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.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Evils of Competition

One of my good friends from college, Ned, was a high school basketball coach before he wised up and became my insurance man.  But back in the day, when he was not only a coach but also an A.D., a gym floor mopper, and a P.E. teacher, he loved letting his students break the gym class monotony by playing an occasional game of dodgeball. 

Now I know there are all kinds of arguments against using dodgeball in a P.E. curriculum.  I've had those discussions with my principal, and later with my department chair at ONU.  Suffice it to say that despite what the adults claim, kids love to play dodgeball because they love to compete, and they enjoy that slight element of danger that comes from possibly being hit in the head. 

Recognizing this love of dodgeball as a Universal Truth, Ned figured he could get by with keeping the game in his curriculum, so long as he added a simple rule:  any time a player got hit in the head, every one of his teammates who were already "out" could reenter the game. 

This worked fine until the day one team got down to their last man, at which time all of his "out" teammates began chanting in unison to the opposing team, "Hit him in the head!  Hit him in the head!"

This was an unfortunate moment for the principal to drop by for his routine, unannounced teacher evaluation.  But, being a wise principal, he said to Ned, "This doesn't look like a good time... perhaps I can come back tomorrow."

Regardless of the naysayers, I stand by my earlier statement:  Kids love to compete!

Now, hold that thought.  This afternoon, we finished our fourth week of practice with a review of our early and middle break.  As you may recall, we define "early break" as any shot that results from a pass outside the arc.  (Examples: 1-2, 1-3, 1-4).  "Middle break"options take slightly longer to unfold: shots that result from a pass from inside the arc.  These options include a pitch to a ballside wing player, a bounce pass from PG to the low post on the opposite block, a "drag" pass from PG over the top to a weakside wing, and the "Trail" pass behind the PG.

In order to polish the early break, we use one of Paul Westhead's drills called "2 1/2 Cycles."  Here's how it works:
  • Have a coach toss the ball off the boards.  5 rebounds and outlets to 1, while 2, 3, and 4 sprint the floor.  1 pushes the ball downcourt, does a stutter dribble at the arc, and explodes to the rim for a layup
  • 5, having sprinted the floor, takes the ball out of the net, steps over the endline and inbounds to 1, as 2, 3, and 4 criss-cross and again sprint the floor to the other end.  Our second option has 1 passing ahead to 2 spotted up at the right fade for a 3-point shot.
  • Make or miss, 5 outlets (or inbounds) to 1, who passes ahead 1-4 for the layup.
  • Then next trip has 1 pushing hard to half-court, then dribbling across the floor towards our 3-guard, who is spotted up on the left fade for a 3-point shot.
  • On the last trip, we have 1 driving all the way into the lane, where she pivots and passes back to 5 for our "Trail" option.

Sounds hard, right?  It is.  Very hard.  But it's amazing how, with the addition of a clock and a scoreboard, we can take a really hard drill and transform it into a really fun drill!  Here's how...

With college women, we find that with practice this drill can be completed in about 30-33 seconds.  We start the clock the moment the rebounder gets the ball off the glass, and stop the clock as the Trail releases her 3-point shot on the last option.  You should note that it is possible in this drill to score up to 13 points (two layups, by 1 and 4, and three treys, by 2, 3, and 5).

Anyway, to motivate players we set the shot clock to 35 seconds (or use a stopwatach), and keep track of points on the scoreboard.  If a team makes every shot (13 points), and completes the drill in just 31 seconds, we would give them 4 bonus points (35 minus 31), for a total score of 17.  Another team might make 8 points, and finish in 34 seconds, which would give them a total score of 9 points. 

If we have 3 units competing against each other, we could play 3-4 rounds each, and see which group can accumulate the most points.  Or, to get a snapshot of our entire team's progress, we could see how many total points we can accumulate in, say, 10 rounds. 

There are all kinds of ways to use the clock, and to keep score, to build the element of competition into your System practices.   So don't listen to the Dodgeball Haters of the world who try to tell you that competition is the devil... they're wrong.

