Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Been Busy

It's hard to believe this much time has passed since the last post. I suppose it's been a bit busy, though ... after all, building a program from scratch isn't the easiest task in the world. There has been a whirlwind of activity the last few months: I've hooped with great NBA writers, conversed to Jay Bilas about the state of college basketball, heard Jerry West and Bill Russell talk about greatness, listened to Tom Izzo's passionate beliefs about rebounding, seen Kobe "do work" up close at Staples, and spoken with people all around the world about the vision for Caltech basketball ... the latter, of course, having everything to do with the other items. In fact, a colleague of mine, Dr. Justin Anderson, pointed out this article from Harvard Business Review, a useful reference about the importance of interactions and how individuals feed off each other in group situations. Not only can the notions be applied to forming a team, but also creating a culture of excellence and, on an even grander scale, constructing a philosophy for coaching or teaching. Our staff is always busy, attempting to maximize our resources, think creatively, communicate the new vision with as many people as possible, and establish a meaningful environment in every way imaginable. Take a look inside the program.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Mindset Creates a Coach's Meal

There is a certain mindset that works in the bevy of coaches and psychologists -- makeshift or not -- who preach mental tactics to athletes and subscribe to the significant role of teacher within the ever encompassing position as sport leader. In a role that entails much more than where to sketch an X or etch an O, implore a halftime adjustment, or suggest a substitution, it is but a rudimentary and substantial stack of ingredients that produces the major meal.

The resulting entree is the win. Yet the contents that create it are surely not easy to find.

Chemistry, communication, and cognitive-behavioral cooking. Three of the C's in a course of physical science, social understanding, and psychological cuisine, all meticulously tossed into a bowl that (hopefully) becomes a sought after artifact.

In the 2009 NBA finals, handiwork is at its peak.

Eric Neel is on point when he writes about Laker master Phil Jackson:

I'm thinking this cat has stayed true to his school on this stuff, talking about energy, connectedness, intuition and not being a stranger to the moment as you've imagined it, from the jump, for two decades now. At what point do we stop thinking of him as the eccentric? Will 10 rings do the trick? At what point do we consider the possibility, in earnest, with nary a wink or a nod, that the guy might be on to something?

It takes something a bit extra to fulfill the feast, perhaps an all-too-important tweak in practice structure, a word-of-the-day suggestion, or even a smile and a "let's figure this one out together" tone that may separate the good from the great. A sea captain sees it all before the ship arrives. That which the eyes observe allow the brain to process. And vice versa.

Only the disgruntled and disillusioned fail to decipher the code of the visionary.

The so-called "stuff" that Neel refers to is a way of thinking, a philosophy of coaching, a manner in which players are dealt with as malleable beings, both blemished and brilliant. The yin and yang in Phil Jackson's coaching facility are constantly undergoing adaptations that, over time, manage to suggest the best is yet to come. He has transformed himself since the days as a Bulls assistant, from a wiry, sharp bladed elbow and mustache man, who once walked the Armory sidelines for the Patroons in Albany, into SoCals' shaman, a wise and old L.A. medicine man of sorts with but one empty championship ring digit -- and a knowledge of basketball and its complicated web of money and management that transcends those before him. He utilizes aspects of sociology and psychology to stress his values and to twist personalities into becoming one, like a rhythmic, sweet tasting candy cane that one was a mess of colors and flavors.

Be it a spliced film set to motivational music with scenes of Hollywood and hardwood, or an impromptu team trip for bonding purposes, or an exercise in visualization, he thinks the game. He sees the game. He feels the game.

He energizes it and it energizes him, though one could never interpret that by looking at him on the sidelines now, looking bemused, amused, or even apathetic at times. To Jackson, it's a game that reaches far beyond the painted lines of any basketball court and way outside the confines of any simple mind.

What remains fruitful is his unabashed way in which he will yell at a player, challenge a veteran, or simply state that his experienced star -- the one who most likely will not play for another coach and seems to coach more than the master himself -- shot it too many times and forced the issue.

It is often stated that players win games while coaches lose them. Players bury the buckets. They steal the show.

Coaches may lose games. Too often, though, they have already lost the players...and long before tip-off.

Jackson may drop another contest. But he will gain much more in the end. His players will thank him. He will embrace his megastar. His fingers will finally be full. And just maybe, as master chef, he will gain a few more believers.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What's the Point?

Well, at this point in the 2009 NBA playoff race, the point position seems to be point production -- otherwise known as scoring at an unprecedented consistency. Through Friday, a dozen players listed as point guards in the league (via were averaging 14.7 points or more, with Tony Parker leading the way at a 28.6 clip. It makes no difference that Parker and the next three at the top (Andre Miller, Deron Williams, and Derrick Rose) are now out of the postseason -- the point is, and has been, making more noise in the playoff scoring column than ever before.

The next point guards on the list are Chauncey Billups and Rajon Rondo. Billups is the mature and effective leader of the erratically entertaining Denver Nuggets, and the player behind coach George Karl's understanding that this particular homegrown point means more to his team than anyone. Rondo, of course, is arguably the most critical point in the league now, as he pushes his defending champion Boston Celtics with energy, versatility, will and weekly triple-double digits.

