Sunday, February 24, 2013


Does the end of the season always come as a shock to you?  I feel like a car in the driveway, revving it's engine ready to head out on the highway, but with no place to go.  Gearing down will be hard, wondering what to do with the extra time in my day, but I'm sure there will be plenty to fill the void.  There always is.

One thing I know will keep me busy is an old habit that I've repeated after every season for 35 years, what the education professors call "reflective teaching."  I cannot recommend this process highly enough, feeling that it has had more to do with whatever success I've enjoyed in coaching than any other single thing (except recruiting great players).  It started for me back in 1978, when I bought a stenographer's notepad and for several weeks jotted down thoughts about the season past, and ideas for making things better in the future.  Did the offense work?  How about practice structure?  Did I get the most out of our personnel?   Etc, etc, etc. 

The odd thing is that I've found this to be the most satisfying part of the entire year, this process of learning from the past and considering the future.  Even after a third of a century, the game is still fresh and exciting, and I still take joy in contemplating how to be a better coach. Eventually, such contemplations led me to a small college in Iowa, and a thin little paperback called The Running Game: A Formula for Success, a book which changed my coaching life.

So what have I learned from this season, this novel experience of teaching the System from scratch?  Here are a few random thoughts that are going into my notebook this spring:
  • The System is, more than anything else, about effort.  Offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers makes it work, and those "skills" are entirely effort based.  If you can coach effort, you can coach the System.
  • Grinnell's offense is not the only one that will work in the Grinnell System, but it does place an emphasis on roles more than any other.  And the more players stay within their assigned roles, the better they will execute.
  • Along those lines, an "equal opportunity" offense may seem good for team morale, but will lead to situations where kids try to do things they aren't suited for.  So whatever offense you use, make sure players understand and accept their roles.
  • The ultimate key to System success is what goes on in practice, and having a consistent general framework for practice keeps coaches organized and players improving.
  • The practice framework I like the most right now is the following:  PERIOD 1- SKILLS (4-line warmup and fundamentals, followed by a layup drill, a three-point shooting drill, and stretching);  PERIOD 2- SKELETON (6 line shooting, or some version of 5/0 offense, or walking through defensive assignments 5/5.  I'd also include breakdown drills in this period)  PERIOD 3- SCRIMMAGE (Live 5/5 situations such as offense after a rebound, steal, score, or dead ball, or defense after a rebound, score, dead ball, or vs. a spread-delay game.  Master these situations, and you master the System).  And last but not least...
  • If you want to win a popularity contest, don't coach the System.

My final thought, and the last piece of System advice I'll inflict on you, my coaching friends, comes from our wise teacher Will Shakespeare, words he has Polonius speak to his son Laertes:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

                           (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Now THAT'S defense!

68 FGAs
32 Threes
38% ORBs
24 TOs
+7 Shots

Our season ends vs. #24 Carthage in what turned out to be one of our better performances of the year, though as our formula goals above indicate, basically unSystemlike.  Still, we played as a team, took good shots, and played hard. 

Unfortunately, the game was marred by what passes for good defense in this day and age:  pushing, shoving, and grabbing.  I can understand when a System team gets a little off balance, reaches too much, or fouls a shooter going up for a layup.  That's a predictable consequence of playing a fast, full-court trapping game.  But we don't teach our players to push and hack... that stuff just comes naturally to them.  On the other hand, "normal" defense (especially as played in DickBennettland) is focused on preventing any sort of penetration inside the arc.  So a team like ours that wants to drive to the rim is going to get bodied-up.  And a post player cutting across the lane is going to be checked and pushed. 

That's defense in the modern era, and I have no problem with that.  Defensive philosophy--like every other aspect of basketball--is all about tradeoffs:  System D involves the willingness to give up easier shots for the sake of forcing turnovers.  What I do take issue with is the unquestioning belief by basketball "purists" that the conventional approach (preventing easy shots at all costs) is the right and only way to play defense, the assertion that their tradeoffs are better than our tradeoffs.  But consider one telling stat:  both teams shot 26 freethrows... in the second half alone!  Our fouls throughout this season have typically been the result of a young team not yet being able to execute their defense cleanly.   On the other hand, the conventional "pack" defenses we've seen this year actually seem to have been taught to hold cutters, body-check drivers, and arm-bar post players.

The older I get, the more I agree with John Wooden that basketball's inherent beauty and grace has been corrupted, replaced in this day and age with a game based on ugly brute strength.  Basketball as mudwrestling.  Yes, System teams can hack a lot, but that's not the essence of the style... quite the contrary.  The System, when it is played correctly, is a finesse game.  The problem being that it's tougher to teach someone how to be a pickpocket than a mugger. 

But when defenders learn to have "larceny in their souls" (as Gary Smith puts it), when they master the System pickpocket's sleight-of-hand, the result is beautiful:  a knifing steal, a blind-side back-tap, a clean solid trap and well-timed rotation/ interception. These anticipation skills are what we try to teach our defenders.  In the end, to each his own.  But that does not include the right to define conventional defense as "good" and System defense as "flawed."  

[Oh, by the way, our defensive plan worked well for most of the game, giving us a 10 point lead late in the first half, and keeping the game close for 37 minutes.  All we did was run our "Back" press, moving the on-ball defender to half-court, rotating our weakside wing defender as usual to cover the lag after the inbound pass while the interceptor picked up the open cutter, then waiting to trap until the opponent dribbled the ball... a variation of the "Stay" press.  A little safer, a few less turnovers forced, a few less layups given up... a tradeoff.]

In the end, Carthage adjusted as good teams do, but the Back press variation gave us a shot.  Maybe next year we'll learn how to play defense the "right" way.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Game Plan

We head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin tonight for our game vs. #1 seed Carthage.  There's always a conflict when entering post-season play  to stick with what got you here, or try something new.

Given that we have nothing to lose, we've decided to at least try a little tweak to our defense. Our plan is to dsjdljk lmeonc kdsdjf jlkdsj fkl0 2r3ru29p fnaf8h fapnvf.

Oops! Did that come through garbled?  Well, I'll have to try again tomorrow to give you details on the game plan.  Hope you understand, no telling who reads blogs during the playoffs.  I'll give you a complete report, and let you know how our bright idea paid off. 

Meanwhile, I'm off to the State Tournament this morning to catch the game of one of our top recruits. Two hours downstate to Bloomington, then three hours up to Kenosha.  Ah, the glamorous life of a college coach!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


75 FGAs
28 Threes
34% ORBs
41 TOs
+10 Shots

On the bus after the game, Michelle turned to me and said, "You told me before the season that we'd make the conference tournament, and to be honest, I didn't believe you."

But we did.  Tonight's win, combined with losses by Elmhurst and North Park, place us at Carthage this weekend for the tournament semifinals, and word on the street is that Carthage is not thrilled about this.  But from our perspective, the matchup is the best we could have hoped for.  Carthage is a team we were able to stay with for most of the game in our previous matchups, whereas the other two semifinalists, Wheaton and Illinois Wesleyan--much better suited to play an uptempo game--dismantled us.  Carthage may dismantle us too, but their more methodical style gives us a chance to make them uncomfortable, and that's what we plan to do.

As you can see from the numbers, though, the Millikin game was somewhat un-systemlike. We had only 75 shots, the result of committing 29 turnovers (11 of which were traveling calls).  We also hit only 4 of 28 three point attempts, and it looks like switching man-to-man is going to be the defense of choice for our conference opponents from now on.  Millikin was determined not to give us a clean look from the arc and succeeded admirably.

Switching man-to-man or not, I know from experience that it's well within our capabilities to generate 50+ threes a game, even versus such tight perimeter defense.  (Our ONU squad last year averaged 57 3FGAs per game, and we hardly saw anything but switching man-to-man defense all season.)  It's clear to me that even after 25 games, our players at NCC still are reluctant to take the quick three, reverting as we did tonight to a more "careful" offensive approach.  Apparently, mastering the System is a never ending process as players will always gravitate back towards old, familiar habits. 

One clear lesson I've learned this year at NCC is that the key to succeeding with a first year System team is teaching them to truly "go for broke," pushing the tempo to break down the defense (especially off steals and rebounds) to create what Coach A calls a "knockdown three."  It's no surprise that at this point in the season, opposing defenses aren't going to give us a clean look from the arc. They can read a stat sheet.

But even when the look isn't perfect, lots of good things happen when a team generates second chances via the offensive glass.  Shoot... rebound... shoot... rebound... score... press... steal...score!  It's hard to describe, but the System, when it's humming, is like a whirling dervish, a perpetual motion machine.  The beauty of the System is that no single component works that well independent of the others... but when everything is clicking, that synergy makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

It wasn't pretty tonight, but we are still alive and are taking our high-wire act up to Wisconsin this Friday night to do post-season battle with the conference champions.  And if we can create that magical Synergy for just 40 minutes... who knows?

