Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Championship Conundrums

10 Reactions from the NCAA Final...
(In no particular order except that which I ponder).

  1. Dome Shooting -- For all the talk of misfiring from long range in an expansive venue, Michigan and Louisville made one wonder, "What's the big fuss?" ... They shot .444 and .500 from 3-point range, respectively, and canned a combined 53 of 109 field goals (49 percent). Free throws? 36 for 48 (75 percent). The 3-point makes were mustered in large part by the Spike and Hancock Show whose dazzling display resulted in 9 of 10 conversions. The semi-final games saw no team shoot better than 36 percent from 3. Looks like it just took a game to get used to the background.
  2. The Double Dribble -- With 9:41 in the first half, Gorgui Dieng jumped as he tried to catch a hard-to-handle pass on the right wing. As he attempted to control the ball -- and his body -- he took one dribble to regain balance. He paused and surveyed the court, then continued to attack with another dribble. The whistle actually blew and the official made the right call: Double Dribble. Why was that significant? Because it's often a blown call, as if a long pause between a perceived "gather" dribble and a "control" dribble forces a ref to omit the initial dribble from his memory. If a player is able to effectively steer the ball enough to dribble and gather, then, in effect, he's in control of the ball, and in the same effect, it's not a gather anyway, but a controlled substance. Correct.
  3. The Elevated Court -- I don't like it because it's potentially dangerous. I like it because it portrays a stage. I don't like it because it forces the head coach to sit with bad posture on a poorly placed stool. I like it because it provides the players and coaches on the bench an extra few feet to jump up and down (if they choose to rise onto the court). I don't like it because the head coach is quite far from his staff. I like it because the head coach is quite from from his staff.
  4. Add Another Official Official -- There are three officials in the crew. They work hard. The refs who get the championship game are presumably the best the NCAA has to offer. However, fans, analysts, and viewers are often disgruntled by what they deem as poor officiating. Cases in point on Monday: The missed goal tend, the clean Burke block, McGary being undercut, the muggings in the paint. Refs do miss calls. All the time. The game is fast and physical and the players for whom they are responsible for keeping in line are better athletes in better shape, and they are often bigger and taller -- officials can get lost in the action. Bottom line: It's really hard to ref. Fine. So make it a little easier by adding a fourth ref to the crew who isn't obligated to run back and forth while trying to stay off the playing surface, avoid tripping over fans or coaches, and still working to get an angle for everything his eyes should see. Television offers another (often superior) view and one that (often) makes calls quite obvious even during live action. Put a ref in a protective bubble on the sideline with a monitor and miked whistle.
  5. The Crowd -- Unbelievable. I didn't have my television's sound blasting nor was I using the surround sound. Either the dome made it seem louder in there, the audio broadcast was better than years' past, or that was the most cacophonous crowd I can recall in a championship game (played in a dome). Exhilarating.
  6. Two Fouls -- To play or not to play? That is the question. And the gamble. And the most talked about dilemma. Burke picked up two in the first half. He sat for 12 minutes. Beilein was blasted for sitting him. Blasphemy. There are three types of people: Those who have coached, those who haven't, and those who think they should because they think they can do it better. Cool for the first two. Playing a key guy with two fouls in a close game when it's quite obvious he'll be needed for most of the second half is dependent on a) who the player is b) his position c) the game situation d) the rest of the team e) the scout f) the dome, the court, the officials, the crowd ... ARGH! Too many factors, and easy to contest one way or the other in hindsight. Do you want him to be there in the end or not? Burke ended the game with four fouls.
  7. Shot Fakes -- Learn them, and learn how to defend them. Luke Hancock has a terrific one. Defenders that close out on him don't. If they did, they'd know to fly at his right side so he is forced to dribble with his left hand. He loves to bounce off the right dribble and stabilize from his right. Push him the other way so he can't release his shot and so he is persuaded to pass with his left hand. He made two key plays after shot fakes. One was an assist to Russ Smith (who nailed a 3) after he was able to pound dribble right into the paint. The other was the foul he drew on McGary. Meanwhile, with 1:20 remaining in the game, Robinson III missed an opportunity to draw a foul on a 3-point attempt because he took a backstep with his right foot on the kickout catch -- he lost a precious second and critical stability. Rather than taking the shot with his defender flying at him, he wasted time with additional movement and brought Michigan within four points rather than three with just two free throws in one possession.
  8. The Game is Won in the Paint -- That's why there is a 3-second rule (credit Kenny Smith for the reminder). Louisville shot 45 2-pointers (versus 30). The Cards grabbed 15 offensive rebounds (versus 8). The winners blocked 3 shots (versus 2).
  9. Resiliency -- Teams who win have this.
  10. Pitino is a Hall of Famer -- No matter what you say, it's hard to have a better week in his profession. Besides the HOF induction Monday morning, he won his second NCAA Championship that night only after taking the Cardinals to the Final Four for the second year in a row. He's now won as many games as John Wooden. His horse, Goldencents, won the Santa Anita Derby (down the street from Caltech) on Saturday and qualified for the Kentucky Derby; his son, Richard, won the University of Minnesota job (northwest of Florida) on Friday and qualified for the Big Ten.
  11. BONUS -- Dan Dakich talked about how impressed and mesmerized he was by Pitino at Five Star Basketball Camp when Dakich was a camper, some three decades ago. Pitino was like nothing anyone had ever seen -- he beat Chris Mullin and other high school studs 1 on 1, again and again. I heard a similar story years ago at a camp in Boston. Pitino challenged the best kids in camp ... the coach on defense, the camper at the top of the key with the ball. Pitino ordered the kid: "Go by me!" The kid started to move and Pitino ripped him of the ball. Again and again.
  12. BONUS BONUS -- Tim Hardaway, Jr. commented in the post-game presser about the ways in which Beilein provides "overlooked" kids opportunities to play for Michigan: "He really recruits guys that wanted to go to those big-time schools and never had a chance to get looked at by those big-time schools."