Rondo is averaging 18.3 while Billups is a shade higher at 19.6.

So what? Well, the last point guard to average an exact 19.6 points throughout the playoffs was Jason Kidd. That was in 2002. And he led ALL point guards in scoring that year. Guess how many other points averaged more than 14.7 ppg in Kidd's calling?

Two. The previously mentioned Parker with 15.5, and Darrell Armstrong with 15.3.

Since 2002, at least five point guards have scored at least 14.3 ppg each year in the playoffs, with an average of just under seven players hitting that rate each postseason. Stephon Marbury led the way in 2003 and 2004, with more than a 21 point mean in each of those years, while Steve Nash took over the top spot in 2005 with just under 24 points per contest. Nash was ahead of seven other points during that period, all who scored more than 16 a night. Marbury's mark of 22 ppg in 2003 began a 20+ point production streak by the PG leader. Gilbert Arenas scored a ludicrous 34 a game in 2006 -- albeit in just a few games -- almost double the leading PG in 2001 (Damon Stoudamire)!

2008 saw eight point guards in the high scoring column again, leading to this year's revolutionary 12. The others in the current span are Mo Williams, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, Mike Bibby, and Jason Terry. (Remember, these are players categorized as point guards -- they do not necessarily bring the ball up more often than some notable teammates, i.e. Williams on LeBron's Cavs or Terry on Kidd's and J.J. Barea's Mavs).

As I write, Aaron Brooks just dropped in points 28, 29, and 30 on the Lakers in his Houston Rockets' mothers' day romp.

So, with the three aforementioned point guards listed from 2002 and just three others the year prior above the 14.3 mark (Stoudamire, Sam Cassell, and Kidd), the point guard role has morphed into more than that of basic ball distributor, and it's happened at four times the rate. The game today is being led by plentiful point producers, or by lead guards, as some may now refer to them.

And why not? May as well put five out on the floor that can score; seeing how the game is now guard dominated with pace, penetration opportunities, and 3-point emphasis, it's no surprise. Further, the popularity and exposure of basketball at a young age, with year-round playing, AAU, and potentially ridiculous profits, has helped more prospects with guard-like physiques develop. Competition at the guard slot has produced a greater number of smaller and younger players that can flat out score and do everything else required of the extenstion-of-the-coach role.

Depending on who one talks to and what the situation is, Kobe, LeBron, and Dwyane Wade could be considered point guards in their specific offensive systems. The lesson from the pros: keep the ball in the hands of the scorer. If he is able to dribble the ball up the court under pressure, set-up, survey for open teammates, drive to the hole, pull up, and operate out of the pick-and-roll, it all makes sense.

As explained to me by one NBA executive, "Teams are terrified of turnovers, so do everything possible to limit passing."

Point pondered.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Study Time Creates Kobe Time

Sport psychologists are often called upon to help athletes improve levels of confidence. Specifically, consultants tend to work with a player's self-efficacy, or one's situational self-confidence. Self-efficacy refers to how an athlete feels about himself in certain circumstances, not necessarily his overall feeling in sport. For instance, a basketball player may be extremely confident driving to the hole, yet have lower efficacy on the perimeter (think Derrick Rose).

While trying to make a player more efficacious in situations, psych pros may employ various techniques, namely mastery experiences, performance accomplishments, verbal persuasion, emotional feedback, and, for the purpose of this post, vicarious experiences. Watching Kobe Bryant on Saturday, I couldn't help but think about his development, especially about his growth as a player while modeling (or vicariously improving) via Michael Jordan. Kobe has mentioned that he spent countless hours studying MJ. As a young player, he viewed Jordan's games, analyzed his moves, watched the way he interviewed, and more.

Kobe's performance this weekend only substantiated his study habits. After a dismal performance a couple of days before when he shot line drives, looked flat and fatigued, and didn't muster the showtime energy we are guilty of expecting nightly, Bryant came out fully fueled and focused (I guess the readers are correct in this site's latest poll). Elevating with a smooth stroke, eluding double-teams, and escaping Utah with a key win, Kobe seemed to become his powerful predecessor.

Many have commented on Kobe's striking way of looking like Mike on the court, in the air, even in the press room. But this day, he was him -- from the look in his eyes to the MJ patented fade-away to the intense smirk as it he was thinking, "You can't guard me." What really got me was the arm extension to complete a teammates' slap of a "five" as he strutted to the free throw line. The fluid movement that Michael made cool was eerily transplanted into Kobe's frame. My gosh, is that the old G-O-D in basketball shoes that Larry Bird reflected on after 1986's 63-point explosion, only reincarnated on the west coast?

It was as if Kobe prepared for the game by watching the famous Spike Lee "Double Nickel" staging at MSG or, better yet, threw in a DVD of one of Jordan's breathtaking takedowns of the Jazz in the late 90's. Was Bryant's mind ticking with images of a Mike-licking as he dribbled and sliced and soared and rebounded? Did he recall the long days of dutiful workouts and dreams of greatness as he zoned in on his uncontestable attack? It surely appeared that way, like he was re-creating moves from his mentor's days more than a decade ago. And with each point and masterful display of fundamentals -- yes, fundys combined with his athleticism are what allowed him to look so darn good, as in the ability to create space off a screen or refusal, to ball swing through in his triple-threat, to change direction with perfect footwork off the bounce -- he gained more efficacy, which, in turn, translated to global confidence and Lakerworld domination.