Stay tuned

Just heading out the door for our last regular season game at Millikin, as our season hangs in the balance.  A victory means the first winning season in eight years, and a chance to advance to only our second conference tourney since it's inception.  A bit of good news... one of our key injured players just got cleared, so our recent problems with depth are slightly less serious.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Tale of Two Seniors

75 FGAs
35 Threes
32% ORBs
28 TOs
+4 Shots

ONU 113- ST. FRANCIS 102
103 FGAs
64 Threes
29% ORBs
40 TOs
+15 Shots

It was Senior Day at ONU, and with an early1 p.m. start time I thought it would be a nice idea to drop by on my way out of town to catch the game.  Calling Brooke Peterson, a local high school coach who is also one of my former Olivet  players and assistant coaches, I asked if she'd like to meet me at the game.  "Sure! I'd love to do that Coach Porter!" she said, "and Lauren invited me to speak to the team before the game, so you need to come to the locker with me!"  (Brooke is 26, and still feels uncomfortable calling me by my first name.) "But," she said, "You have to speak to the team after me."

So that was the plan and Brooke gave a beautiful pregame talk, reminding me of how proud I am of her, and how much she's grown up since she came to ONU eight years ago as a shy freshman.  Now she's a confident English teacher and carries herself with a cheerful dignity.   Any coach knows that the real joy of coaching is seeing your players grow up before your very eyes.  Brooke is Exhibit A in that category.

In my brief greeting to the team, I commented about the tradition at ONU, pointing to the fifteen team photos that ring the wall of the locker room, one from each of my years (plus this year's photo from Lauren's first year as head coach). 

"Many of these players are just faces to you," I said.  "But each one has a history, and a legacy.  What is your legacy?  What does it mean to play TigerBall?  It means that you put aside personal ambitions and play together for the good of the team. It means to just do your job."

"Sandy," I pointed to one of the seniors, a 6-1 safety, "I remember when you were a freshman and came in extra, working so hard to perfect your perimeter shot because you'd never taken a three in high school.  Now look at you, leading the team in 3FG percentage.  Why?  Because you only shoot when you are totally wide open! You are our best shot blocker and best rebounder, and you are great at that, and you stick to what you do best, which is not taking ten threes a  game!" 

There were lots of laughs and nods, because the players know.  Everyone gets a chance in TigerBall, but that doesn't mean everyone is the same.  Do what you do well.  Do your job.

I had to leave with 10 minutes to play in ONUs 113-102 victory, with the Tigers holding a comfortable seven point lead.  I saw later fromt he box score that Sandy finished with six rebounds and three blocks in 14 minutes.  She only missed one three, and was smart enough to finish 0-1 from the arc.  She did her job.

It was Senior Day at NCC, and I enjoyed standing quietly in the locker room as Michelle spoke to the team.  The joy of being an assistant is that there is no pressure, no history, no expectations other than to fill my role in advising the head coach as opportunities arise.  No team pictures ring the walls of the Cardinal's locker room, but they are nevertheless a team hopeful of starting a tradition.  After winning just one conference game last year, a win today will almost assure a berth in the CCIW tournament.  I'm proud to have helped them along towards that goal.

There were lots of laughs and nods as Michelle spoke.  With our shorthanded roster, we had to rely more than ever on Sophie, one of the seniors, a 5-7 safety.  Sophie will never block a shot, but this day she drew three charges, as usual.  She had fourteen points and made 2-5 threes, because she is a good three point shooter.  And she led us in scoring.  She played her role to perfection.  She did her job.

In the end, with 11 seconds to play and us down one, Sophie made the first free throw of a two shot foul to tie the game.  She missed the second.  With one second, North Park hit the game winner.

After the game, I put a hand on Sophie's shoulder and quietly reminded her, "Don't lose any sleep about that second free throw.  We wouldn't have had the chance to win had it not been for you.  You played a great game, and should be proud of the way you conducted yourself." 

That was my speech at NCC.  That was my role.  Sophie did her job.  Sandy did her job.  The Cardinals didn't catch the breaks at the end today.  We had cake after the game... it still tasted pretty good. 

We go to Millikin on Tuesday for another chance to make the tournament. We'll get 'em next time.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Quickly and Correctly...

We are coming down to the end, crunch time, with our last home game on Saturday and then on the road next Tuesday.  Our hope was that we'd have at least one of our missing players back, but she's still on injured reserve, and another player has been out since Monday with the flu.  Michelle and I try to remind ourselves that this is normal, but it just feels unfair.  After starting the school year with 19 players, we had just twelve healthy today.  Who do we see about that?  The Injury Police?

Still, we try to do what coaches do, plan a practice each day to help players get better.  One thing that's been on my mind lately as we have shuffled the lineup is how important the simple ability to move is to the success of a team.  On the Run and Gun chatgroup there's been a recent discussion about this very topic, and I'm convinced it is something that separates good teams from poor ones.  I've also come to believe that, surprisingly, movement can be taught.  Although quickness is basically genetic, mobility can be learned, and following are a few observations on the subject.

Movement is first and foremost about motivation.  Ironically, the thing I have always had a very short fuse with is players who are just "going through the motions," and I complained to Michelle today during workout that one of our units is guilty of this greatest of basketball practice sins.  A player who goes through the motions isn't really even succeeding at that:  she's not in motion, not really.  That's the problem! 

What she is actually doing is telling you with her body language, "I don't have enough heart to do anything but the bare minimum, because it just takes too much effort to do things right, and at full speed."  As an assistant, I don't have the authority to correct such attitudes, but in my head coaching days, this would have earned an immediate trip to the baseline for a few reminder sprints, for the guilty individual or the whole team. 

One year I simply kicked an entire unit off the floor and made them watch from the sidelines for five minutes, because one first-year player on that unit (a transfer) had a deeply ingrained habit of loafing.  (Note:  I don't believe in kicking a team out of practice...  they can't correct the problem if they aren't on the court.) But believe me, her unitmates immediately let her know she needed to step it up. 

The funny thing is that this kid was actually a very good player, a Juco all-American (apparently verifying my contention that there's no correlation between reputation and work ethic.)  Fortunately, this little episode made an impact on her, and after she learned how to play hard she became a great player for us, leading the nation in field goal percentage her senior year (66%). But she had to learn how to move, and how to practice first.

So let me be as clear as I can here.  If you want to coach a team to be the best it can be, watch the video of a game and ask yourself, "Are we really working as hard as we can?"  The answer will almost certainly be no.  Then ask yourself, "How can I motivate each individual to move?"  In my opinion, this is the coaching skill that will set you apart.  Can you teach players how to practice and play at maximum effort, or are they just going through the motions, executing poorly and at half speed??  (Note #2:  You don't necessarily have to yell or punish them to get their attention.  I've seen Coach A severly reprimand a player without every raising his voice above the conversation level. But find something that works for you, some wamotivation method for teaching your players to give maximum effort... that's your job!)

John Wooden once said that the goal of every practice was to learn to "quickly and correctly execute the fundamentals of the game."  "Quickly" refers to movement, intensity, and effort.  "Correctly" implies precision and striving for perfection of each skill. 

We've said it before, but it bears repeating: basketball is not about teaching kids plays.  It's about teaching them how to play, and more importantly, how to practice:  quickly, and correctly... with an emphasis on the "quickly" part. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Back in the Zone

We heard through the grapevine today that our next opponent might change things up and try a zone against us.  We haven't seen a zone defense since before Christmas, I think because the CCIW is one of those macho old-school "we'll play man to man or die trying" kind of leagues. 

I can't complain about any coach sticking to a man to man philosophy... that was me for 25 years and there's nothing wrong with believing in your own system!  But I haven't encountered many coaches in the last eight years who didn't make some fairly significant adjustments when they played us, so switching to a zone is no surprise.  I'm just glad we had a "heads up" because it's been so long since we've seen that game plan that I wasn't sure we'd even remember what to do.

Ironically,I had our zone attack fresh on my mind because last night, just for fun, I pulled out an old Olivet DVD from 2010 (showing you what a sad social life I have from November to March).  In that particular game we faced an opponent that ran a 2-3 the entire game, and had one of our better shooting performances (20-54 from the arc, winning 120-84), so as Michelle and I were planning for today's practice, that game was a good refresher about the keys to attacking a zone :

  1. Run the floor hard and try to create a shot before the defense is set
  2. Move the ball quickly before the defense can recover. Make them react to you
  3. Remember that we aren't trying to be patient here.  We are trying to get out of the situation quickly by...
  4. Getting the best passer/decision maker in the middle of the zone, pass her the ball when she gets open, and then have her immediatlely score, kick out for a three, or hit the post behind the zone for a layup.
  5. Oh, yeah... REBOUND!
Maybe the coach is spying on my blog and will change things up, but my guess is that our secret is safe with you guys!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Your Niche in Life

With a day off from practice, I've been reflecting on this soon-to-be-concluded basketball season, and I thought I'd inflict those reflections on you, my captive audience!

