Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Be Mindful of Coaching Speed and Structure

This article was originally posted on the HoopSpeak Coaches Forum on November 21.

As coaches constantly cultivating our craft, we start out the season with myriad ideas concocted from a long off-season of watching, debating and theorizing. Then we attempt to integrate possible new schemes and skills into our philosophy and overall vision.

Many coaches tend to move fast, not necessarily in their physical movements, but in their teachings. The John Wooden maxim, “Be quick, but don’t hurry” that was intended for player pace has applicability to coaches as well. Coaches who move too quickly – especially when it comes to the implementation of new plays and skills – may end up behind.

According to Dr. Justin Anderson, a sport psychologist for Premier Sport Psychology in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., groups often move too fast without understanding how to connect the dots, specifically between an individuals’ intrinsic motivation, team goals, and players’ roles and responsibilities. “If a team hasn’t thought of or discussed goals, and the coaches haven’t talked about what the overall process is, they are operating without purpose,” says Anderson, “and the team is being served an injustice.”

How well we teach, how organized we are, and how long it takes our players to “get it” varies year to year. No matter what, though, Anderson emphasizes that trust and understanding of purpose exist. Don’t run drills because they look cool or because you think you need a bunch of new ones each day. Those drills might not apply to your philosophy, program, or personnel. Don’t run an offense simply on the basis that it works great for another team. Think about values your players will grasp and how to instill camaraderie. “The team has to understand the ‘why’,” insists Anderson.

We spend hours brainstorming and creating practice plans – and we attempt to stick to the schedule. For many coaches, the plan is printed down to the minute, and their goal is to stay on task. Know that it’s okay to fill up the schedule with everything you hope to get to that day, but understand that drills may be trumped – and those should be noted – to stay on a particular skill set or play until the team is ready to move on. It’s most important, especially in the first month of the season, to make sure everyone gets “it”.

The “it” doesn’t solely refer to plays, moves, and drills, but also goals and roles. Anderson says teams need to have structure in place first, a key to building any organization. From a solid foundation, process goals (i.e., action items) are created which can influence outcomes. For example, rotating and recovering on defense effectively (process) will improve field goal percentage defense (outcome). “It’s all related to the old psychological theory of forming, storming, norming, and performing,” says Anderson. [Briefly, the season begins and a team is created; players jockey for position; a hierarchy related to roles and responsibilities is established; and, theoretically, a team gels and performs at a high level.] “By working with structure, processes, and people, trust is formed and teams operate more efficiently.” And depending on the make-up and experience of the team, these -ing phases are accomplished at varying rates. Teams with seasoned veterans may make it to the norming and performing stages more rapidly than less experienced teams.

Our current Caltech team is light years ahead of where the squad was a couple years ago. It’s early, so players are competing within our system – they’re storming – and some are using skills needed to perform at a high level while understanding their particular roles (norming). We’ve been quick to get to offensive and defensive team play rather than being forced to use practice time for individual development. We hope all of this translates to “performing” quicker than ever once games commence. This season’s roster includes nine juniors – all who were recruited by the current staff – and who the coaches know very well. Prior teams didn’t have that type of experience; therefore, we focused on fundamentals that would eventually become part of our system. One could say we were still storming at the end of the season.

In any case, we thought long and hard as a coaching staff with regards to where we wanted to be a month into the season and highlighted the “why” and “how” of teaching. With varying levels of experience, getting caught up in the execution of three different defenses and a dozen half court sets ignores the people involved and the team as a whole. If we haven’t grasped a concept in practice (e.g. how to screen and seal appropriately or where to go in transition), then we stay with it and save the next drill for the next day.

“Don’t undervalue the concept of team,” suggests Anderson. “A true team is one where all individuals, including coaches, sacrifice and know what works best for the group. It takes a great deal of humility.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mental Toughness Equals Championship

Dirk Nowitzki sums up his motivation for development best:

"If I would have won one early in my career, maybe I would have never put all the work and the time in that I have over the last 13 years," said Nowitzki as he celebrated the championship that came with his Mavericks' 105-95 win in Game 6 of the Finals. "So this feels amazing."