Competition is a good thing, as long as you don't get hit in the head.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

One on One

Several years ago I did some research on a coach named Anson Dorrance.  You may have heard of him.  He is the women's soccer coach at the University of North Carolina, and let me blow your mind with some numbers:  In 34 years as head coach, he's won 20 NCAA championships.  His career record is 728-44-26 (91.2% wins).

So when Coach Dorrance speaks about anything relative to motivation or skill development, he has my full attention.  And one of the topics he's most passionate about is the use of one-on-one games as the single best way to improve your team. (Being a soccer coach, he refers to this as "1 v. 1").  His idea is that if you can significantly improve each player's 1 v. 1 ability, your whole team will improve in the process.  A rising tide lifts all boats!

About the same time I was learning about this from Coach Dorrance, I came across a DVD by Phil Martelli (St. Joseph's University) on using competive 1 on 1 basketball drills in practice.  I'd heard about this from a post on the runandgun chatgroup by Muhlenberg's Ron Rohn who highly recommended the DVD.  So I ordered it, loved it, and stole three of his drills.  Without further adeiu, here they are!

1/1 CONES-  Place one cone near half-court about 15 feet in from the sideline, with a second cone that is about 10 feet inside the other one.  Pair up players, and start them on the baseline.  The offensive player dribbles towards the outside cone, while the defensive player sprints around the inside cone.  After dribbling around the cone, the ball-handler aggressively attacks the defender and tries to score off the drive.  He gets just one shot! Then the next pair starts.  The next time through the line, offensive players become defenders, etc.  Play for four minutes and keep score.  Purpose: Develops ability of handlers to score off the drive in transition.

1/1 DENY- Here the two opponents start in the lane, with the offensive player standing about 4 feet in front of the rim, and the defender starting with his back to the offensive player, facing a coach who is standing at the top of the arc with a basketball.  The offensive player can break out to either wing, receives a bounce pass from the coach, which he catches outside the arc, faces up and attacks one on one.  He must use only 3-4 dribbles to score.  One shot only... next time through the drill switch from offense to defense.  Play for 4 minutes and keep score. Purpose: Develops ability to score from the wing with a live dribble.

1/1 SLAP & GO-  Two opponents face each other across the FT line.  They start the drill by slapping hands, then the one nearest half-court sprints and touches the center circle, while the other sprints and touches the baseline.  A coach with a basketball is even with the top of the arc, about 5 feet outside the edge of the lane.  As the offensive player nears the arc, the coach tosses him a soft pass.  He catches and shoots the three or (if the defense is too tight) blows by him with a drive.  One shot... switch O to D... play for four minutes... keep score.  Purpose:  Develops ability to score from the trail spot in transition.

A few logistical details: 
  • To force defenders to guard the arc (and prevent them from just camping in the lane) we give the shooter 4 points if she can make a three-pointer, and only 1 point for a shot inside the arc.  This format really keeps them honest!  (If I coached guys, I'd probably only reward the offense 3 pts for a trey.)
  • We set up a round robin tournament, so over the course of several weeks, everyone on the team will eventually play everyone else.  Guards play guards, forwards, big men... whatever.  It all evens out in the end.
  • We post this tournament bracket on the wall, and players must check before each practice to see who they will be playing, and what end of the court they will play at (we like having about 3-4 pairs on each end... just about right in terms of rest vs. work ratio.)
  • We get a drink right after this drill, so players can report who won.  We just circle the winner on the bracket, and update each player's win/loss standings each day.
  • If there is a tie, the better (preferred) shooter of the two players steps immediately to the top of the arc, catches a pass from the coach, using a bunny hop, and shoots a three.  If he makes it, he wins the game... if he misses, his opponent is the winner.  That's it.
  • We do one drill, three days a week.  Each day we use a different drill, and have a different opponent.
Players love this part of practice, and make huge progress throughout the year learning how to attack one on one. It's especially valuable for female players for two reasons.  First, they don't play much one on one growing up, and therefore they can make dramatic progress over the course of the season! 