First, about recruiting.  The life of a college coach revolves around the never-ending recruiting schedule.  Michelle is in southern Illinois tonight watching one of our top recruits play in the Sectionals, while I saw a game closer to home.  In a typical week, we are out four nights, playing the other two nights, and taking Sunday's off.  In addition, we've had about 30 players on campus for a visit.  I enjoy the work for the most part, but the travel and time away from home wears on my 57 year old body after awhile.

So people who think this is a glamorous life are both right and wrong.  Yes, it is great to be able to do nothing but coach, which is why I got out of high school ball in 1991.  I'd never be able to do what you public school coaches do, teaching all day and then coaching in the afternoons, and evenings, and early mornings, and summers, etc, etc.  So I really do respect the people who can do all that and keep it in balance, because I'm not one of them. 

But although it's not all fun and games at the college level, it has been a good fit for me, given my basically lazy nature.  When I was coaching in Texas in the 1980s, the head football coach at our high school once commented about a player on his team who had finally settled on a position.  I think they put the kid at linebacker, where he was flourishing, and our coach remarked, in that droll way that football coaches talk:  "I think Julio Sanchez has finally found his niche in life."

For better or worse, my niche in life is college coaching.  Last year, everything caught up with me at Olivet.... the travel, the recruiting, the self-imposed pressure to build and maintain a championship program.  If we'd have had a sabbatical program at ONU, I might have taken a year off, recharged my batteries, and stayed there forever. But that's not how it works.

Instead, I've recharged by working at NCC for a very considerate young head coach, as low-key (but admittedly time-consuming) situation which has been made coaching fun again.  In the absence of the pressure that goes with being in charge, I've settled into a routine of games, practices, and recruiting, and for the first time in years feel relaxed again.  Based on that experience, if I could pass along any words of wisdom to those readers among you who are a bit younger, it would be this...

It's not the time we put in that wears us out, it's the pressure we put on ourselves.  So relax, smell the roses, enjoy the game. Hopefully the System has lessened that pressure for you.  Hopefully, the System is your niche in life.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


96 FGAs
65 Threes
30% ORBs
36 TOs
28 Shots

It's tough winning on an opponent's Senior Day, but we managed to pull this one off despite our injury woes!  After getting down 10-3 early, we never lost our composure and quickly tied things up at 12-12, playing a back and forth game most of the first half until we pulled ahead 38-32 at intermission.

This was one of the few games where the opponent let us have open looks from the arc, as our 65 three-point attempts indicates.  (We got so many good looks in the first half I don't think we knew what to do, and were cold as ice early on!)  My guess is that Augie's coach decided to try and take away our inside game using their standard defensive plan of doubling down on the post player.  This allowed us to go inside-out for wide open looks, which we finally started connecting on late in the first half.  So, our top post player was held to 8 points, a tradeoff we can live with when we hit 17 threes.

The most gratifying aspect of our performance was reflected by my brief congratulatory comment to the team in the locker room afterward: "That was great team basketball!"  No matter the style, playing together is the key to success.  I was surprised to see we were credited with only 16 assists for the game on the official box score. Given our 17 three point baskets, which are always the result of an assist (we almost never shoot off the dribble when we attempt a three), my guess that the rule of the road applied here:  the home team statisticians make the rules.  We most likely had closer to 21-24 assists but with a 20 point win, who's quibbling?

We have the day off on Monday as our season comes down to the last two conference games next Saturday and the following Wednesday.  We sit alone in fourth place with a 5-7 league record, and if we hold on will qualify for the four-team CCIW tournament for only the second time in school history.  By winning both games, we'll assure ourselves of the first winning season in eight years, and only the fourth since 1990. 

So, after losing 13 straight CCIW games and finishing dead last a year ago, it would  redeem ourselves! 

Friday, February 8, 2013

All you need...

Yesterday we walked through our quick hitters and OB sets because we have three players now who are out of position, having to learn a new spot due to our injury bug.  Hopefully we'll get one player back in the lineup in ten days, since we have only one game next week (on Saturday), giving us some breathing room.  But that doesn't help us tomorrow as we head out on the road to the Quad Cities of western Illinois for our rematch with Augustana.

Of course it is not at all unusual for a team to suffer injuries.  Not even surprising.  I remember in 2007-08 when I had one of my best teams at ONU (we tied the WBB college scoring record that year at 104.1 ppg), and we went through the entire season without one player missing a game due to injury.  I thought at the time, "Hmm... now that's the way it's supposed to be!"  But in retrospect, my thought should have been, "Wow, were we ever lucky!"  When I coached high school basketball in Texas, we had a saying, "All that team needs is a bus driver."  With enough talent--and enough luck--that's all you need some years:  not a brilliant coach, not a trainer, not an academic counselor... just a bus driver. 

I know from following the fortunes of the Grinnell teams over the years that Coach Arseneault has been hard hit by injuries to key players at times.  This year is no exception, with Jack Taylor going down last month with a broken wrist, just weeks after ringing up 138 points.  Now that's a key loss!

The interesting thing, however, is that Grinnell didn't lose a beat.  The reason, I think, is that his offense is role-oriented, not position-oriented.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that Coach A's players are trained to fill roles on offense (preferred shooter, ball-handler, screener) and they have a minimum of set plays, so he can insert almost any combination of players without them having to retool or learn a new "position."

On the other hand, at NCC we have 5 baseline OB plays, 3 sideline plays, and 5 quick-hittters.  That reflects my bias towards using set plays, which still infects my coaching philosophy even after all these years.  Unfortunately this means that each time a player moves to a new position in the lineup, she must remember (or learn) what to do at that new spot.  In these situations, "less is more" takes on an added dimension; the less a player has to learn (position-wise), the less there is to screw up. 

And the less your team has to screw up, the less likely they'll need anything but a bus driver.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Fatigue makes...

74 FGAs
39 Threes
20% ORBs
25 TOs
 -5 Shots

As I feared, we totally ran out of gas in our rematch with Illinois Wesleyan.  After getting down early 24-11, we went on a great run and took the lead 29-28 midway through the first half, but with several players going back-to-back we had little left in the tank.  Down 48-34 at the half, we were within striking distance, but IWU began slicing through our defense as if practicing a layup drill and players had neither the energy nor the focus to fight back.  With about ten minutes to go and down 27, Michelle reluctantly had to throw in the towel and we fell back into a zone the rest of the way.

As you can see by the numbers, this was not a System game.  74 shots may be our season low, due in part to IWU's excellent switching man-to-man defense, and to our 26 mostly unforced turnovers.  The real story, once again, was our lackluster effort on the boards, with only 20% ORBs compared to IWU's 48%. 

This is especially disappointing following on the heels of our best overall game of the year last Saturday night.   Michelle and I are hopeful we can pull together for the last three games of the season, all against teams we beat in the first round of conference play, but much will depend on getting some of our depth and energy back. 

The lesson here, once again, is how critical effort is to success in the System.  As Vince Lombardi said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all!" and without sufficient depth last night, we were pretty fatigued. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Just one more player

Remember in the movie Miracle when one of the USA Hockey administrators consults with Coach Herb Brooks about his decision to keep injured defenseman Jack O'Callahan on the Olympic team roster.  "If you lose just one more guy," the administrator warn, "you're gonna have a hard time putting a decent team on the ice!"

I wondered how that could be, in my pre-System days.  Surely having only 18 skaters instead of 20 wouldn't affect a team's performance, would it?  Now I know it does.  So when I get the occasional  email from a coach thinking about running the System, and asking for advice, my first question is always:  "How many players on your squad?"

It can be exciting to install a new style of play, but the hard truth is that there are two ways to run the System: 
  1. Effectively, or
  2. At less than full strength.
Even at full strength (i.e. 13+ players) success is not guaranteed.  With less than that, it's very difficult to operate at the level of intensity necessary for making the press and fast break work, due to the decrease in rest intervals. Now maybe in high school with the shorter games and quarter breaks you can get it done with ten.  I don't know.  I wouldn't want to risk that, because going every other shift takes a lot of energy and a lot of luck (no injuries, no DQs).  Maybe it can be done, but my feeling has always been, "The more the merrier."

We have lost three players in the past week.  We might get one back soon.  Or we might not.  Injuries are iffy things.  But we are down to 13 healthy players now, and are shuffling positions to find good combinations... not something you want to be tinkering with this time of year, especially facing the defending national champions tonight.

The good news is that it can work with 13.  The players we have left know the System.  The tempo is hardwired, the habits ingrained. 

But if we lose just one more player...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Status Report

Our season is now entering the final stages, with four games to go before the playoffs.  The CCIW is one of the top NCAA Division III leagues in the country, with three teams having won a national title (NCC in the mid-1980s, Millikin several years ago, and Illinois Wesleyan last March ).  Carthage College was also in the Elite Eight last year, and is atop the standings with a 9-0 record right now. 

