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.

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