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Final Four: What's to Like

We become fans of sports franchises and programs for a variety of reasons, and most of the time, either logically or illogically, the symbiosis has to do with how we identify with the team. Basic reasons: Our hometown; a role model; our father’s team. More psychologically complex reasons: Aesthetics, like uniform color or shoe contract; playing style and tempo; or the team is playing against one we (logically or illogically) despise. Any and all reasons seem enough impetus to rationalize rooting for a particular franchise. Whether or not our friends support the fandom, well, that’s ultimately up in the explanation. Typically, if one can support a claim (in 7-degrees or less fashion) then peers will outwardly accept accompanying fan behavior. In sum, a solid argument dissuades the accusation: “You jumped on the bandwagon.” I’m not on any team’s bandwagon -- though the last one I saw rolling down the street had a big FGCU on it en route to USC -- but there are reasons to like every team in the Final Four. 

Louisville

I moved to Boston to pursue graduate degrees in 1998, just a year after Rick Pitino became the head coach of the Celtics. I bought his book and I watched his talk show every weekend. My grad school advisor became the team’s consulting sport psychologist. And to top it off, I was at BU, where Pitino started his career as a head coach. It was more so that I became a Pitino fan (via his convincing), I suppose, than a Celtics fan. (Antoine shook a lot, Pierce was not yet mature, and McCarty was a great guy.) Pitino yearned for the Celtics to play like his Kentucky Wildcats. They tried. But Pitino spoke of advanced stats, needing 30 deflections a game to win, explaining in fine detail the ins and outs of every possession, and emitted an all-out tone that said this, my friends and fans, is the new breed. Accept it because certain people aren’t walking through that (figurative) door. He has since honed his craft back in the college ranks. (Can it really be true he’s been at Louisville since 2001?!)