All that to say that even qualifying for the conference tournament is an accomplishment, because only four of the eight teams earn a bid.  Despite finishing dead last at 1-13 in the league a year ago, NCC still has a chance to make it this year, something we've done only one other time since this format was created.  We are currently 11-10 overall, and 4-6 in the conference play, and host Illinois Wesleyan on Wednesday.  But our last three opponents are teams we beat in the first round, though we are taking nothing for granted right now.  Also, if we manage to win two of those games, we'll have a winning record for the first time in eight years.  So, it's getting interesting.

It will all boil down to who stays healthy and sharp in the next four games.  If we do snag the fourth seed, we'll most likely play Carthage, a team we match up with fairly well.  They beat us handily last week, but we did hang with them for most of the game, and in the System anything can happen. 

Perhaps we'll continue to play with the efficiency and poise we displayed in our 105-93 win over Elmhurst last Saturday.  It would be nice if that game was a harbinger of things to come, but as I constantly remind myself: in the System you can only control the process, not the outcome. 

All we have to do is run, shoot, rebound, trap, and play hard.  The results will take care of themselves.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

On the Other Hand...

79 FGAs
35 Threes
41% ORBs
30 TOs
+7 Shots

Like I said yesterday... the Olivet offense will never work! 

I hope you understand by now how stupid I feel sometimes, revealing my day to day thoughts in a public blog.  But any coach has experienced how much second-guessing goes into a season, and a career. My biggest flaw as a young coach was an inability to settle on philosophy or a system, which is why the Grinnell approach has meant so much to me.  It fit me in a way no other style ever did, which is what a well-chosen philosophy does.  It is not just a style of play that you select from among a multitude of pretty choices, like picking through the sale rack at K-Mart. A philosophy reflects who you are. 

It's no surprise then that it takes some of us a long time to find a philosophy, for the simple reason that we don't always know who we are until we grow up a little.  What I discovered while in the process of  growing up as a coach is that...
  1. I'm a risk-taker,
  2. I'm a non-conformist,
  3. I'm not particularly creative.
Result?  I finally ended up by coaching a high-risk, very different style that was created by someone else. A style I could adopt ready-made.  But being a non-conformist, I had to question it and tinker with it from time to time, just to show that I was my own person.  Thus, the struggle every year with deciding whether this or that System offense is the "right" offense.

Oh well, enough psychoanalysis.  We played our best game of the year last night against an Elmhurst team that beat us 97-90 three weeks ago, and the Olivet/NCC offense worked just fine, thank you, without any tinkering at all other than an emphasis on passing a little more, and driving a little less. 

We had 21 assists in 34 baskets, 41% ORBs, and shot well enough to win (43% FGs, 34% 3FGs, 71% FTAs), which just goes to show that when you play team basketball and shoot decent you can win.  So, although we only took 79 shots, reflecting Elmhurst's decision to spread and hold the ball in attacking our press, we forced enough TOs (30) and got to the foul like enough (25-34 FTs) to make things work.

I still believe what I wrote yesterday:  Defining each player's role, and putting them in a system where they can play it to the hilt, is critical to success in any style of play.  And Grinnell's approach to offense is all about roles.  But though it can be harder to identify and fill roles in an equal opportunity offense like what we developed at ONU, it's beautiful to watch when it all comes together.

I'll let you know when I change my mind.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Role Playing

To follow up on yesterday's musings about our offensive woes, it may come as a surprise to you that I am not an enthusiastic advocate of the Olivet offense.  Now don't get me wrong... I know and greatly admire it's inventor :-)  But the offense I developed at ONU was a result of trial and error to fit a particular situation and team, and although it has many strengths, I have always wrestled with the question, "If I love the Grinnell System so enthusiastically, why have I resisted buying into it's offensive approach?

The simple answer, or excuse, is that I coach women and have felt they could not a) understand the options of a complex screening game, and b) execute the passes even if they could read the options.

As for "a)" above, I'm not sure that this says so much about female players as it does about me.  Those of you who know me also know that I've gone back and forth about using Grinnell's offense because although I love the concept ("everyone screens for the best shooter"), I had a hard time explaining to my players, in concrete terms, how it should work.  Women athletes, in my experience, like things in black and white terms, and maybe that's why I'm a women's basketball coach...  I think that way too:  "Pass here, cut there."

As for "b)" I've come to believe that I'm simply wrong about this.  Grinnell averages 15 turnovers or less a game... my teams, using my supposedly "simple" offense, average about 21-22 over an eight year period.  Why is that?  As Hamlet famously said, "That is the question."

The reason Grinnell's offense averages fewer turnovers is that it is clearly an approach that emphasizes roles!  Shooters shoot, drivers drive, passers pass.  Who are the passers and drivers?  The point guard, 90% of the time.  My problem as a coach has always been that I want to believe "Every child player can succeed."  Sure they can, but not in the way you think.  They can succeed only if you put them in a role they can perform successfully.  To piggyback on my previous example, you don't cast Tom Cruise in the role of Hamlet, unless you are doing a comedy.

Think of it this way, using an extreme example:  What if you told your post players to bring the ball up the floor against the press, and your point guards to play the low post?  Do you know what the technical term for this approach is?  STUPID.  Tom Bradey doesn't play linebacker.  Shot putters don't run the 4x100 relay.  I know this is obvious stuff, but I've spent my entire career telling myself, "I can teach that kid how to handle and shoot and pass... I owe it to every kid to develop their skills."

Yes!  Totally true!  But that doesn't mean everyone should handle it (or shoot it) equally in a game.  And that's all Grinnell's offense is doing: making sure the point guard handles it most of the time, and the best shooters take the most threes.  I made a nice living with the Olivet offense, mostly because I was a decent recruiter and with our depth of talent could afford to use more of an "equal opportunity offense."   But frankly I'm tired of watching non-handlers traveling, kicking the ball off their feet, and having passes deflected or intercepted while trying to dribble into two defenders. 

I wish I was 30 years old and know what I know now.  The first thing I'd do would be to buy Walmart stock at $6 a share.  The second thing would be to learn Coach Arseneault's offensive philosophy inside and out, and perhaps finally grasp that it's not really that complicated: 

Give the ball to your best handler, and screen for your best shooters.  Then repeat 100 times per game.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Stats Tell a Story

71 FGAs
31 Threes
31% ORBs (24% in second half)
35 Turnovers
+3 Shots

The good news is that we did improve parts of our defense, forcing 35 turnovers, and taking the lead with a 10-0 run coming out in the second half. The bad news is that we committed 33.  That explains why we had just 71 shots and a +3 Shot Differential, while getting off only 31 threes.

One other quick comment about the defense.  Yes, we forced turnovers and seemed to be rotating better, especially in the early part of the game.  But as I mentioned yesterday, the back end is suspect because we aren't transitioning with any sort of plan to generate chaos or force the tempo... in effect just running back into a 3-2 zone.  Obviously this is not going to work until the players start to understand that it makes no sense to rest on defense when they are only playing for 40 second shifts.  Offensively, 31 three point attempts tells a story too.  We cannot seem to create enough open looks for our three point shooters when playing a sound defensive team like Carthage. 

In talking with Gary Smith yesterday, we concluded that at ONU (where we averaged 57 threes a game last year, and broke our college women's basketball record with 621 makes), we were a very athletic team, and could therefore get away with using a simple drive-and-kick spot-up game. This allowed us to successfully execute the Olivet offense that I explain in our book and DVD series.  Since our offense was loosely patterned after Paul Westhead's LMU attack, (likewise, a simple approach that requires better than average athleticism to score if the initial break is stopped), it's not as good a fit for a team like NCC with a roster of more average athletes.

The moral of this statistical story?  Coach Arseneault's Grinnell offense will counter these problems, and might be something we'll have to look at in the future.  31 threes is not System basketball, and our 33 turnovers (24 by non-point guards!!!) is not any kind of basketball.  The Grinnell offense will definitely result in more 3FGAs, and is designed to limit penetration by anyone except the PGs and a few other proven ball-handlers.  Maybe when the story of NCC basketball is finally told, the Grinnell attack will end up becoming our future Prince Charming. 

But not this year. I know Michelle agrees with me that February is no time to tinker with wholesale changes to the offense.  Am I disappointed in our performance last night?  Yes... it's getting frustrating to once again play well for a half against a good team, only to implode later in the game.  But I'm optimistic that all good stories (after some plot twists) eventually have a happy ending... we just don't know when that will be.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How do we cover that?

Talking with Michelle yesterday, she was concerned about the press break used by our next opponent, Carthage College, currently in first place and undefeated in the league.  I won't go into details of their attack, but Michelle asked me to help her figure out how we should cover the intial cuts.

After experimenting with a few variations, she commented, "Yes, but if we take this away, who will cover that?"  In other words, she was realizing that there is literally no way to guard everyone when using a trapping defense, unless we put six defenders on the floor (which against Carthage might be a good plan.)  "Well, Coach," I replied, "I guess we will just have to figure they are going to break our press, and our job will then be to force them into mistakes via our defensive transition." 