I wonder how Phil Jackson interprets it all...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Case of the Game Face

Derrick Rose's display today was mesmerizing. His play helped brush his Bulls past the hometown Celtics in a game that featured great point guard possessions on each end. Not to be outdone by his champion seasoned opponent, Rajon Rondo, Derrick, quite literally, rose to the occasion in the first NBA playoff game of his career. And it was no doubt a notable one.

Perhaps more impressive than his 36 point, 11 assist effort and perfection from the free throw line was his demeanor. The announcers continued to comment on how calm he looked. It's no surprise. Those that have followed Derrick's impressive rookie campaign and his brief, and highly heralded college year at Memphis, know what he brings to the court -- dazzling quickness, extreme explosiveness, and a sometimes deceiving, high octane game.

In psychological terms, Rose's self-regulation capacity could be termed efficient and effective. The lay fan may infer his ability to stay in control from his "game face", the outwardly expression one notices on an athlete, especially in basketball where close-ups are as normal as a Bulls' pick and roll. No studies come to mind that substantiate what a more effective game face is, intriguing as it may be. Is it best remain mostly dead pan during the action? Do more elite athletes show limited emotion? Except for his one second of flailing frustration when he picked up his sixth foul, it was if Rose had been through the game a million times. Maybe he had in his mind? In fact, during one timeout when the players go and chill in their seats as the coaches convene on court to discuss adjustments, the rookie PG looked so tranquil that he could take a power nap.

In Rose's case, his calmness shows in interviews as well. Nancy Lieberman was only able to get a quick peek of his smile during her post-game interrogation, posing the question to Derrick whether he knew the legendary company he was in when it came to his stat-stuffing performance at the Garden. An honest "no" with some pearly whites, and it was right back to his all business-like appearance.

His outrageously excitable adversary, Kevin Garnett, unfortunately couldn't compete due to his nagging knee problem. In fact, KG's game face even for this game, one in which he wasn't able to come full force, was so intense that he wasn't able to parade on the bench in the second half. He felt he was a distraction to his teammates, as Lieberman reported in the third quarter. Though his peers wanted him by their side, he wasn't able to calm himself to a level where he could cheer and coach and support from the sideline. Huh... Maybe Bill Simmons' claim was accurate last year, inferring that the KG intensity was not an advantage, as it is something that cannot get any higher for fear of eruption -- nor lower itself to a controllable degree.

Imagine Derrick Rose playing with Kevin Garnett's emotional volume, writhing in facially wrinkled pain and blurting out swears to everyone, or nobody depending on one's interpretation, on every great play? From game face to event explosion.

What is best for performance? Whichever works, especially if it fits with the position, role, and personalities of the team. Both are entertaining. Both are effective. Though Rose's game face doesn't change, his gears sure do. KG rolls at one speed, over the typical limit in most cases. The only thing that could catch him this year was an actual part of himself. Darn. It would be tantalizing to see these two leaders, two game faces, go at it for an entire series.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mad Breakdown of Stats, Styles, and Coaching Shifts

What happens when you coach a team that finished first in its conference in free throw percentage, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, and rebounding defense?

You get fired. At least, in Kentucky you do...and if the school colors are blue and white.

Perhaps a trip to the Final Four could have saved Billy Gillispie. Though, according to new Wildcats coach John Calipari, only banners will save one from being banished in Lexington. National championship banners.

One could argue that Coach Cal brings with him a coaching style that allowed his Memphis team to finish at the top of Conference USA in field goal percentage defense and just a touch away from the best shooting team in the league (though free throws are not included in that...or 3-pointers). What else did his Tigers boast? Shot blocking, steal making, and rebounding. They were No. 1 in their conference in all of those categories.

Oh, and the Tigers outscored the Wildcats on average by a whole point, 75.1 to 74.1, placing the former third overall in Conference USA. Had the latter averaged the same amount, they would have moved up three ranking slots for fourth in the SEC.

What does all of this mean? Not too much in other years, perhaps, knowing that surprises and underdogs and Cinderellas have appeared in March. But this year, it's apparent there are two aspects of the game that scream consistency: scoring offense and rebounding, and the second is specific to the offensive end. Yes, being able to get stops is important, but not so much as point production (on the court and with the fans). Field goal percentage defense didn't help Gillispie save his job. From what others report, he stopped himself by not being able to impress the community and give the media what it wanted in charisma and personality.

Two of the remaining four teams in March Madness are first in scoring offense in their respective conferences: Michigan State (Big Ten) and North Carolina (ACC). Connecticut (Big East) is second, behind Syracuse, though the Huskies are ranked No. 1 in both Pomeroy and Massey ratings. Villanova, in this case of scoring power, goes from its own version of Wildcat to Tame-dog. It is sixth in Big East offense.