Coach Rick Carlisle talks about the Mavericks' team psyche:

"It's a team that when you view it from afar, it doesn't look like a physically bruising type team," said coach Rick Carlisle of his Mavericks. "So a lot of people don't think we have the grit and the guts and the mental toughness. This is as mentally tough team I've been around."

"His view of the game is so different, and he's savant-like," Carlisle said. "He's just been a thrill and a privilege to spend time with."

Kidd on character and chemistry:

"We just kept playing," Kidd said. "That just shows the character of this team. No matter how old you are, we understood how to play the game, by passing the ball and making sure that we didn't take shots where three or four guys are on you. We just made the extra pass. We didn't care who put the ball in the basket."

Dirk on the team:

“I just think we’re a resilient bunch. This whole series we were down some. This is a win for playing as a team on both ends of the floor,” Nowitzki said. “We never looked as ourselves as soft. We just kept fighting."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Winning with Age

In game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Chicago Bulls led the Miami Heat by 12 with about 3 minutes left in the game.

The Bulls lost. Their average age is about 27 years old.

The Heat, on the other hand, is the oldest team in the NBA with an average age of 30 and some change. Miami is the only team in the league above the 30 year old mean.

In game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder led the Dallas Mavericks by 15 with 5 minutes remaining.

The Thunder lost. Its average is just under 25 years old.

The winning Mavs’ have an average age of about 29 years old. They're the third oldest in the league. (The Lakers are second). When adjusted for playing time, the Mavs become the oldest team, the Heat fourth.

Looking at average NBA experience in years for these teams, the Heat top the group with 8.1 years followed by the Mavericks at 7.3 years. The Bulls are at 5.1 while the fledgling Thunder are at 3.3.

Both conference champions won their series 4-1, and not necessarily by wide margins. The games were super close for most of the quarters. But the Heat and the Mavs closed the games -- and their respective series -- with phenomenal plays, decisions, defense, and overall execution.

The games that ended up being series closing contests -- in disbelief to many -- were prime examples of what age and experience means in the NBA. Historically, teams that win an NBA championship have an average age of at least 28 with just a couple exceptions the last 20 years (the Bulls of 1991 and the Lakers of 2009).

The Heat and the Mavericks are built to win championships. They have firepower. They have superstars. They have experienced players who have been to many a playoff game. They have role players who get excited for their teammates on the court. They’re better on paper when looking at overall weapons. They have sustainability and maturity in them -- and around them -- as a collective unit.

There is no argument that Miami has the personnel -- three all-stars and Olympians synthesized to succeed -- and Chicago has one person in the form of a young superstar still learning how to make himself and everyone around him better (and probably hoping he gets some more teammates who he’ll have an easier time making better).

However, to become a team with a high average age and years of experience, players have to be good enough to stay in the league. And even the players who don’t get into the games (the Heat’s Juwan Howard has hardly seen the floor), are there as true teammates, supporting from the bench, and more importantly, working and teaching and mentoring in practice. What the average fan doesn’t witness is how important those teachings are beyond the 48 minutes of game action.

So, as one may argue face value of average age and compare it with average age adjusted for playing time, it’s very hard to substitute experienced teammates that can pass on vital lessons learned and instruct, player to player, teammate to teammate. Veteran ballers like Miami’s Howard and teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskus. Dallas’ Jason Terry and Shawn Marion. Even Chicago’s Kurt Thomas (who for a couple brief minutes on Thursday looked like Chicago’s savior and series extender with a couple key jump shots). Combine those types of players with the greats of their teams who also have the age-plus-experience-equals-win equation and there exists a solid foundation for success and a mutual understanding of “how to get it done”. To close quarters. To close games. To believe in one another. To push each other in practice.

There is talk of how Miami did not work on offense all that much in the fall. The newest installment of a Big Three, along with its experienced peers, knew the team built to win a championship would have to defend. And defend it has. With quickness and length and buy-in and years of basketball IQ.

Miami has NBA champion and MVP Dwyane Wade as well as another ring bearer in Udonis Haslem.

Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki, an uncanny and prominent closer in his own right who has been through battles (ironically enough, with the Heat in the 2006 Finals), plus so much more in next level leadership.