Given that there is no way to cover everyone, new System coaches eventually come to understand that it's what happens after the opponent beats your press that counts.  Are you really sprinting back to recover?  Are players looking for opportunities to back-tap the ball, and/or aggressively pursuing the dribbler? Are defenders running to the lag and middle areas, or are they overly worried about moving back inside the arc to establish a defensive perimenter?  Bottom line: are your really making a point of "attacking from behind?"

These are critical--and often overlooked--defensive concepts.  Most of us think in terms of Xs and Os, and drawing up who covers who on the front of the press is a well-defined situation that we think we can control.  But remember:  for every steal your team generates out of the initial trap, there will be ten situations where the opponent will dribble-escape or pass-escape, and then you must have a recovery plan.  All too often, your kids' plan (unless you teach them otherwise) will be "Oh well, they beat our trap again... I'll guess I'll jog back and hope our safety makes a play." Probably not a great plan. 

The better plan in response to the question, "How do we cover that?" is, "Do the best you can, anticipate and gamble, but accept the reality that you'll get beat most of the time, and when that happens just attack from behind, cover lags and middle, and make something happen!"

Unfortunately, "Attack from behind!" is hard to draw up.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

One Good Opportunity...

82 FGAs
41 Threes
25 TOs
41% ORBs
-1 Shots

Hard to believe we were only down 4 at the half, 50-46.  But our defense did a great imitation of a sieve after intermission, forcing only 9 turnovers while allowing Wheaton to shoot 65% from the floor (26-40 in the final 20 minutes).  Yes, we want to force the tempo, and yes teams will shoot a high percentage at a result of our extended defensive perimeter.  But, no, 65% is not what we had in mind, given our futility on the offensive end (7-41 from the arc).  Instead of trading an opponent's two-point basket for a three on our end, we were trading twos for zero.

Men often shoot in the 60 percent range against System teams, but our women at ONU typically limited opponents to 40-45%, while anyone shooting over 50% was a rarity. So in my mind, 40-50% is a realistic standard.  With that said, what's our problem defensively this year at NCC?  If my little speech yesterday about the value of "antifragility" meant anything, it was that painful losses like this are opportunities to learn something.  So what did I learn?

Well, first of all, I'm learning that size matters when it comes to the back of the press.  Our safeties are 5-7, 5-9, and 5-8, and we haven't factored that reality into our defensive scheme as much as we should have.  At ONU last year they were 6-1, 6-0, and 6-2, allowing us to play it safe, leaving our safeties back where they could challenge shooters and wrap up the rebound.  But with our smaller safeties at NCC, when we "play it safe," we are sitting ducks in a 2 on 1 situation. 

Solution?  Our safeties must become much more aggressive in going for steals.  What does it really matter if we gamble and then give up a layup... we are giving up layups anyway, despite being parked in the lane!   Our safeties and interceptors have become too rigid in their roles, and as a result aren't working together to move up and back to help each other.  They need go gamble more and learn to trust each other.

Second point: conversion matters... a lot. When our front line gets beat, all too often they are not sprinting to recover, but instead are leaving our safeties to their own devices.  The key to playing this sort of high-risk defense is forcing the offense to react to you, not you reacting to them!  In System basketball, the initiator wins the battle.  If our opponent has time to catch and see the floor because we haven't sprinted back into recovery positions, then our defense becomes vulnerable to  good passing teams like Wheaton or Illinois Wesleyan.

What it boils down to is the old System maxim:  It's okay to give up a layup, just so long as your defense first creates at least one good opportunity for a steal.  One good opportunity.  Sure, it's tough to get hammered, but I've always felt that it's okay to lose to a good team as long as you go down swinging.  But if none of our defenders will gamble and avail themselves of that one good opportunity, we aren't exactly "going down swinging"... we aren't even throwing a punch.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Are you Antifragile?

During my free time before we head out on the road to play Wheaton today, I've been reading the book Antifragile, by Nassim Taleb.  Taleb also wrote The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness which, like Antifragile, are heavy on philosophy but really make you think about the way we view our modern world.

No, I wouldn't suggest you go right out and buy his books unless you are willing to do some heavy slogging through Teleb's dense prose.  But the reason I bring up this book is that his concept of "antifragility" is one you'll find fascinating, and which can best be summarized with the following quote:

When you are fragile, you depend on things following the exact planned course, with as little deviation as possible--for (you incorrectly assume) deviations are more harmful than helpful... (But) if every trial provides you with information about what does not work, you start zooming in on a solution--so every attempt becomes more valuable, more like an expense than an error.  And of course you make discoveries along the way. (p. 71)

The application to System basketball is obvious. His concept of "antifragility" is that chaos, randomness, volatility actually are good things because they lead to the improvement.  Playing it safe, on the other hand, may seem smarter but in the long run makes something (your team?) more fragile, more prone to breaking.

It's no secret that you might lose by bigger than normal margins using the System.  But you can win by bigger margins, too.  That's volatility, and volatility (according to Taleb) is good, not bad... as long as you keep your job.  We lost a game by 50 during my first System year.  Bad?  No, good.  From that loss, I learned how not to lose by 50 again, and by the end of that season we won some games by the same margin... something we'd have never accomplished had we not learned and grown via the System cauldron.

That's why System teams are a lot better at the end of the season than at the beginning, better than they would have been had they played it safe... again assuming the thing doesn't blow up in your face. 

But if you can make it to February, you'll be Antifragile.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Day's Off

As we stood around the center circle for our regular pre-practice team huddle, I could sense the player's weariness.  They have come to workouts all year with a good attitude and a willingness to learn, but it was clear that they were drained after last night's astounding come-from-behind second half performance.

As we broke the huddle, I quietly said to Michelle, "Hopefully you won't think this is too 'off the wall' right now, but what would you think of shooting some free throws and giving them the rest of the day off?"

She looked at me with a smile and said, "I was thinking exactly the same thing... let's do it."

So, she called them back together, spoke for a few minutes about what we'll need to do to attack Wheaton on Saturday, and then announced, "Shoot 25 free throws, and then go home. Have a nice day!"

From the players response, you would have thought they'd won the lottery!  But this time of the season is when they need extra days off the most.  The last time we played Wheaton, we were completely worn out, and it showed in our lopsided loss, one in which we were obviously a step behind all night.

We won't make that mistake again.  Less is more.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Tale of Two Halves

93 Shots (37 at halftime)
37 Threes (16 at half)
40% ORBs (26% 1st half, 50% 2nd half)
47 Turnovers (18 at half)
+19 Shots (-6 at half)

If anyone can explain to me how a team can score 27 in one half and a team record 65 in the second, I'm all ears. 

The first half we spent sleepwalking on the offensive boards, and shooting like the backboard was our true target; our 10-37 shooting performance was an insult to bricklayers everywhere.  But amazingly once again the team changed personalities at halftime and played like a team possessed for the final 20 minutes.

Why the discrepancy?  My only guess is that dysfunctional old-school basketball habits and attitudes are so deeply ingrained in our players that--for entire halves at a time--they forget all they've been taught about what it takes to win in the System. When you've played a conventional style in which lack of effort is easier to disguise, it takes multiple wakeup calls to understand that in the System, you can run (and gun), but you cannot hide, as long as you insist on just going through the motions. And when it comes to offensive rebounding and attacking the rim (as opposed to attacking a spot on the court about eight feet from the rim), there is no substitute for effort and desire.

I recall the 1987 movie classic Broadcast News in which the character played by Albert Brooks plaintively quips to his beautiful young co-worker (played by Holly Hunter) on whom he has an unrequited crush,  "Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If  'needy' were a turn-on?"

In much the same vein, "Wouldn't this be a great world if you could play great System ball without really giving much effort?"

Sadly, you can't.  Gladly, we figured that out at halftime.

Doug Porter-System Heretic?

In the aftermath of our meltdown in the last two minutes of Saturday's game at North Park, Michelle and I have been brainstorming ideas for how to protect a lead.

Many System coaches just play through, trusting that the approach that got them the lead will keep the lead.  I don't like this method for one simple reason:  the System is based on numbers, playing the percentages.  And the percentages only hold true with a large statistical population.  In other words, over the course of a 100 possession game, yes, the odds favor you.  Things even out. Over 5 posssessions at the end of a game, anything can happen: you could score 15 points, or you could give up 5 layups and get beat, with time running out before you have a chance to even the odds. 

It's like flipping a coin;  with 100 flips, chances are you'll get pretty close to 50 heads.  But in 5 flips, you might very possibly get only one or two heads (and you'll never get 2 1/2).  The more possessions, the better the likelihood of things going in your favor.  The fewer the number of possessions, the more random the outcome.  And I don't like random outcomes when we've spent 38 minutes building a 10 point lead.

That's why I'd prefer to limit the number of possessions late in a game, and wrap up the victory. Does this make me a System Heretic?  No, Coach Arseneault does much the same thing, using his "finishing group" and taking longer to create a shot at whatever point he thinks he has enough of a margin to win.  Game over. 