How important is being able to pound the boards? Extremely. The most important. Maybe even a stat that could have saved Gillispie. His 'Cats finished second in rebounding margin in league, but eighth in rebounding offense. Yikes. That is highway miles away from what his predecessor's Tigers accomplished. Memphis was No. 1.

What other teams finished first in cleaning their conference offensive glass? Michigan State, UConn, and UNC. Poor 'Nova was sixth. Majority wins though. Pounding and planting in the paint leads to more offensive attempts and more scoring. Maybe the Spartans aren't pretty to watch in a lay person's basketball mind, but they produce 71.8 points per game to lead the league, much to do with their No. 1 rebounding margin.

Who accumulated the same amount of points as Michigan State in the ACC this year? Maryland, which finished ninth in the conference in that stat. That shows why UNC is so extraordinary. Its pace is much quicker than any other team, demonstrated by the Tar Heels 90 points per game output. To know that they also have the fifth overall best assist to turnover ratio in the nation, one that is tops in the ACC, is something to note. No sooner did they demolish Oklahoma than did they realize they could play a much slower pace -- and still get the stops and scoring they needed to put the Big 12 foes in their own tar.

When one talks of balance and talent, its UNC. Right there with Carolina -- in Detroit -- is UConn. The Huskies have it all. The best scoring margin and rebounding offense in the ultra-competitive Big East, 80.2 points per game, and the best shot blocking in the country. It will be quite a challenge for the Spartans to stop the Huskies in their tracks and the Wildcats to stomp the 'Heels. But that is why they play the games...and Final Four hopefuls watch from home, and in some instances, a new one.

Monday, March 30, 2009

LeBrawn or LeBrain? Looks like Both

There was no hesitation in his voice when asked what the strongest part of his game is. He replied with the utmost confidence and made it known to the world, as if there is no chance anyone can crack the unique bond between his unearthly physical prowess and cognitive superiority. Lebron James and his mental game are dynamic, and he defines both brain and brawn in ways that those before him have not even dreamed -- meaning, what 6'9" player do you know that can drive, dunk, dish, and defend like that? On 60 Minutes last night, the court King explained:

"The way I approach the game mentally. I think, team first. It allows me to succeed, it allows my team to succeed. Because I'm always thinking about, 'How can I help my teammates become better?' I've always approached the game that way, ever since, I mean, I was a kid."
Seems as if he does a gift, as he personally advertised. He said he never got into trouble as a kid. He stayed on the right path. He found security and refuge inside the gym. He developed a mindfulness from his mother and his moving around, one that allows him to this day to pay attention to details, to support those around him, to take care of those closest to him. His maturity is quite creepy, considering he is 24 years young and an unprecedented phenomenon.

Could he really average a triple-double sometime in his career? Oscar Robertson did it with no 3-point line and when assists were only counted on a pass leading to a basket with NO dribble in between. Could he become the best ever, even though he wants to become a billion dollar athlete with a business he is learning on the go? Will his overwhelming industry dream, supposedly developed from his self-proclaimed "realness", distract from his NBA championship goal? It's a different day and age from the one his idol, MJ, started -- but he, LJ, is doing his best to amplify the creation and all its unique elements.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Plummeting Minutes, Enthusiastic until the End

It’s the second half and the players just walked out of the 16:00 time out. Duke is down to Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen, 38-26. Greg Paulus, after not playing in the first half, is in. He immediately drains a three. Next time down, while setting up a play, the senior guard drives to the left sideline in order to produce a jump skip pass to an open Kyle Singler, who bangs another trifecta. A Duke stop and a crisp pass to Scheyer off a baseline screen opens up another one from behind the arc. And then, off a catch and square on the right wing, he punctuates the Blue Devil run with a stop and go elbow jumper. Duke spurt, TO Nova.

All of that happened on Thursday in Boston…except, almost all of it. What was true was the first shot Paulus hit. And the TO, though it was Duke who called it. Paulus actually threw the skip pass out of bounds, miscued on the pass to Scheyer which left the ball short and not in shooting position, and was stripped on the next possession.

For some reason, though, I found myself rooting for the lost Paulus, and for the Duke program to generate another miracle comeback. It’s had plenty, but, like a movie that continues to build for that Oscar climax, I was hoping -- if for only a 4-minute sensational span cued by the former starting court leader -- until the next break in action.

Actually, the TO that Paulus himself called came on an order of his mentor, the one who decided to confine him to the pine. Now, we don’t really know what it’s like day in and day out in the program. Or if Paulus remained coachable and was a programmed citizen in practice. We can only go by what we see, what quotes we read, and the reasons the coaches give. It seems the senior captain who started for three consecutive years and scored more than 1,000 points while shooting just under 40 percent from 3-point range for his career was outplayed in his final season as a Duke baller (perhaps he’ll become the next serious assistant?). He couldn’t do the things that were needed. He didn’t have the length or the athleticism or the penetration ability or the defensive lockdown skill.