The Cardinals have lightning quick guards, an intrepid mojo, and they were just here last year. Russ Smith is as fearless as they come -- and he finishes plays. According to kenpom.com analytics, he is the player of the year. Louisville is No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency -- No. 2 in opponent TO% and No. 2 in steals. Though only No. 6 -- ha, only! -- in offensive efficiency, it’s No. 16 in O-board%. Opponents O-board%? A laughable 33.2 percent (No. 236). And 3-pointers, considering how much emphasis Pitino has put on the long ball during his career? Not a factor. 32.8% (No. 223). But it doesn’t matter. The Cardinals thrive with their defense: A full-court, uptempo orchestration of controlled havoc that results in easy points created by defensive efforts.

Veteran coach. Experience and energy galore.

Wichita State

My great friend I met at BU left Boston after completion of his master’s degree. He went back to his hometown, Minneapolis, to pursue a doctorate in psychology. From there, he went to Memphis for a postdoc, then to Dallas for a related job. And after several years there, to Wichita where he was involved in sport psych and family consulting. Strong connection? Not necessarily, but when coupled with the fact that one of my assistant coaches has a cousin who is a Shocker -- Malcolm Armstead -- it makes it all the more substantial. How can I not root for the underdog, upstart squad that has a family member I know? America’s team!

The Shockers rebound, defend, and block shots. 38 percent O-board rate (No. 18) vs. 26.3% (No. 11) for opponents. They have a block percentage of 13.7 (No. 18). Most importantly, they also play with no fear. Armstead play-makes and loves to shoot. For every questionable shot, he’ll make you pay with a few conversions in a row. And Carl Hall may as well be Carl Wall -- you’re not going to score with him in the vicinity.

They’re coming after you and don’t care how many teams you’ve coached.

Michigan

Ah, finally, a John Beilein Final Four. I’ve been rooting for him since I started studying his offense. And that began when he was at West Virginia -- yes, my father’s alma mater! -- and coached the heck out of a Pittsnogled group. Lots of 3’s, exciting spurts of scoring, a solid man defense and an opposition-frustrating 1-3-1 zone. Plus, he was at LeMoyne prior to that, up there in New York State. I wasn’t that far, down in Albany. It just all makes sense. My question had been: Can this offense make it all the way? It’s quite spread out and had been easy to guard at times. Inconsistent offensive rebounding and shooters camped out around the perimeter didn’t necessarily put undeniable pressure on the defense. But it helps when you have players and the named player of the year. Trey Burke is surrounded by a horde of NBA sons. (How does that happen?) Recruiting, belief, and some luck.

The Wolverines have the No. 1 offense in the nation; it’s cushioned by their reliability to not turn the ball over. When they do, it’s just 14.5 percent of the time (No. 1). They shoot the lights out from the field (54.6 eFG% No. 11). Who cares if they don’t get to the free throw line (No. 338) and let their opponents live there (22.3 FT rate, No. 1)?! They value their possessions and makes them count, plus create stops with a high steal rate of 8.1% (No. 24). Burke is as good as advertised and can take over a game. Beilein isn’t afraid -- rather, he wants -- to keep the ball in Burke’s hands and continue to run the offense through him. With strong performances from big man Mitch McGary and superb shooting from Nick Stauskas, it’s been working out.

They’re just fun to watch.

Syracuse

“The ‘Cuse.” When I moved to Albany in 1989 that’s what I kept hearing; after all, everyone was an Orangemen fan. With that Sherm, Seikaly, Coleman combination, it was ingrained in the upstate NY culture. Everyone in the area went to Siena basketball camp but the few who could make it to Syracuse did. So, big identification and the talk of the town.

What do they do now? It’s been similar throughout; something referred to as a 2-3 zone, but that’s just a default name because nobody has a better one -- it’s much more than that. It’s an octopus on steroids. Too many arms to count. With Syracuse players’ length (the second tallest team in the nation) and athleticism, it’ll suffocate you. It’s scary good.