So, we've done some tinkering about how we want to play this situaition.  I won't go into details, because my attitude about this non-System stuff is "whatever works."  Your ideas are probably as good as mine: some varation of holding the ball and playing more conservatively on defense, combined with getting certain personnel on the floor to wrap up the victory.

Bottom line: You are not a heretic if you "pull in your horns" near the end of the game. Use your best coaching judgment... win the game and go get some pizza.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Light Bulb Award

At ONU, it took about half a season.  Sixteen games. 

Our first System season we were 8-8 at the Christmas break when I noticed something unusual about the team.  They were playing differently.  I couldn't put my finger on it, but commented about the change to my assistants on the way home from a road loss.  We finally agreed that it boiled down to one thing:  flow.  The movements that had seemed herky-jerky all season had begun to smooth out.  Players who had turned down open threes were shooting without hesitation.  And defenders were anticipating and rotating in our press as if they suddenly just understood.

We are currently 9-8 at NCC.  The short Division III season is well past the half-way point, but I'm now certain that with 16 games under our belt something clicked last week.  And that "clicking" sound was the light bulb switching on.

It feels really good to see our progress.  Last Saturday at North Park we played with confident abandon.  Today in practice we ran our 3 on 2 drill, one of my favorites for developing simple drive-kick-and-shoot instincts, and we were knocking down three after three off the catch, almost machine-line.  Automatic. The tempo is hard-wired into their nervous systems, and the switch is on.

Now, I'll have to admit that in our first week of practice I wondered if we'd ever get it.  Starting from scratch was harder than I expected, because at ONU I was used to some experience on the part of our System veterans who helped blaze the trail and model for the younger players how things work.  It's been worth the wait.  Maybe we'll win a few more games this year, who knows... it's a very tough league.  But win or lose, we have earned our stripes. 

So on Tuesday afternoon, after practice, I'm going to present each player with the coveted "Light Bulb Award," a sort of tongue-in-cheek certificate we used to give to each freshman at ONU when they finally "got it."  Every player at North Central is in effect a System freshmen, and it's time that we recognize what remarkable progress they've made.

The Award, signed by the entire coaching staff, has the school name and a clip-art picture of a glowing light bulb, with an inscription that reads:

Light Bulb Award
This is to certify that
Has survived her Indoctrination into Run and Gun Basketball    
and is hereby recognized as a fully qualified 
with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Calling the Non-Obvious Stuff

82 FGAs
40 Threes
36% ORBs
29 Turnovers
+18 Shots

As you can see, we met only one of five goals, yet managed to pull out the win. Still, the game wasn't as close as the final score indicates, with North Park hitting three treys in the final two minutes to make it close, after we'd gone to our "lead protection" plan (2-3 zone and delay offense).  There's a never-ending debate about the wisdom of a System team choosing to hold the ball, and we were the poster child for how not to do it last night.  But all's well that ends well.

You may also have noticed the lower FGAs (82), which seems odd because NP ran with us, and we had only 18 turnovers.  So our low FGA number can be traced to the fact that we shot 45 free throws (to NP's 34).  Which brings me to a sensitive topic: officiating styles.

Last week we played Augustana College at home and had the best crew we've had all year.  What do I mean by "best?"  They kept the game moving, and recognized that both teams were playing hard, aggressively and reasonably clean.  They called what needed to be called, and let the incidental contact go while keeping things fair for both teams.  Yesterday at North Park, on the other hand, the crew seemed determined to "control" the game right from the start... and not in a good way.  Let me elaborate:

First of all, officials generally do a great job at our level and we coaches are not the most objective observers anyway.  Second, though it's okay to discuss calls with the referees during the game, and to argue your case, blaming the officiating for your team's deficiencies is generally a losing proposition.  Any time you take the focus off your own execution (which you can control) and place it on some outside agency like a referee (who you cannot control), you are violating an important System principle:  just being responsible for your own destiny and playing your game.

With that said, a problem arises when on rare occasions a crew confuses "controlling the game" with "controlling the tempo," almost as if they are irritated with the pace of play. My belief has always been that the best officials are the ones who do two things:  a) keep one team from gaining an unfair advantage, and b) keep the game moving, while remaining almost anonomous (i.e. you hardly notice them, because they call the obvious stuff, and let the un-obvious/inconsequencial stuff go). 

But sometimes a game is called in such a way that is simply disruptive.  Play is stopped almost constantly for the non-obvious stuff:  borderline violations and minimal-contact fouls. Maybe the crew is hypnotized or keyed up by the tempo and just can't help calling something on every possession, but there seems to be no allowance for the instances of incidental contact that truly provide neither team an advantage, and are to be expected in an uptempo game.  In my humble opinion, this was the case yesterday.

So, without blaming the crew we had in yesterday's game, or denying our own responsibility for playing in a less mistake-prone and foul-prone manner, and while admitting that no official consciously favors one team over another (after all, we did shoot 11 more free throws than NP), I'll just say--as diplomatically as I can...

It sure was a long game!  :-)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Turnovers and Point Guards

One problem I've wrestled with my entire career is that my teams have always had excessive turnovers. 

I've rationalized this as the result of my preference for playing uptempo.  But that explanation doesn't hold water when I compare my squads to other System teams, Grinnell in particular.  For example, this season Grinnell is averaging 101 possessions per game, and only 15.8 turnovers, which means they turn the ball over on only 15.64% of their possessions (15.8 divided by 101).

At ONU last year, on the other hand, we averaged 22.3 turnovers and 104.6 possessions per game, which comes to a turnover rate of 21.4%.  At NCC, with a first year System team, we are turning the ball over 27% of the time, which isn't surprising given that the kids are learning to play at a much faster tempo.

However, the real reason Grinnell has such a low turnover rate struck me again today as I was (just for fun) watching a game video of their 2007 team.  And it has less to do with the fact that they are a veteran men's team.  So what is the secret?  Every time the point guard gave up the ball, he almost immediately moved over to get it back again if the shooter was not open.  Sometimes, the ball was swung for a few passes, but it always ended up in the hands of the point guard, and almost no one else ever penetrated but him.

Those of you who have used our Olivet attack know that it is more of a "dribble-drive" approach, with a 4-player continuity weave built into it.  Problem:  weaker ball-handlers are now making decisions and trying to use skills (i.e. dribbling and chewing gum at the same time) which they are--by definition--not as good at as our PG. (If they were, then we'd move them to PG!)

[Side note:  I used to think the current "in" thing, the pick and roll offense, was (how shall I say it?) Stupid.  I have almost never used ball screens in our offensive scheme because Bobby Knight said in 1975 that bringing a screener and a dribbler together is bad, because is creates congestion around the ball, which is a no-no in his pass oriented Motion Offense. So blame Bob.]

Back on topic.  So why does everyone use ball screens so much now?  I am a little slow in the head at times, but I think I finally figured it out.  Ball screens that are set for your PG are good because the PG is doing all the dribbling, passing, and major decision making... just like in the Grinnell offense.  The only difference is that with Coach A's offense, the PG has an entire side of the floor cleared for him, and only when using the "Two man game" (i.e. a ball-screen by the Trail for the PG on the right wing) does the offense make use of the Pick and Roll (or Pick and Pop)!

That is one real reason Grinnell turns it over so seldom... no one but the PG handles it very much, and the PG should turn it over less than anyone.  Plus, they never throw it away forcing the ball into the post.

So where am I going with this?  You can score a lot of points using the Olivet attack.  It's simple and usually will create a shot fairly quickly.  But you will have to live with the fact that you'll turn the ball over more because your non-PGs (until they learn better) will make more ball-handling errors.  Bottom line:  you can play very fast and yet turn it over very seldomk just so long as you let your PGs do the driving!

Oh, and by the way... Duke's turnover rate this season is 16.4%.  So there.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Moment of Truth

90 FGAs
46 Threes
39% ORBs
28 TOs
+3 Shots

The moment of truth for most System coaches comes at one of two points in the season.  The first is at about the 4th game of the year.  Opponents have been perhaps caught by surprise in the first game or two.  By the third game, a strong opponent has hammered you because they are prepared and more talented, and you are not yet very far along in the development of System instincts.  The fourth game is more of the same, and many coaches at this point say, "This is embarrassing.  The System isn't a cure-all, and I'd rather lose 65-47 than 110-79.  I'm pulliing the plug."  We are past that point.

The second moment of truth comes later in the season.  You thought you'd been making progress, but along comes another superior opponent, this one with great quickness, smart players, and excellent passing skills, who feast on your defensive pressure.  You lose 125-89 and are tempted to say, "This is embarrassing.  The System isn't a cure-all, and this game proves we are never going to get it."

What will you do?  Well, here I am, the author of a blog about introducing the System to a new program, and we are down by 57 in the second half.  Here I am, someone who's had some degree of success with the System in past years, but we just shot 25% in the first half, while our opponent shot 66%.  And my reaction to this moment of truth is...