To have a floor general of Jason Kidd’s stature -- at 38 years old -- who has been to the NBA Finals and enjoyed a stellar -- and what one could call an improving career -- is even more special. Or a 32-year-old Mike Bibby. Even Eddie House, who at 32 has been around winning during his days with the Boston Celtics. It’s noticeable -- he is the first one to cheer on his Heat teammates from the sidelines.

Individual plays are fun. Results from team experience can be even more exciting to watch. Plays are made, especially down the stretch, that take more than just physical ability or athleticism. They are mentally rehearsed, imagined, discussed, analyzed, actively practiced, and integrated. In the best teams, we see a convergence of commitment, trust, communication. and execution. The feel for the game, one’s own and his teammates, keeps the athletically aged spry and, in the case of Dallas and Miami, just damn good.

A tremendous contest awaits. May the best -- or the oldest -- team win.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Random Madness to Wrap your Head Around

No No. 1 seeds this year. And no No. 2 seeds either.

None of the four head coaches with teams in this year's Final Four graduated from Division I institutions. Jim Calhoun played DII at American International College. John Calipari transferred from UNC-Wilmington and played at DII Clarion. Brad Stevens went to DIII DePauw University where he was up for Academic All-America. Shaka Smart played at DIII Kenyon College.

Calhoun is 68 years old. Stevens and Smart are 67 years old, combined.

All of the teams have mascots with four legs.

According to kenpom.com, there is a 58% chance the Wildcats (ranked 4th) will beat the Huskies 70-68 (ranked 11th) ... The Bulldogs (37th) will beat the Rams (50th) 70-68 as well (55% chance).

The Massey Ratings have UConn 4th and Kentucky 5th. Drop to 23rd for Butler and 31st for VCU ... Masseyratings.com says Kentucky is predicted to win 71-69 against UConn (win probability 54%) ... Butler is predicted to win 70-69 against VCU (win probability 52%).

Kenpom.com lists VCU with the highest average experience of the Final Four teams at 2.17 (48th nationally). Butler = 2.02 (76th nationally); Kentucky = 1.16 (312th); UConn = .95 (332nd) ... there are 345 teams ranked ... Kansas was 82nd. Ohio St. was 220th. The tournament team with the most experience was Wofford, ranked 2nd at 2.71.

In possession usage rate, three seniors (point guard Joey Rodriguez, forward Jamie Skeen, and wing Brandon Rozzell) lead the way for VCU. Butler uses junior guard Shelvin Mack as its go-to guy and senior forward Matt Howard as a significant contributor ... Kentucky's freshman big Terrence Jones is its go-to while frosh point guard sensation Brandon Knight leads as a major contributor. UConn's junior combo guard Kemba Walker is the go-to for the Huskies and freshman guard Shabazz Napier is a significant contributor.

VCU wants to set the pace against Butler. The Rams play with the highest tempo of the four and do better with speed. They need to score 70-plus points to win. Butler, on the other hand, doesn't like teams to get that much. Of its nine regular season losses, seven of them occurred when the other team scored 69 or more points.

Kentucky can play fast, too. And it is the best shooting team and best defensive team of the four (effective field goal percentage on offense = 52.7 ... eFG% defense = 44.2).

All four have stood out in full court conversion opportunities and half court execution, with VCU being the most impressive. A team that is so good playing fast isn't always spectacular in the half court (e.g., the Washington Huskies, according to Kenny Smith). The Rams, though, have been able to speed it up and score off makes, misses, and steals AND they can be patient with their sets. They set screens, they enter to the post, they cut hard, and they share the ball. Watch for a spin and immediate backdoor cut with the shot clock winding down ... or a back-to-back pick-and-roll to get off a shot opportunity.

Players to watch:

Hard hat, lunch bucket = Matt Howard

Heat check = Brandon Rozzell

Cool calm = Brandon Knight (and a 4.3 high school GPA to boot)

Game time = Kemba Walker in one game, Shelvin Mack in the other

“Right now he's as good of a player in the country, midrange jump shot, he can make threes. To me he's the most valuable player in the United States,” Calhoun said. “So when I recruited him, I thought I was going to get a quick New York City point push guard, defender, all that type of thing. And he's evolved into even more than that.”
"You have to tell him to take days off," the coach said Monday. "Here is how hard he works and how important I think it is: If we have a time limit on an open practice, we'll stop early so he can get his shots up individually because I know how much it means to him."
Last year, it was all "all mental" for the Kansas Jayhawks. Looks like it was this year, too ... mainly because VCU drained them with everything it had in its own tank.