Teams in the postseason just can’t score against it. A critical part of the problem is they can’t prepare for it either. The Orange boast the No. 6 defense by being No. 4 in eFG%, No. 3 in 3-pt%, and No. 1 in block%, defensively. Keep in mind that Syracuse lost to Georgetown twice in the regular season and another team it could end up facing on Monday: Louisville. But the Orange are clicking. Boeheim even admitted he hasn’t had a better defensive team than this one. Despite a lower eFG% (just 49.1, No. 139), the team makes up for misses with a 39.0 O-board rate (No. 8).

Scary good. Plus, the senior Brandon Triche, whose uncle Howard was on the ‘Cuse team with the trio mentioned above, has played in every single game of his collegiate career. That’s 146 games.

I’m a fan.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Anatomy of an Implosion: How Michigan Rock-Knocked Kansas (And Paved the Way for a Final Four Run)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Streaks and Such

As sports enthusiasts, it’s in our nature to get hyped about what we witness -- and believe contemporary events of triumph trump those parallel in history. “I saw the Blake over Kendrick dunk in person.” “I was there to see Terry get Knigthed by LeBron.” “I witnessed the greatest team ever.” Our drive to compete is embedded in how we watch sport unfold. How quickly we forget the past, and (sometimes) how quick we are to dismiss the now.


During the current Heat streak, LeBron has been performing in the clutch with unfathomable numbers. He has had the opportunity to showcase his scoring and playmaking skills to the tune of a cumulative triple-double over 48 minutes in crunchtime. Miami’s drive for the NBA all-time record (the 1971-72 Lakers won 33 in a row) is, of course, much dependent on the rest of the team and James’ partner in streak-setting, Dwyane Wade. While (leading up to Wednesday night's game) LeBron is shooting 57 percent from the field and averaging 26.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.9 assists over these 23 games, Wade (35.8 mpg, .546 FG, 23.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 5.9 apg) isn’t far behind. It’s safe to say they are a hot duo.


A fair comparison, of course, is the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls team who holds the best regular season record with 72 wins and just 10 losses, a mark that barely overtook those aforementioned Lakers. In all this talk of greatest players ever and what (may) become the best team of all time, we recount what those Bulls did (two separate streaks of 13 and 18 in a row) and how they did it.


Perhaps it’s not how many in a row that really matters, but the significance of the wins during the streak. People say that in order to be mentally focused and physically ready for the grueling playoff run it’s important to have critical rest. The NBA schedule doesn’t help matters -- it’s an uncontrollable part of the process. But coaches and players can help themselves by earning valuable recovery periods, albeit slim, during games. The memory I have of that Bulls team is Jordan and Pippen and other starters being able to take some time off during the fourth quarters because they were blowing teams out. Chicago won four games in a row by 24-plus points that saw Jordan and Pippen average just 68.5 minutes together (96 is max in regulation). The best Heat streak so far is a 4-game stretch of win margins by 10, 13, 19, and 24. Despite Miami’s widest point margin being Chicago’s lowest in those big wins, the tandem of LeBron and Wade still only played 69.8 minutes.


Though the Bulls bullied through another 3-game mini streak with wins of 20, 20, and 22, it didn’t alter the overall brunt of minutes Jordan and Pippen endured during the 18 game excitement. Coincidentally, Jordan’s average minutes during this time were the exact same as LeBron’s (through 23 games): 37.5 mpg. MJ shot 51 percent and averaged 31.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists during the stretch. Pippen? You guessed it -- practically on par with Wade at 35.9 minutes per game to go along with 21.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.7 assists.


The dilemma of when to rest and how to do it is much of a coaching staff’s dialogue. Being able to keep players fresh while helping them stay engaged is crucial, while forecasting for the long term (postseason run) digs deep in their minds. Much discourse can also be consumed in HOW teams play. Do players take plays off to rest? If so, does the offensive system limit pounding on the lower extremities? The Bulls triangle offense was a passing game, quite different than what Miami does. The latter consists of lots of dribble drives, pick and roll action, and isolations. It takes more energy to explode to the paint with the ball than it does to cut without it -- mental pace varies. Those Bulls were a tremendous passing team and Jordan, despite a stigma of shooting too much, was a fabulous set up guy (just go back and watch some of those late 90’s games). More energy consumption may lie in how a team collaborates, whether on the floor or not.