Big deal.  Of course this reaction is predicated on two things.  First, I am not the head coach, so I'm under relatively little pressure.  I do know how discouraged Michelle is at times like these, because I've been there, felt that.  So I don't mean to minimize how tough it can be on a head coach when her team gets blown out.  But the reality is that being the assistant is much less stressful. 

Second, so far our fans and players have stayed positive, as far as I know.  The players never quit, they just got into a bad rhythm for awhile and got run over in the first half.  And it helps that we have some supportive parents who (again, as far as I know) understand we are a work in progress.  So that makes things a little more bearable than they might otherwise be.

But really.  Tonight was no big deal.  How can I say that, given the score?  Because I know the System, and I know what happens when a team starts to get it.  And we are getting it!  We scored 57 in the second half, played at System pace the entire game, shot the three without hesitation, made decisions we were incapable of making a month ago.  Bottom line:  We shot terrible in the first half against the defending national champs on their home court, while they shot out of their minds.  But, we did 100 little things better and more instinctively (without having to think) than we did in November.  That's a fact.

So, a good team made us look bad at times.  Yet we went down swinging with 57 second half points.  And we went down looking really good once we got back into a rhythm.  The score was no big deal, kind of like giving up a layup... it's only a problem if you make it one.  It's an opportunity if you understand that a layup means they are willing to run with you, and here's your chance to break back on them!  The key to success is failure.  Just ask Thomas Edision.

We still rebound schizophrenically, good one half awful the next (19% ORBs first half, 55% in the second... think that makes a difference???).  When we figure out how to do that an entire game, we'll start playing with good teams.  So rebounding's a problem.  We are the Little Dutch Boy trying to plug 11 holes in the dike with only ten fingers.  But we are fixing it.  We are getting better.  Meanwhile...

This was our moment of truth. Yes we got beat.  Yes, we are better team for it.  We are starting to play like a System team, and the payoff is coming.

Getting Your Mind Right

We are headed out to play defending national champion Illinois Wesleyan on the road tonight.  They are a little down from last season, having graduated the national player of the year and a few other top players.  But like all good programs, they don't rebuild, they reload, so we will have our hands full.

The thing I've learned about playing really good teams, though, is that we have to approach the game without fear.  As the warden said to the prisoner in the movie classic Cool Hand Luke, "Son, you gotta get your mind right!"  In coaching the System, a big part of the deal is to get your players minds right: to avoid worrying about the opponent and concentrate on your own game.

Think about it like this:  can you name who UCLA's biggest rival was during the Wooden era?  USC, maybe?  Washington State?  The thing is, the rivalries were never a central feature of their great run because Wooden didn't make them into one.  He preached to his teams that they need not be overly concerned with the opponent, just their own performance.  Is there any wonder then that UCLA was not associated in the public mind with any huge rival?

Forget your opponents' reputations. Sure, some of them are probably pretty darned good, but trust me, they are spending about five times as much practice time preparing for you as you are for them. And they are probably more concerned about your system than you are with theirs, so you already have taken a mental step in the right direction.

And your players to will be much more relaxed and focued on their own game if they quit concerning themselves with the other team.  Teach them that "we aren't changing our approach.  We will do what we do, and we'll either outscore the opponent, or not."  Or as Bob Knight once put it, in his own colorful way, "There are a billion people in China who could care less about whether Indiana won tonight."  So keep things in perspective.

Yes, the outcome matters to us.  We'd love to sneak up on Weslayan.  But we can't control outcomes, only processes:  effort, execution, energy.  If you can convince your players that they need not fear anyone, and that they will be okay as long as they play their own game and have some fun, then they'll never be in awe of anyone again.

Again, expectatons shouldn't be about outcomes or opponents, but about our own effort level. And that is something we can always control.

Monday, January 14, 2013


One thing I've always noticed (and appreciated) about coaching the system is that by this point in the season, it runs almost on cruise control.  If you have trained your players in the various offensive and defensive options, they should by now have some sense of independence in how they play the game.

Conventional ball, on the other hand, has a strong element of coaching control in it.  The coach calls plays, substitutes players, changes defenses, calls timeouts.  It is very much "Coach-centric."  And, in my opinion, more stressful as a result.  Again, that's why many System coaches take a seat at the far end of the bench, illustrating that they are not--and don't need to be--in the center of the action during a game.

On our trip to Las Vegas last month, I chatted with the men's basketball coach from one of the colleges we were scheduled to play. (They were in men's bracket of the same tournament.) This coach was interested in our style, but commented, "I could never coach that way... there just doesn't seem to be an opportunity for the coach to control what happens on the court."

In fact, there is.  That opportunity is called "practice."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Transition Defense

82 FGAs
35 Threes
33% ORBs
40 Turnovers
+0 Shot Differential

I'm getting pretty good at the prediction business... thought we'd play well versus Augie, and we did.  We were actually up 21 at one point in the second half before going brain dead defensively, and they hit two threes near the end to cut it to 6, but we definitely saw signs of life in our offense, just as I'd forecast in yesterdays blog :-)  Much better "flow," moving the ball crisply with good balance between penetration, post play, and ball movement.  Fun to watch!

Even though we met only one goal (40 Turnovers), this was still one of our best offensive games.  Our mere 82 shots was the result of living on the foul line all night... shot 42 free throws to Augie's 17, and we actually rebounded well in the first half with 42% ORBs before falling off again after the intermission.  Need to string two good ORB halves together now!

Defensively, we seem to be the victim of too many breakaway 3 on 2 and 2 on 1 situations.  In men's basketball, that's usually an automatic score for the opponent, as evidenced by the fact that men's system teams tend to yield 50-65% defensive field goal percentage, while women only average 40-50%.  But with our women, we are giving up over 50% FG percentage defense too often (not that that's a formula goal, but we nevertheless don't like it).  BUT, we've found we can even the odds with one simple (but demanding) concept:  transition defense.

That term may need some explaining.  Normally, System coaches spend most of their time worrying about two things, a) how to defend the front of the press (alignment, denying the throwin, quick traps, etc), and b) how to defend the rim versus a breakaway.  To me, transition defense means learning how to play that in-between area, after the opponent breaks your press and before they get into the scoring area.  This is a critical area that can easily be overlooked.

The problem is that your front defenders (naturally) tend to give up after the opponent breaks free of the initial trap or in some other way beats your press.  They do "get back" but they do so at a somewhat--how shall we say it-- "leisurely" pace.  Bad.  Very Bad.  This moment in transition defense is key to your success, or failure.  Players must be taught to SPRINT back when beat, and attempt to turn the dribbler, at least forcing a change of direction so that the handler does not have a full head of steam in attacking your safety.  Some handlers will do you a favor and actually pick up their dribble when a defender "chases and turns" them.  In this case you can "retrap" and good things result. 

Other times the handler will crossover and continue to the rim, but at least she has slowed enough to allow other defenders to recover to a more effective defensive position.  We still want to go for a retrap, and cover lags and high post areas, but if the opponent does end up taking a quick shot, we have a decent chance at a rebound now.  And it all starts with learning to sprint back versus a dribble escape or a pass escape.

That's transition defense!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dick Bennett's Evil Twin

Several years ago I read a book about former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, one of those behind the scenes" chronicles of a big time basketball program.  The author sat in on meetings, watched practices and games, and gave a great picture of what made Coach Bennett tick. 

The most interesting passage concerned Bennett's response to a loss in which his team got beat something like 63-49.  Most coaches would have come to the next day's coach's meeting to pronounce "We have to improve our offense!"  Instead, he focused entirely on the defensive problems of giving up 63 points.  Why? Because Dick Bennett saw the basketball world through a defensive prism.  His philosophy was grounded on defense and when things went wrong, he always looked to his defense for answers.

We gave up 105 and 85 points in the last two games.  My first thought after the second game was, "Wow, we should have won after holding an opponent to 85... what's wrong with our offense?"

Sure, there are things you can do to adjust your defense, but you'll never adjust it enough to compensate for a lack of scoring.  Just remember that the System was first created in response to one very simple question:  "How can we (i.e. Grinnell in the early 1990's) score as many points as possible?"  Not "How can we win more games."  Not "How can we stop the other team?" 

The Grinnell System starts with a simple assumption, that defense is only important as a means to an end:  scoring points.  If you accept that concept, and truly buy into it, that doesn't make you a bad coach.  It just means you have a clear philosophy, one which is no more "wrong" than the philosophy that when we lose 63-49, "our problem is our defense."   It's just a perspective, not a character flaw. 

We play Augustana tonight.  Maybe we'll win. Maybe we won't.  But we'll score more than 75 points this time!  We gave up 85 last game and came to practice the next two days determined to fix our offensive problems.

We are Dick Bennett's Evil Twin.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Take the Day Off

This is the time of season when an occasional day off is a good idea.