What does it take to make it this far?

Butler has shown what experience can do. And belief stemming from a team's ability to manage adversity during the season.

Stevens speaks:
“I think the teams that play the best basketball in the tournament are the teams that have a chance to win the tournament,” Stevens said. “It doesn't matter where you're from or how big your football program is or how much money is in your athletic department. It's about a group of kids coming together that five guys play on a court a once hopefully believing together that give you a great shot to compete.
“I think VCU and Butler played with a lot of pressure in January and February,” Stevens said. “When you get into the tournament, that pressure may flip a little bit. We're playing loose, we're playing for the first time in a lot of ways in a couple months where you've already been playing basically where you feel like you can't lose. So you're already used to that.

“So the NCAA tournament is a welcome. I think both teams have played really, really well because of that. Certainly they've got a lot more reasons than that. They are a loaded team that is really well‑coached.”
Calhoun said after the Final Four clinching win that he loves being around this year's team and has thoroughly enjoyed coaching it. His assistant Kevin Ollie says Calhoun is the toughest guy he knows.

Suite101 - "This year's Cinderella team, the No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth Rams, is no fluke. They earned their berth in the Final Four with four impressive offensive performances and a lot of mental toughness."

Boston Herald - "Ambition is in ample supply at Butler. Likewise, physical and mental toughness."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Winning the Madness

Just enjoyed a full four days of the 2011 version of Division 1 March Madness. Great games for sure. And fabulous finishes, at least from a fan's perspective. Oh, the feeling of a winning end of a game-ending play ... or, yuck, the losing end of a play gone bad. The closing seconds of many games today, especially the close ones where plays were made for the best -- or not-made for the worst -- got me thinking: better offense or better defense?

(explorations and explanations utilize game box scores and kenpom.com for statistical references)

Sunday's examples:

1) With 5 seconds in the game, Washington was down just a point as it attempted to inbound the ball on its own baseline; however the pass was deflected and the ball stolen by North Carolina. UNC went on to sink two free throws and win by 3. The Huskies never got a great shot off because of the difficulty it had with the inbounds play.

FACTORS: UNC is ranked 8th in defensive efficiency. UW is ranked 9th in offensive efficiency but had 13 total turnovers, only attempted 7 free throws (made all 7), and shot a lower FG% than the Tar Heels (45.8% to 47%). Carolina shot 78% from the stripe but went to the line 23 times.

PRESSURE COOKER: Washington never got a great shot attempt in the end and had trouble scoring in its half court offense throughout, while Carolina did its thing on O and stepped up on D = defense created offense.

2) After being down 15 points midway through the second half, Michigan roared back to challenge Duke. Hardaway, Jr. scored 7 straight to bring the Wolverines to within 1 point with 1:18 left. A Blue Devils offensive rebound off a missed jumper led to an Irving jumper off the glass. Morris scored for Michigan then had to foul Smith with 9 ticks remaining. Smith made the first but missed the second. Morris then missed a running floater in the paint as time expired.

FACTORS: Duke's offensive efficiency is ranked 4th while its defensive efficiency is 3rd. Michigan's OE is 29th. DE is 33rd. Duke grabbed 9 offensive rebounds to Michigan's 4. Duke shot 72% from the free throw line while Michigan shot nearly 91 percent - but the Blue Devils went 25 times compared to 11.

PRESSURE COOKER: Both teams scored to keep it tight, then Duke missed free throw to pave a 3-point victory while Michigan missed good shot in lane -- non-contested -- to send it to OT = better offense sealed outcome, defense set the tone (Duke's perimeter D from the outset clamped down on Michigan's perimeter-minded attack ... the defensive tone was set but who was going to find openings?).

3) After a series of offensive boards and a made free throw by Williams with 2:01 left, Arizona was tied with Texas at 67 a piece. Brown hit a jumper for the Longhorns with 1:07 remaining and then prevented the Wildcats from scoring for another minute. Texas had possession on the baseline after a timeout, up 69-67. All the Longhorns had to do was inbound and take care of the ball, but they were called for 5 seconds. Arizona inbounded and found Williams off a pick and roll, he scored off a strong take and got fouled in the process. He made his free throw. Texas got a final layup off but it missed.