One would think it beneficial -- the more blowouts, the better -- so that the prime players can rest, but (for example) is an 8-minute differential (the difference between a 32-minute night and 40) really all that helpful? Perhaps more mentally than physically. LeBron has been willing his team to win in several close games, comebacks and overtime to boot. Jordan, however, didn’t regularly have to play in the closing minutes (the Bulls had only three single-digit wins of their 18; the Heat have had nine thus far). MJ could sit and smile and oversee his mastery, one that passed him by in many fourth quarters and left evidence of his (and Pippen’s) dominance. He, in effect, let himself out of work early. LeBron, however, has to muster the (mental) stamina to close these games out. Though playing time is similar it’s WHERE the minutes occur that really matter. Stats are harder to come by when the game is close, when teams are structuring every possession to get stops. It’s a grind, and in that scenario, LeBron is performing at one of the highest levels we’ve ever seen -- it’s also enabling him to produce those stats. (Haters will insert selfish stat production theory here, a broader scheme of missing bunnies intentionally to gather more boards.)


The intention here is not to compare players or even teams for the sake of winning an argument -- it’s just too difficult even with NBA2K simulations and all the advanced statistics available. (Though, do note, that Bulls squad was No. 1 in the League in both offensive and defensive efficiency in ‘95-’96.) It’s not even worth going into how those ‘71-’72 Lakers dominated in a completely different era. (They had only 11 single digit wins of their 33, and tallied three 30-plus victories, two 40 or more.) What’s significant is watching Miami dominate with dynamic teamwork and skills.

Let’s just sit back and enjoy the evolution.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

One Man Wizadry

Is it just coincidence the Clippers haven't lost a game with Chauncey Billups back on the bench? Had he traveled with the team during the disheartening triple game road trip would there have been all the talk about L.A. threatening to denounce Vinny Del Negro as coach? Painting a picture of frenzy in the Clips locker room? Most likely. It's not as if the Clippers are blowing teams out of the water in these recent home wins, helping them to their first four game win streak since February.

But one thing's for sure. Billups makes them better. On the court. On the bench. Standing on the sideline. Just being there.

Chris Paul says it's no secret that Billups gives them an advantage. A sounding board. A winning presence. He needs to travel with the team.

Last night, towards the end of the tight battle between Portland and L.A., the ESPN camera caught a great angle of the Clippers huddle: Del Negro squatted in a typical coaching position, five players sitting in front of him.

But the one guy who was talking? Billups. And all eyes were pegged on him. The team was looking to him for advice -- and it's not the first time. At least once during each of the last several home games, it's apparent that he is a key cog in what L.A. is doing. (Hence a suggestion from Bill Simmons that Billups just take over as coach.) Billups is the Wizard of Lob City, only not hidden behind a giant curtain.

Kevin Arnovitz explains the scene on TrueHoop:

"In the preceding huddle (Clips down one with 13.9 seconds to play), Chauncey Billups, in street clothes and saddled with a boot, implored the team to forget about the preceding possession. With Randy Foye up in his face, Crawford launched a ... well ... Crawfordian, high-arcing contested jumper that gave Portland a one-point lead. With the Clippers' starting five and coach Vinny Del Negro listening intently, Billups also offered tips about how to free up Paul in the event the Clippers' point guard would be blanketed by the rangy Nicolas Batum."

Dynamics matter. One guy can very well make a difference between a win and a loss, whether playing or not. Much of it comes down to trust. Mutual respect for one another. A belief system within a team. It's great to see the Clippers execute strategy, but even greater to see them working together, particularly after a tough couple weeks of banter and cheap shots.

Oh -- It's nice to have Chris Paul, too.

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