But, it appears, he did understand the system – and, he bleeds white and blue. In the form of Wojo. Collins. Dawkins. Another in the list of highly aggressive, slap-the-floor, swearing point guards who went on to coach. As his minutes dwindled, time became scarce, and his fading career turned into a double-digit loss in a half-as-happy season. I know that he reluctantly tasted his role and hesitantly gulped the tragedy that was his to become. Just watching him on the court Thursday evening, attempting to lead, it was apparent that he was out of sync. He was trying to stay within himself, but it looked as if he wanted to explode and let loose a season of frustration.

Despite the newly obligatory position, he was still the one crouched next to the coaches on the bench, and remained the exuberant teammate that stood up to slap five to his substituted playing peers. He maintained the fireball of energy that allowed him to rumble in and out of the backcourt in Cameron Indoor Stadium -- and the QB pocket in high school. If anyone is looking for an image of a competitor and a developing leader, by the looks of Paulus on TV and in the paper, he is it. Congratulations to him on, what is becoming more less likely for a consistent starter in college basketball, the closing of a 4-year career. He dealt with a difficult personal situation, but stuck with it and gave it his all in his last game.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cerebral Matter - March '09

Elite scientists are well-rounded... I like to believe this, knowing that my basketball players and other student-athletes at Caltech are talented in a number of areas. It's math and science first and basketball (hopefully) a close second. And many are expert musicians and artists as well:

"Some of the best scientists recommend looking for breadth of skills and talents in a variety of endeavors beyond the sciences.

In two previous posts, we argue that training in the arts benefits scientists in a variety of different ways. The best scientists are much more likely to be artists, musicians, actors, craftsmen, and writers than are typical scientists, or even the general public. Scientists draw skills, knowledge, processes, concepts, and even inspiration from their non-scientific avocations. Many are well aware of these advantages."

Leading and listening are skills. And being able to change one's mind is as well. Malcolm Gladwell explains.

Where are your thoughts? The past, present, or future? And are you now concerned that you didn't enjoy yourself when you had the chance? Some people could be suffering from hyperopia:
"They’re so obsessed with preparing for the future that they can’t enjoy the present, and they end up looking back sadly on all their lost opportunities for fun."

So, players DO think during the game. But not too much. And sometimes not at all. But then a little bit to help them later. Actually, it's all about having a really quick mind... which is an effect of practicing and playing and understanding the situations that may present themselves. Vince Carter summarizes:
"It’s all about memory through repetition and memory throughout the course of the game."

In-depth statistical analysis of the NCAA and NIT tourneys.

Even Bill Simmons is thinking like a coach. He wants details, man. Details about the inner game of statistical analysis. Simmons, like yours truly, was at the MIT Sloan Sports Business Conference, and the Sports Guy was seeking answers:
"I want to know Wade's percentages on contested, wide-open and clock-saving threes. I want to know how many uncontested jumpers LeBron creates for teammates. I want "mega-assists" (passes that create a layup or a dunk) and "half-assists" (for each made foul shot). I want "unforced turnovers," like in tennis (Tony Allen would be Wilt Chamberlain in this category), and "nitty-gritties" (some combination of charges taken, deflections, balls saved from going out of bounds and rebounds tipped to teammates). I want "Unselds" (a long outlet pass that leads to an assist for a layup or a dunk) and "Russells" (a blocked shot directed to a teammate)."

Basketball instituted a 3-point line, a shot clock, replay, and a host of other changes as player development made the game too easy. Now, how about an adjustment in Scrabble?!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Impressions of Mad Basketball

March Madness began again, and depending on one’s interpretation, the forms of the madness were many. Here we take various definitions and break them down:

A state of mental illness, presumably temporary – Ameer Ali’s flagrant flip of Blake Griffin. He did his best to imitate a WWF move, though Blake was wary of his own reaction. It almost appeared that the Griffin beast was subduing himself post-takedown, like he knew what he was getting into.

Ever notice how Blake gets into bits of entanglement and possible scuffles? There is a reason, though contorted and borderline insane, that an opposing player may rack someone in the (Bill Raftery) onions. I suppose Griffin is used to situations like that since nobody can stop him and he aggravates defenders beyond belief. I see a bit of Rodman in him – ferocious and frustration generating – mixed with Lebron – mightily skilled and unyielding at the hint of resistance. His breakaway dunk on Saturday? Look out below, and watch out for onions…

A feeling of intense anger – Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald after his unnoticed or ungranted attempt to call at T.O. in the last second of the game against Gonzaga. He was glaringly perturbed, as we saw from his mouthing of that is “B-S!” while pointing at the ref who failed to acknowledge his plead.

Unrestrained excitement – The outcome of the Gonzaga lay-in made one of the Bulldog players’ quite enthused. His plyometric-like two feet bounding exercise that caused his knees to come all the way up to his ears – about 10 times in a row – was astounding. He had to have been sore the next day. Well deserved though, for sure. I believe a Siena player mirrored the same image, in just about the same area on the sideline. Perhaps a Saint was watching over that spot?

How about the final games of each night? Like the basketball world was waiting for excitement to build all at the same time… on Friday, the first O.T. game of the tourney coupled with another one, and, of course, a second extra period in the first Siena game where “we want Moore” nailed the two crucial 3-pointers that had Albany rocking.