Today we had no practice, and then took the team down to Olivet to see the Tigers play St. Xavier.  Unfortunately, the game was a downer, as SXU controlled the tempo, and played at good 1-3-1... something ONU has seen before from the Cougars, but tonight just didn't handle as well.

But it was nice to hear our girls comment, "They need to penetrate better!" or "They didn't cover the lag there."  Maybe we are gaining some awareness, but for sure we are going to be refreshed tomorrow and going into our game Saturday versus Augustana.

I've been an assistant of teams where the head coach would destroy the players after a loss, but sometimes the answer is to correct the problems, and move on.  It is all too easy to demoralize a team after a loss by calling a 5 a.m. workout or going for three hours, or just running them into the ground. 

Have I mentioned that, sometimes, "less is more"?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


81 FGAs
42 Threes
28% ORBs
30 TOs
+5 Shots

Once again we struggled offensively, shooting only 29% from the field against Carthage.  Though we played with much more energy tonight, and kept the game close for 35 minutes, we just do not seem to have an answer right now for a big, physical defense that packs into the lane and overplays all penetration. 

My feeling is that while at ONU we had several good penetrators, this team at NCC is smaller, and our personnel might not be as good a fit for the driving game.  We could emphasize the screening action more to get some ball movement before we initiate a drive.  But the real problem seems to me to be that we just aren't quite meshing yet.  The offensive flow is ragged due to poor passing, which leads to a "herky-jerky" action in our movement. 

One last mystery is why we have started out so poorly on the offensive boards the last several games.  Tonight we had onlu 16% in the first half!  Yet after a scolding at halftime (again) we hit the boards hard and got 45% ORBs.  I'm fairly certain this is mental... we didn't learn anything about rebounding in the locker room at halftime that we didn't already know.

I'm hoping things will mesh soon, because scoring 65 and 74 in our last two games is not System basketball.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Defensive Instincts

Last night I pulled out a DVD of one of our games from last season at Olivet.  I was struck by the team's ability to react to the ball defensively, to move to new areas of the court while making split-second decisions regarding trap, lag, and basket coverage. 

This ability to instantly anticipate is not easy to do, and is even harder to teach.  Of course at ONU the team has a strong core of System veterans who had developed these instincts over a period of time.  At NCC, starting from zero, we are seeing gradual progress, but are continually trying to find new ways to hasten the learning process.

One such learning tool is our "5 on 5 Trap Drill," which is described in our book and in my DVD series.  Five defenders in the half court must chase and trap while five passer--stationed at the curls, fades, and high post--move the ball around the perimeter for up to 15 seconds. 

The problem is that because defenders almost always start the drill from their "home" positions (our PG and Safety, for example, typically begin in the back line), they tend to become stereotyped in their movements and responsibilities.  It's almost as if they think they are playing a standard 1-2-2 zone trap.

But System defense requires players to react and cover every area of the floor as the possession unfolds.  If they become predictable and cover only their "zone," then the offense's job becomes much simpler.  The more our defenders learn to play multiple positions/areas, the better our press works.

Today, to enhance the players' understanding and execution of these rotations, we ran our 5 on 5 Trap Drill, but began it by having the defenders begin by runnig in a circle around the high post while waiting for a coach with the ball near half-court to pass to any offensive player.  At that instant, each player reacted by sprinting from their current location in the circle to cover either the trap, the lag, the high post , or the skip-gap.

And it worked!  Their defensive instincts seemed to grow almost before our eyes as players gained confidence in anticipating and covering all areas of the floor.   Hopefully now, with a better comprehension and better instincts (and fresher legs) we'll see how well this translates into our defensive coverage against Elite Eight qualifier Carthage College on Wednesday night. 

Stay tuned!

Dead Legs

Pace. Conditioning. Execution. Rest

Those are the four factors that every System coach has to keep in balance throughout the season, and last week we frankly forgot about maintaining that balance.  As the game was unfolding, I kept asking myself, "Why is the opponent breaking us down so easily?  Why are we having such a hard time in transition creating good shots? Why do we seem a half-step behind?  I thought we were farther along than this!"

Then it dawned on me.  We overdid it.  We came back from Christmas break, had hard practices on Sunday and Monday, lighter on Tuesday. Hard road game on Wednesday.   Moderate practice on Thursday, too hard on Friday (concern about our defense), walk-through on Saturday morning.

Result?  Dead legs.  I should know better by now and should have been more proactive in advising Michelle about the dangers of a long week.  Live and learn. 

But we all fall victim to the "More is More!" temptation at times.  We know how importance System pace is, so we practice at sprint speed.  We know how important System conditioning is, so we go full-court every day.  We know how important System execution is, so we work out too long.  And we know how important System rest is, but we figure, "They're kids... they'll recover."

No, they won't.  They didn't.  We were tired physically and mentally. My bad.  So I thought back to Gary Smith's passage in our book, Coaching the System (pg. 298-99) about how they kept things in balance at Redlands during his 132 point season.  At the risk of plagarism, I will quote that passage in full (oh, wait... can a co-author plagarize from his own book? :-)
  • Mondays--Hard practice.  Some scrimmage work, shooting, game plan in place.
  • Tuesdays--Strength training for thirty minutes before classes in the morning (circuit training format) followed by 25-30 minutes of shooting drills.  That was all:  no afternoon practice that day.
  • Wednesdays--Game day! No walk-through, but optional shoooting for those that wished to, prior to our team meal.  There was no pressure to be present, and many were not.  Then, game at 7:30.
  • Thursdays--Practice varied on these days.  Sometimes we practiced fairly hard, other times we did only shooting and skeleton work, and watched some video.
  • Fridays--Repeat Tuesday's format.
  • Saturday--Game Day! Repeat Wednesday's format.
  • Sunday-- No practice.
At this point in the year, if they don't get the System, they probably never will.  So if you've been overtraining, back off a little and see how much fresher they'll be.  And at the risk of being repetitive, I'll remind you (and myself) again of that old System truism...

Less is more.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Learning Curve

92 FGAs
53 Threes
37% ORBs
28 TOs
+11 Shots

So much for press variations.  When the opponent shreds your press and shoots layups all night, it doesn't really matter if you are using "On," "Off," or "Slow Trapping."  Seems we were "Slow Pressing" tonight and my guess is that either Wheaton is one of the better passing teams we've played this year, or we were fatigued following a long week without rest.  Probably both.

We did look a step slow all night and this gave our opponent time to move the ball quickly from spot to spot before we could set our traps.  They finished very well too (54% FG) to their credit, but we didn't help matters by shooting very poorly ourselves: 18-92, 19.6 % from the field, and 9-53 17% from the arc.)  Our performance was uncharacteristically tentative, and we seemed to have a mental block, forgetting much that we thought we'd mastered already about System execution.

But these things happen.  I hope it's a one-time occurance and that we will get rested and back on track Wednesday vs. Elite 8 opponent Carthage College on Wednesday.  In any case, it's a reminder that the System isn't an automatic guarantee of success... like any other style of play, without good effort and good execution it doesn't work very well. 

And, unfortunately, one reason that many coaches try the System and then give up on it is that when you lose, you can lose badly at times.  But that's part of the deal, part of the painful learning curve.  At one point late in the game Michelle turned to me on the bench and asked, "Did this ever happen to you at Olivet?"

"Sure," I answered, "but it still doesn't feel very good."

Friday, January 4, 2013

Press Variations

With half a season under our belts and conference play beginning, now is the time to start adding a few wrinkles to our pressing scheme.

I think it's a good idea to avoid getting complicated, especially early in the season, and especially with a first year System team.  But we are ready now to implement certain "adjustments" in response to the different ways opponent's can attack our press.

Saturday, for example, we will play a team that has their PG inbound the ball and then receive a quick return pass, before the weakside wing defender can rotate to cover the lag.  Our adjustment?  "Slow Trap," which means our on-ball defender simply delays one count before moving to the trap, which prevents the quick pass back to the inbounder, giving the wing time to rotate and cover that lag receiver.

Other good press adjustments include:
  • Trapping tighter (vs. press breakers that like to pass) or looser (vs. dribble-attack press breakers).
  • "Change" to change the look of our press from On to Off just as the referee hands the ball to the inbound passer, giving us an (unexpected) extra defender on the throw-in.
  • Inside-Out.  Normally, we use full-deny "outside-in" coverage on receivers, but when we are being out-quicked by the opponent, we move to inside-out denial so as to force the inbounds pass to the corner and hopefully have a better chance at a containing the ball in a quick trap.
  • "Stay Home" safety coverage.  Normally our safeties rotate to the arc if necessary to help cover good shooters and/or get involved in the trap.  But sometimes we like just keeping them at home near the basket to give us better inside coverage, taking our chances vs. teams that won't shoot the three.
This is not a complete list, but when combined with our basic On and Off presses, gives us more than enough looks to adjust our defensive game plan and hopefully disrupt the opponent's attack. 

And if it's not enough?  In that case, we just shoot 'em up and have some fun, and congrat the other team on a job well done!