Second, Coach Dorrance says that he uses 1 v.1 work with his players because it teaches them to compete head-to-head, and this is something which really gives them an edge.  He credits much of his phenomenal success to a series of drills that he calls "The Competitive Cauldron," and 1 v. 1 is one of the drills he uses in the cauldron to teach female players how to develop their competitive instincts.

Works for guys, too! 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


We got home late last night from a scrimmage downstate, and I figured that anything I had to say at 3 a.m. wouldn't be worth the pixels they were printed on.  But now it's 8 p.m. and with four hours of quality sleep to recharge my literary brain cells, I'll start by quickly recapping our scrimmage results. 

We played fairly even with our opponent throughout the game (I think it was 86-84), and had some good moments, but our biggest problem right now is offensive flow.  As you know by now, one of my favorites is John Wooden, who said he never devoted the same amount of time to defense that he did to offense because on offense you have to coordinate both player and ball movement into your plan of attack. 

That's definitely true for us right now.  At this point in our development our drive and kick game looks decent, but our pass and screen away action is stagnant.  We just haven't worked on it enough, and that will be addressed in the next few days. 

How?  Maybe by doing some "20 passes, no dribble" offensive movement drills.  Knight always taught pure motion offense via the "no dribble" restriction, and although we never want to make 20 passes before shooting (or even 2, for that matter), I believe you have to do "excess pass" drills in order to get players into the habit of movement!  That's really all we are doing with a 20-pass rule: ingraining the "pass and screen-away" habit.  (We've already mastered the "pass and stand there" habit.)

After working 5/0, we may run our Half-court 5/5/5 "Cutthroat" drill (Offense stays if they score, if not they are out, defense takes over on offense, and a third group comes in on defense).  Great way to develop the half-court game, and although we definitely prefer a quick shot off the first or second pass in transition, when things bog down it's nice to have some plan for how to move, screen, and maintain spacing. 

Now, I know Paul Westhead claimed that at LMU he didn't even give his players an offense to flow into at the end of the break because, as he lamented, "doggone it if they won't try and run it!"  I'm pretty extreme, but not that extreme, so by giving our players a plan of movement, our hope is that at least they can learn how to stay out of each other's way. 

In our case, we have a very simple rule:  any time you pass outside the arc, screen away.  It's a natural, common sense offensive concept, and as long as you've spent time developing good screening and cutting techniques, the "Pass and Screen Away" series will be running like a top by mid-season.

And, paradoxically, the better you get at making 20 passes in November, the easier it will be to create an open shot after just 3 passes in January.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What's Your Vote?

This being election day reminds me that in much of life we have distinct choices, and how we choose affects our future.

Don't panic... I'm not going to go off on a political discourse, unless you consider System Basketball "politics" (which many people do).  But I am going to point out what a stark a choice you have when you decide on a basketball philosophy, and how this can definitely impact your future in coaching.

Last night I got a text from Michelle.  Her former assistant is now working at Northern Illinois University, so Michelle left right after practice to see NIU's first exhibition game.  There were a couple of interesting things about the matchup. 

First, the head coach at NIU is Kathy Bennett.  Yes, that Bennett.  Kathy is the daughter of former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, the high priest of ball-control basketball, and she is clearly her father's daughter.  She's a really great coach, and back in the 1990's when she was head coach at DIII UW-Oshkosh I happened to see her team play in the national championship.  What a great defense they had!  Oshkosh completely shut down a very athletic opponent, and showed that one way to win vs. superior opposition is to hold the ball, get great shots, and give up nothing easy on the defensive end.  Worked very well that night!

The other interesting thing about NIU's exhibition game was their opponent.  They were playing Indiana Wesleyan University, a Division 2 NAIA team who we used to scrimmage every year when I was at ONU.  IWU is also a great team with a great coach, Steve Brooks.  Several years ago they went undefeated and won the national championship, averaging in the 40s defensively.

Talk about "the immovable force" vs. "the immovable force."  Anyway, to get back to Michelle's text, she wrote, "It's 8-8 with 8:00 left in first half." 

Ouch!  Now on the one hand, that's amazing that a small school like IWU could hang with DI NIU.  Coach Bennett obviously believes that in the end her team's discipline will prevail playing this style.  Coach Brookes believes ball-control will keep them close, and that maybe they can sneak out a win at the end. 

