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!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Now I get it

I left right after practice tonight and headed back home to catch the second half of ONU vs. Purdue-Calumet, a battle for first place in the CCAC.

After managing to sneak in unnoticed, I parked myself in an upper corner of the bleachers opposite the bench, happy to see Olivet start the second half with a 59-50 lead.  ONU stretched it to 12, using an "Off" press against PCU's unusual press attack, in which they spread out in the back court and then flashed one or both of the deep receivers up to provide options for the inbounder.  I guess "Off" worked pretty well against it, because Olivet forced 37 turnovers, making me proud of the great job that my former assistant and now head coach Lauren Stamatis is doing!

Offensively, ONU had to attack a 1-3-1 zone all night, and did a nice job moving the ball and spotting up in the curl and fade spots for open threes.  They also penetrated effectively, something many system teams seem to forget about against zones, but which ONU used to good advantage.

I hear the final score was ONU 108- PCU 100, but I must confess that I couldn't take it.  I was a basket case watching my old team play, and had to leave with 8 minutes to play.  Call me a coward, but now I comprehend the truth of what my wife told me when I got home:

"Now you understand what I went through for 14 years!"


93 FGAs
39 Threes
32% ORBs
38 Turnovers
+26 Shots

Comments:  When you force 38 turnovers and create a +26 shot differential, you ought to win.  Unfortunately we came up short in our first conference game on the road.  We did a nice job in the second half, coming from 22 down to cut the lead to 4 points, but if you've learned how to interpret our "Formula Goals" above, you can easily see that ORBs were once again our Achilles heel.

I've said for years that offensive rebounding is the Rodney Dangerfield of basketball statistics... it gets no respect.  Most coaches in conventional basketball don't even keep this stat, and if they do they are only concerned with the raw total ("We got 12 O-Boards tonight!"), not being aware that ORB's must be calculated relative to total missed shots in order for the stat to be meaningful.

Anyway, last night we only had 6 ORBs at halftime for a stellar 19%.  No wonder we were down.  In the second half we captured 45% and that accounts for our improved second half performance (outscoring Elmhurst 49-44).  And by the way, we didn't do any rebounding drills in the second half.  Offensive rebounding is not about technique and drilling... it's about desire and awareness. 

Moral of the story:  Offense sells tickets... but offensive rebounding wins games.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Break 'em down, build 'em up

Something most people don't know about me is that when I was in college I was a member of the Men's Glee Club, an all male choral group.  I joined Men's Glee only after the basketball coach informed me (via a cut list) that he really didn't need any 6-3 centers on his team.

But our director, Mr. Halvorsen, was a great teacher who made learning easy and fun.  (He was so good that we referred to him as "Coach.")  Under him, we committed dozens of pieces of music to memory, and I never forgot the teaching method he used:  whole-part-whole.

First, Coach would have our accompanist play the entire piece through on the piano, as we followed along by reading our part in the musical score.  Then starting with the basses, he would have the pianist play the first line of their part only, after which the basses would sing their part.  Then the baritones would do the same, after which Coach would have the basses and baritones combine their parts and sing together.  He would repeat this process with the first and second tenors, and finally put all four parts together before moving on to the next line.

Part by part, we would put the entire number together, committing it to memory while he gave us constant feedback to smooth off the rough edges.  We would review and polish the piece the next day, and return to it as often as possible in the days leading up to a concert, making sure we were sharp.  And that is what coaching is... demonstrate the big picture, break it down, build it up, review and polish until it's perfect. 

I'm not as patient as Coach was.  I get irritated with poor execution... but not frustrated.  Irritation is just my natural mode of coaching, and reflects my personality and my perfectionistic nature.  I get irritated because I want players to execute flawlessly at game speed.  Flawlessly, at game speed.  That's the standard and until that happens, I'm not particularly warm and fuzzy, though I DO like praising even imperfect attempts as long as I'm seeing effort, concentration, and improvement.

But I don't get frustrated.  Frustration implies there's nothing the coach can do to get the team to execute, resulting in a feeling of helplessness.  No.  You are never helpless.  There is always always something you can do to get your team to execute flawlessly at game speed (or at least moving in that direction).  What can you do?  Break them down, build them up.  Whole-part-whole.

Players will execute precisely as well as you expect them to... precisely as well as you demand they do.  There's always a way to get better.

Back from the Break!

I always love coming back from Christmas break.

Players are refreshed and although our timing is typically sloppy the first few days, there's no substitute for fresh legs.  In addition, something seems to happen during the time off, like a gestation period.  Everything they learned in the fall semester percolates and we often have our best performances right after the break.

So, our first two practices have been good as we work on the fast break and our press.  We know that it will take some time to get back to the level of conditioning we had before Christmas, and working on the break is the way we did it on Sunday evening, using our "Fast Break Cycles" drill (2 1/2 cycles, with a different player shooting on each possession), and the "5/5 Blockout" drill (rebound and break off a coaches shot, 1 cycle, no press, then reset).

Yesterday we reviewed the press and I still really like our "Free Throw Press" drill for that purpose.  Our defensive team shoots a free throw,  and presses the opponent whether the shot is made or missed. Once the ball crosses halfcourt, the offensive team must align in a spread-delay set (2-1-2 alignment) and attempt to hold the ball (no shot allowed) while we work to take away lag and high post passes. 

We use the shot clock in this drill, putting up 15 seconds and starting it when the opponent first touches the ball.  We then have 15 seconds to force a turnover, and will work on our "Fast Break after a steal" situation if that occurs.  This drill is the most realistic way we know of teaching players to prevent an opponent from holding the ball on us, as failure to take away lags becomes very apparent.  We must constantly remind players during defensive transition that they must run to a person (trap, lag or high post) rather than sprinting back inside the arc first, which is their initial instinct. 

We've made a lot of progress in this area, and many others, but with the new semester and the beginning of conference play on Wednesday, we'll see how far we've come, and whether the "light bulb" is ready to come on.