.  Or call "Away" and have the trail (5) get involved in the triple screen for the preferred shooter. His "OB-underneath" was really just one play from which players could freelance however they wanted.

I love that approach, and someday maybe I'll get over my tendency to control those deadball situations by creating multiple plays. Someday I'll learn to KISS.  Oh, wait, I retired (or tried to), so my "someday's" are limited! Time is running out on my efforts to correct my bad System habits. 

But it's not too late for you, so remember what Marley's ghost said to Mr. Scrooge in  A Christmas Carol:

"Hear me, my time is nearly gone! I come tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate."   And the warning is...

KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID!  Or else I'm going to send 3 Spirits to visit you.