I don't know how the game turned out, but I can't imagine a more stark contrast with System ball.  Were we to play NIU at this point in our development, I frankly doubt that we would be tied with them 12 minutes into the game as IWU was... but we'd sure have a lot more than 8 points.

At some point as a System coach you have to answer the question that my good friend and former University of Redlands coach Gary Smith posed several years ago:  "How are you willing to lose?"  Of course none of us wants to go down to defeat, but I'd rather lose 110-102 than 55-51. I'd rather "go down swinging." And, frankly, I'd rather lose 110-102 than win 55-51, because in the end I think the intangible benefits of System ball are worth the risks. 

What's your choice?  Once you "vote"for a philosophy, a style of play, you live with the consequences.  I vote, early and often, for System Basketball.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Practice Intensity

Below I have posted our practice plan for today as we reviewed our press vs. made shots and missed shots, as well as our OB-Side and OB-Under defense.

As often happens after a day off, it took us awhile to get into a groove.  One thing we are trying to develop this time of year is an attitude towards practice that we are going to go at game speed every time we step on the court.  For us, a "light" practice does not mean a half-speed practice.  We vary our practice routine by changing the length (1:45, 1:15, 45 minutes), or the amount of contact work we do:  vs. Press, vs. No Press (half-court defense only), or vs. No Defense (Dummy offense only).

This idea of varying the intensity of practices based on length and amount of defensive contact is something I stole from Bill Walsh (who probably stole it from Paul Brown... we're all thieves!)  Anyway, when Walsh took over the 49ers back in the early 1980s, he was one of the first NFL coaches to assert that every practice didn't have to be a test of manhood.  So practice intensity went from "No Pads" (Helmets, T-shirt, and Shorts only), to "Shoulder Pads" to "Full Pads."  But EVERY practice was at Game Speed.  He was teaching speed as well as technique, so he never liked to "walk through" a drill or play.  Same goes for System practices.  If you need a "light" practice, go full-speed vs. no defense for 30 minutes.  Then go home and watch Dancing with the Stars.

Today was a 1:45 practice (105 minutes), using press defense.  In other words, it was supposed to be a tough workout.  But players don't always come with the same level of intensity and effort.  That's where your ability to motivate comes in.  Once we stopped and challenged the players--once I reminded them in my own, subtle way that they couldn't press my 104 year old Grandma Douglas with the level of effort they were currently giving--they rose to that challenge and we had a pretty good defensive workout from that point forward.

Which was discouraging news to Grandma, given all the extra time she's been putting in lately on her ball-handling.

12:05-12:15    WARMUP
                         Elbow Layups                2 of each
                         Dynamic Warmup

12:15-12:30   SHOOTING
                        12 minute Threes          Sound buzzer at each minute           

12:30-12:40  TRANSITION
                        Carolina Break              # made in 2 minutes after warming up
                        HC 3 on 2
                        HC 3 on 3                       Use Dribble out

12:40-12:50   GROUPS
                        Chase & Turn            Partners, in each corner; start w/toss to partner
                        1/2 Trap (MN); HC 2/1 (DP)   Switch ends after 2½ minutes                                    
                        Water Break

12:50-1:15     TEAM OFFENSE
                        Review 55 vs. 2-up; 3-up;  Show vs. 4-up
                        5-count Drill:  55 vs. 3 up
                        Missed Shot Press Drill vs. our Press Break 
                        Water Break

1:15-1:30       SITUATIONS
                        11 Press vs. Sideline 3, Sideline Stack                                  
                        11 vs. OB 2-3-5

1:30-1:40       COMPETIVE SHOOTING                                
                        4 Minute Shooting                                         Record: 85

Saturday, November 3, 2012

What's a Napkin For?

Let's talk about quick hitters today, and then let's not talk about them again.  But first, a review...

For the first three weeks of the year, we've been working on Fast Break vs. M/M (Week One), Press Defense (Week Two), and Fast Break vs. Zone (Week Three).  Throughout each week we've installed our OB and Sideline plays vs. M/M and Zone, and our Sideline & OB defensive schemes.