Extra anger and frustration – this from the viewer’s perspective. Why can’t CBS try to figure out how to stagger starts of games so that when there are three or four games ending all in unison – and each is fewer than a 5-point margin – that we are able to watch them all in full? Would that not increase the viewing pleasure and ratings rather than having to open two laptops to access the free Madness package online? Or get out the iPhone app and hold a close game in one’s palm? Argh.

Overflowing with eagerness – getting to see North Dakota State’s Woodside go toe-to-toe with Kansas’ Collins. Talk about a shootout. And a fundamentally expert one at that. Yes, they can both catch-and-score, but their individual moves and the way each of them draws attention from the D is fascinating. Tight inside-outs, stop-and-go’s, crossovers, and the ability to finish. Woodside had 37 on 13-of-23 shots. Collins was 12-for-26 for 32 points. Though the latter finished with 8 dimes and only 2 TO’s… plus a big man who made up for any miscues – the same center who managed a rare tournament triple-double two days later, with 10 blocks mind you.

Maybe many were not, but I was intrigued by the Syracuse-Arizona State game, a contest that featured two zone defenses. One that is a traditional 2-3 and a Boeheim staple. Another that is a Sendek standard, an aggressive matchup – one that looks like man-to-man at times. Who said a game with a slower pace wouldn’t feature scoring? The final was 78-67 and five Orangemen reached double figures. And how about Boeheim's backing of Sendek's N.C. State release?
“I thought somebody was pretty stupid and somebody was pretty smart,” Boeheim said. “I’m not going to mention which one.”
Speaking of being mad, did James Harden’s stock sink in three days? If scouts are looking at scoring, then yes. He had 10 points in the biggest game of his career, and six of them came from the charity stripe. The game before, versus Temple, produced practically the same stat line, with a 1-point decrement. He averaged 6.5 boards, 4 assists, and 2 steals, but gee. I like his presence and the consistency he creates for his team. If the next level is looking for takeover though, that wasn’t it.

Making madness a mentality – learning about details of individual programs is insightful, like how team identities are created via certain coaches. What may seem unlikely for one team is another’s MO. John Beilein wants to shoot the three – so, that is what they do:
“The most important drill for the Wolverines in practice, not surprisingly, is a 3-point shooting drill. Players take 50 3-pointers in five minutes, and they have to make a certain number to avoid having to run sprints."
Rick Pitino is glued to statistics. The most influential one is the number of deflections his Cardinals create:
“The Cardinals believe success is determined by deflections, a statistic pioneered in part by Pitino. When they reach 35 deflections in a game, they usually win.”
Not sure how many defections they produced against Siena, but it couldn’t have been 35. The Cardinals only generated three steals to the Saints’ eight. And several of the latter teams’ thefts came in that second half span that pulled them ahead. Close call for the Cards, though it was bound to happen with the feistiness and quickness of that caliber backcourt. Look at this seasons’ losing results – a capable Western Kentucky topped them. And Connecticut’s Huskies ran right through their press for a total of 40, yes 40, points in the paint.

Coach K seemed mad with the President’s choosing of the rival Tar Heels, suggesting that there are other matters with which Obama should concern himself… though Coach K did later say he was kidding. If anything, efficiency was the name of Duke in the latest battle against Texas. The Blue Devils shot 50 percent from 3-point range, took 27 free throws, had 8 steals, and only 9 turnovers. The Tar Heels were just behind in those stats even though they play a much faster pace. Who is most economical?

Mad or not, act as if… this from one of the more enlightening articles the past few days. Harvard women’s coach Kathy Delaney-Smith preaches the positive mentality of becoming what you dream, what you imagine yourself being… “Act as if”, she says. It’s a way to believe, to convince oneself to play, to think, to be a certain way…. As if you are champion, a winner, a competitor. She sure is. I had the pleasure of knowing her, coaching her son at camp, and working with one of her players as a performance consultant. It’s nice to know that she worked to get to where she is, that she was driven to learn basketball and figure out how to teach the game to various personalities, and to dedicate her life to education centered around a ball.

The madness continues…

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cutting and Shooting... for TV

So, the other day, a friend of mine points out a story from the New York Times -- a synopsis of what it feels like to make a cameo on a television show. Coincidentally, I now know exactly of what the author speaks. Numb3rs, the CBS Friday night hit now in its fifth season, is often filmed on Caltech's campus -- the premise, not surprisingly, that the profs at the fictional Caltech known as Cal Sci, lay the mathematical groundwork to help solve crimes. As such, the producers contacted us to see if we were interested in having members of the current Caltech team take part in a couple of episodes... and, yes, we followed through. I had the good fortune of collaborating with the producers, directors, and writers as filming happened... and also was asked to play the minor role of Pete, one of the Cal Sci players. Everyone involved presumed this to be a good situation, as I would be able to direct my actual players on the court as the cameras rolled. I took on the role of athlete/actor-coach/director liaison.

