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.