Now we are ready to move to our "Daily" Schedule.  From this point forward we'll be working on a different area each day, rather than concentrating on something for an entire week.  So today we'll be focusing on Press work, reviewing our On and Off presses, the Missed Shot Press, and Defense vs. OB-Under & OB-Sideline.

Our second practice this week will focus on Fast Break vs. M/M, and we'll review some quick hitters along with our OB-Side & OB-Under offensive sets, preparing us for our Scrimmage #2 on Tuesday.

One thing I should mention is that many System coaches save workout time by limiting their OB-Under and Sideline plays, and by using specific options from their regular offense, rather than creating additional quick-hitters.  Honestly, I think this is possibly a better approach than mine, for one simple reason:  the less you have to work on, the less you have to screw up.

BUT, having defaced thousands of restaurant napkins throughout my career with my amazing play diagrams (a few of which are in the Smithsonian), I've had to compromise with the devil on this one.  I just can't resist the temptation to draw plays, to think about ways to use our personal in different ways. 

However, I also know that if I let this impulse to overcoach get out of control, our team will suffer!  The System itself serves as a deterrent to this "Play a Day" impulse of mine, because it only "allows" quick hitters following a dead ball.  And since there are relatively few dead ball situations in a game (compared to "after a score" and "after a rebound" situations, which--by their very nature within an uptempo system--need to allow for free-lance play unhampered by my play-calling genius), I have to limit my play-calling "creative juices."   (Wow... Mrs. Mitchell--my freshman English teacher at Spearman High School--would have just loved to make me diagram that last sentence!  Hope you could follow my twisted train of thought!)

Anyways, my feeling is that despite my need to draw and install plays, we'd probably be better off with NO quick hitters, and with ONE OBU and OBS play.  Problem is, I'd probably go crazy without the chance to come up with some "neat stuff" to try. 

So, I let myself doodle on those napkins, but then use most of them to blow my nose.

Today's Lesson...

Any of you who are high school teachers will know the answer to the following question...

When one of your students (usually the one with the stud in his tongue and the creatively colored hair) strolls into the your classroom at the beginning of the hour, what's the first thing he asks you?

Right.  "What are we doing today???"  Or, sometimes, my favorite variation of that same question: "Are we gonna do anything today?" 

I used to enjoy replying: "No, nothing.  We're just going to pass out comic books and take the day off."  Not detecting my sense of irony, Mr. Tongue Stud would usually exclaim, "Aw-right!"

We concluded Zone Week on Friday with another day of reviewing:
  • Our Zone Offense, starting with 5/0 options, today reminding the trailers to spot up in a curl area when they are attacking an odd zone
  • Progressing to 5/0 Zone Offense off the rebound, moving to ORB spots for a second chance three, and jumping into our press after a score
  • Playing "HC Defense Breaks" vs. a 1-3-1 (our basic zone).  This drill has us starting a possession with the PG and Trail at halfcourt... after the shot (make or miss) the defense breaks the other way, trying to create a quick shot vs the 1-3-1, then once more having the original offensive team break back. 
  • Then reviewed our Half-court zone attack vs. 1-2-2 HC press.
  • Then we worked on our Sideline and OB-Under zone plays vs. a 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone.
The point is, if we had any players with creative hair who wanted to know at the beginning of practice, "What are we gonna do today?"  then our answer would be pretty clear: "We're working on our ZONE attack." 

Now, we could have chosen to organize things a little differently (as some System coaches do) by planning the practice around, say, "Fast Breaking after a Score, vs. both M/M and Zone Defenses."  Or, "Pressing after a Dead Ball, from Full-court, Sideline, and OB-Under."  In other words, we could have planned today's lesson around HOW we obtained possession, rather than what defense we are seeing AFTER we gained possession.

With that said, here's the bottom line:  We do not work on everything, every day.  Never, never, never!  Why do you think our practices are 1:30 (or less!)?  Because we don't try to do it all.  Every practice has one topic.  In our case, today it was "Zone Work." But whatever it is, we organize everything around that emphasis. 