What was most intriguing was not the opportunity to be in the show, but to understand what happens on the set. It was much like running a basketball practice. There needs to be structure, a solid plan before starting the day. Communication and organization are imperative as time is of the essence. And directors are able to stop and start and manipulate and move ideas and people around, as if playing a high paced, spontaneous game. If it is necessary to do another take (and many of them at various angles), then the schedule is pushed back. Get it right, then move on. If the marks are missed, if an actor doesn't perform, if emotions get out of control... well, figure it out. Of course, there is no actual game that will occur -- TV can do what it needs to make the resulting production appear perfect. But the process is like a hoops practice. I understand why Numb3rs is in season five. There is a great crew, a professional cast -- like a veteran team who understands the system. Everyone, as Judd Hirsch discussed, knows how to get the best out of the program because there is a solid foundation with effective team chemistry.

The experience paralleled many of the situations written in the NYT, from the personal trailer, to makeup and wardrobe, to standing in a certain place, to the desire to deliver input that requires realistic basketball sequences. It was exciting and educational and the players certainly enjoyed their time being on set with Hollywood actors and the two Lakers. The actual show airs on Friday, March 13 at 10 pm (folks can catch the last episode on that featured a scene with us at the end).

The perfect basketball game, after countless practice time, should be glorious. We'll see what a made-for-television game looks like after hours of cutting and splicing in the editing room...

Monday, March 9, 2009

Analysis with the Aces

Just getting back from the third annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference held at MIT. On the day of the Institute’s men’s basketball team’s historical run into the second round of the DIII NCAA Tournament (more on that later), there was quite a lineup to view inside the intentionally contorted design known as the Stata Center.

For a college basketball coach with an eye for education (and by the looks of the conference list, the sole head coach in attendance), the schedule was quite sensational – a highly anticipated hodgepodge of intellects and athletic aficionados. Always looking beyond basic basketball strategy to fit into personal hoops program philosophy, the panels provided content on psychological research in sport, techniques to utilize statistics that go far beyond basic box scores, and a dearth of hot discussions – many of which were astutely entertaining – from fans’ roles to front office finances to the fortunes of hockey fights.

Jeff Van Gundy mixed in noteworthy, nutty comments with invigorating insight. Marc Cuban played a subdued self, and displayed impressive statistic analytic talk. Daryl Morey paced dialogue with subtle promotion of the Rockets’ reverie. Sonny Vaccaro passionately pleaded for a new look age; specifically, a hopeful time when there is no minimum age limit for NBA players and NCAA student-athletes are able to reap rewards in the form of stipends. Dean Oliver explained, ever so slightly, that everything in basketball is measurable, albeit with enough minds and material. Armond Hill preached the importance of professional leaders and conversed of a commitment to team chemistry – characteristics that allowed the Celtics to clinch last season’s title.

From NBA reporters to ESPN writers to top executives to pro sport’s statistical gurus, this was certainly the place to be for folks searching for numbers and names that go beyond the typical terms we hear and read on a daily basis. The data only substantiated my thoughts about community involvement, competitive practices, group cohesion, creative coaching methods, and countless hours of statistical analysis based on video breakdown and play-by-play. Being crunched into one venue with all of this information and a variety of individuals was very inspiring.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Themes of Teams

It's been quite the unique experience this year -- one that encompassed the completion of a college head coaching season, and the fortune to view another very special program put it all together after years of maturation, sacrifice, and commitment. MIT clinched its first ever NCAA tournament berth with a conference tourney championship today, and I was able to witness the win in person. Knowing what the team has been through and understanding what it took to get to this historical point is extraordinary. Being a part of an exclusive club, one that is dedicated to the highest standards in academics and one that competes on the court, is truly incomparable.

I am very proud to be a piece of that precious moment -- to not only have been through battles alongside the same players, but to also share in the celebration. To have the seniors on the team call me out to the court to cut down a string of net symbolized noteworthy admiration and appreciation. A true team, a group of individuals who epitomize energy, excitement, and work ethic, is what was in Worcester this weekend. Fusion like that does not simply occur. It happens as the result of dedication, discipline, and a distinct understanding of how to maximize every player and coach.

As a spectator, one could recognize the trust and teamwork on the floor. Players were looking for each other, either to drive and kick or help out on defense or recover, box and board... play after play was picturesque from a team standpoint. Although not perfect, there was an overall sense of direction, as if every baller was connected to the same soul. The three seniors commanded competitiveness and underclassmen stepped up in their roles. There was no way the team was to be denied.

Understand that the process was not instant -- it took years of team building and imagining ways to enhance the culture of the program. Unparalleled off season practice, senior leadership, and an unwavering collaborative effort produced a team that otherwise could have been flaky and shaken. Development was apparent and devotion dominated.

Recently, there have been other stories of team building:

Joe Girardi is advanced and aware. He is not afraid to put away the bats and take in some pool.

Kenyon College created a sensational swimming program, one that is both creative and conventional.

The championship run of Trinity College's squash teams is unbelievable -- both in numbers and know how.

In all of these examples, it is shown that a program is in constant construction -- in setting new foundations and constructing stronger ones from what is already solid.