I know the conventional approach is to spend the first 45 mintues of practice (or, heaven forbid, the first hour) on "fundamentals," the next 45 minutes on offense, and the last 45 minutes on defense. 

My belief is that a) you cannot possibly get players to go at System pace for that long, b) they'll get more out of practice by focusing on one topic per workout, and c) your practice planning is clarified and streamlined because you merely select the drills or team activities that are consistent with your emphasis for that workout.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is the System.  Get better at one thing, every practice!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Being Hard to Guard

This is one of those very rare weeks in which we have six practice days.  No games or scrimmages, just all zone work, all the time.  Except today.

To break things up and provide a quick refresher, we went back to work on our M/M attack (remember, we just call it "Man!" while our zone attack is simply "Zone!").  We've been using our half-court 3 on 3 drill (HC 3/3) all week to help the PG see her middle break options, so it's not like we haven't been doing any work vs. M/M, but with the long week, we needed one day to connect with our intensive M/M work from week one.

And our most pressing need was to improve our Drive & Kick execution.  Our wings have not been doing a good job of sliding (curling) up the arc when the PG penetrated, which makes it harder to find them in the middle break because they are literally standing behind  their defender.  Another flaw in our execution of this option by our wings was that when they were open for the "pitch" pass from the PG as they curled up, they've been hesitant about penetrating "downhill" (as Vance Walberg puts it). 

The key to effective wing drives (an important aspect of our Drive & Kick option), is that the wing must attack directly off the catch.  No hesitation... just catch the pitch from the PG and penetrate to the inside.  It is often this "second drive" by the wing that really breaks down the defense, especially when combined with their first option (shoot the three!)  As any defender knows, the hardest player to guard is a good shooter who--if you cover them tight enough to take away their shot--can put the ball on the floor and beat you with a dribble. Darned if you do, and Darned if you don't! This "double threat" option by the wing is the essence of the drive and kick game.  And it explains why someone as slow as Larry Bird could beat people off the dribble:  since you had to guard him on the arc, he'd get you off your feet with that little shot fake and go by you.  Doesn't matter how quick you are... it's pretty hard to defend Bird when your jock is up around your ears.

Moving on, the thing that makes it possible for the wing to catch and go "downhill" is a good pass from the PG!  That pass has to be a "lead" pass slightly ahead of the receiver as she slides up.  If she has to reach back for it, she has no edge.

So, to develop this part of our "DK" game, we use a simple 2-line Drive and Kick drill: lines of 3-4 players on each fade spot, one ball, penetrate in an arc from the wing towards the rim, while the first player in line on the weakside starts to slide up.  Kick to her and go to the back of that line.  Receiver catches and drives (1-2 dribbles) hard to the inside, turning the corner (downhill!) and attacking the rim (not a "side-ways" drive).  This continuity drill is simply for the purpose of giving massive reps at penetrating and executing a lead pass off the drive.  We do it for 50 passes, while the other half of the team makes 50 passes on the far end.  Boring, but effective teaching tool.

Next we progressed to our "4-Spot DK Drill" which teaches players to maintain spacing as penetrators drive and kick and replace each other at the curl and fades spots.  Can't explain all the details here, but it's in the book and videos. 

We ended up today playing our 4/4/4 Cutthroat game ("Stay on offense if you score. If you don't, get off the floor while the defense gets the ball at HC and immediately attacks a new team of four coming in to play defense.")  We love this game, and play to 5 points (by 2s and 1s) with losing teams sprinting to HC and back (not much, just enough to reward the winners).  Great drill for developing HC execution in a more open floor environment.  Lots of full speed reps!

We saw great improvement with this teaching sequence today... but of course when we started playing 5/5, all the players did was Drive&Kick every time.  I suppose when we work on Pass-and-Screen-Away series next week (our other main offensive option), then that's all the kids will do that day!  Oh well, eventually they'll learn to use all their options, when the "light bulb" goes on.  And when that happens, we'll be really "hard to guard!"

Tomorrow, back to Zone work to cap off the week.