Sometimes, it's amazing how quickly a hired crew can assemble a building -- yet it's more astounding to comprehend the actual time it took to communicate the overall vision and locate the ground to dig.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Development and Devotion - A Program Needs Both

Posting Time

It's been as tough to find time to post as it's been tough to win another game. Since my arrival at Caltech in late September, I have tried to play "catch up" as the program has instituted several new approaches that will hopefully help its development -- everything from new gear to a new recruiting philosophy to community involvement. We have placed an emphasis on enhancing the culture of athletics and forced a focus on commitment. One of the major challenges, as I was told before moving 3,000 miles away from Boston, was the constant issue of maintaining solid practices due to the rigorous Caltech course load and unavoidable, yet unfavorable, sleep patterns. I am proud to say that these have not been noticeable problems. Though many players may stay up much later doing work than the average college student, they also sleep in longer. There has not been an identifiable fatigue factor in practice this year because we emphasized time management and allegiance to our team -- and the responsibilities that accompany the role of being a citizen within our program.

Though one may not be able to tell by the outcomes of our games, we are gradually developing skill sets and evolving as an entire unit. I knew patience and persistence would be values of which to take hold, even tighter than imagined, yet the development (especially of our younger members with no previous experience) is truly fascinating. And the fact that we come back, day after day, for two-plus hours of practice, ready to work and sweat, is a testament to our players' personas and strength.

Keep it Going

This is an exciting time as we anticipate our last half dozen games and await word of our recruiting efforts. It will be our pleasure to host the first men's basketball alumni event this weekend while the university's president and wife serve as our honorary coaches. And, in a couple of weeks, we will honor the six players who will graduate this year in a pre-game ceremony on senior night.

In our best road game this year, and perhaps Caltech's last several years, Travis Haussler scored his 1,000 point -- and it was great to have his father in the stands as he did so. There are so many moments that bring joy to this club, despite not putting up outstanding team numbers. Only one who is with us everyday can truly understand the impact the team and its values have on each individual student-athlete. These are players who make up some of the brightest minds in the world. They go out to compete to the best of their abilities. Can we improve? Absolutely. Especially with a clear vision, an understanding of the system, and tremendous leadership -- from the seniors onto the underclassmen who will take over when a new crop of players arrive in the fall.

Fortune in Southern Cal?

If we're fortunate, we'll eventually have a Jimmy Bartolotta, as we were lucky to get at MIT. He is the consummate competitor and one who will drive a program to be good with a work ethic that cannot be topped. We knew how good he had become -- and now the New York Times does, too. When I first saw Jimmy in a high school video, it was not necessarily his basketball skills that grabbed my attention -- it was his mindset, his leadership, his focus. I could see all of those characteristics in the way he played the game. By the time he came for an overnight visit in Cambridge, we had spoken many times. He already had the basketball knowledge and determination we needed -- he was a true student of the game who had already experienced success in high school. We needed his mental and physical prowess in our program -- I even made a home visit to his house in Colorado to demonstrate our utmost interest in him.

During his first year at MIT, he told me that he wanted to be the best player from the institute -- ever. Well, he has accomplished that. He now has more than 2,000 career points, easily the most by any Engineer, and he also recently set the all-time steals record. Besides those categories, he ranks at the top in almost every other one as well. How many players do you know that shoot over 50 percent -- from 3-point range? Oh, and also are at the top of their conference in blocked shots?

It's not the statistics that tell the whole story, though. It's his attitude and mental toughness. He works more than anyone. He studies film. He reads about competitiveness. He makes others play and practice hard. He will not take "no" for an answer. That is why his team is on its way to the best mark in history.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Beaver Fever is for Real

It took 11 games into the season, but I am fortunate to have been on the sidelines to experience it in action. Yes, Caltech won -- and we did it with focus and energy and an unbelievable crowd.

Why make such a fuss about one basketball game that ended in a W? Because the men's hoops program at the California Institute of Technology had not won a game the past 30 tries.

I have never witnessed such pure passion and undying emotion from a Division III fan base. It seemed as if there were more people scurrying in by the minute as onlookers cheered while trying to sneak text messages to their buddies, writing to them, "You better come to Braun Gym -- something special is happening."

Believe it. To be a part of a program that has not had the opportunity to feel the joy of victory very often, a simple win is a defining moment. We talked about it as a special expereince beforehand -- something we have been working so hard for after playing an extremely tough non-conference schedule that included three top 30 teams and facing other opponents that have won 20 games in a season.

The energy from the stands sparked us. More importantly, the focus of our players -- especially the ones that played 40 minutes -- was indescribable. To feel the emotion, the clutch plays, and the pace of the game as it slowly ticked away -- in an agonizing, yet controllable way -- with us holding onto a 4-point lead as we managed to can free throws (28 of 33 for the game) was a mesmerizing experience. It was almost as if I had imagined it -- after all, I had -- and the work ethic and relationship building we have done since September was shining through, apparent in our players' eyes and body language and eventual celebration.

We were up by as much as 18 and led the entire game. A group of some of the smartest students in the world, many of whom never even played high school basketball, were winning -- and securing -- victory in a college basketball game with courage, resiliency, and sound basketball plays. I was so very proud to be a part of it.

It was for real.

What could be better, you ask?

Winning a conference game...and then another one...

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