FACTORS: Arizona is ranked 18th in offensive efficiency, 10th in effective field goal percentage. Texas is 21st in OE and 4th in DE -- with a ranking of 5 on defensive eFG%. Zona shot 8 of 14 from 3-point range (57.1%) and had 2 more offensive boards than Texas.

PRESSURE COOKER: Wildcat defense stopped Longhorn inbounds play -> big time; Wildcat offense scored on Longhorn defense = defense allowed offense to be created.

4) With the scored knotted at 59 each, Syracuse had control on its own sideline but a miscue with its inbounds pass gave the ball away. Marquette regained possession and made the most of it by nailing a 3-pointer with 27 seconds left. The 'Cuse missed a 3 and Marquette sealed the game with four free throws.

FACTORS: Syracuse (no. 3 seed), statistically, is a better team, but on this night 11th seeded Marquette made 19 of 23 free throws (compared to 5 of 7 from the Orange). The Golden Eagles grabbed 11 O-boards to the Orange's 4. Syracuse had 18 turnovers. Marquette beat Syracuse earlier this season, too.

PRESSURE COOKER: Marquette got after it and created opportunities with rebounds and steals. Syracuse shot 55.3% from the field but other than that, it lost in every other offensive category = defense created offense ... and offense created offense for Marquette.

It's a hodgepodge of plays and stats and ranks. What is influential is how the climactic plays in three games, the ones that swayed the outcomes, came from suffocating defense that prevented great offense. UNC's deflection and steal. Arizona's forced 5-second count. Marquette's coerced backcourt violation. What is striking is all of these key turnovers that led to game-sealing points came from inbounds plays.

So, who from these winners has the best chance to win the whole tournament?

If data from the last six years is any indication, then none of them. Not Duke, North Carolina, Arizona or Marquette.

All signs point to THE Ohio State University. OSU is No. 1 in offensive efficiency. It has only lost two games this year, both in conference, and destroyed its two tourney opponents. The Buckeyes are No. 2 in eFG% and No. 7 in turnover percentage. Defensively, they are No. 6 in defensive efficiency and ranked No. 1 in opponent free throw rate. All of this means good luck stopping OSU and good luck scoring on them. Even attempting a foul shot is difficult.

Wisconsin is a slim possibility because of its No. 2 OE and No. 1 TO%.

Duke has an OE at No. 4 and a DE at No. 3.

San Diego State is No. 2 in DE and No. 7 in opponent eFG%.

The overall deciding factor: of the last six D1 NCAA champions, four of them finished the season ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency: Duke (2010), UNC (2009), Florida (2007), and UNC (2005).

The other two years of the previous six? The champion was 2nd in offensive efficiency: Kansas was No. 2 in in 2008; Florida was No. 2 in 2006.

Additionally, the 2008 Jayhawks, though not first in OE, were No. 1 in defensive efficiency and No. 5 in eFG%.

The 2006 Gators were No. 5 in defensive efficiency and No. 2 in eFG%.

The last seven NCAA winners finished with an overall rating -- offense and defense factors combined -- of at least No. 2 (FIVE were No. 1 overall).

Lesson: if you are not No. 1 in offensive efficiency, then you better be No. 2. And if you happen to be No. 2, you better have a ranking of at least 5 in another significant category to raise the overall stat. Otherwise, you'll lose ... if you are lucky enough to get to the championship. Of the runners-up in those six years, none had a ranking of 2 in either offensive or defensive efficiency. Plenty of 3's and 4's though.

Taking 2004 and 2003 champs into consideration, it looks like the second half of the decade has gone to the teams at the very top of the rating system. Connecticut won in 2004 with an OE ranking of 4, a DE of 5, and an OBoard% of 3 ... so, three categories were a No. 5 ranking or better but none at Nos. 1 or 2.

Prior to that, Syracuse, who was No. 7 overall in kenpom.com rank, won in 2003 with OE at 11 and DE at 19. But the Orange had Carmelo Anthony -- and he must be considered an outlier ...

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Journey

As one may guess, the last few months have been, well, exciting ... and the last few days have been, well, extremely exhilarating. The journey to Tuesday, February 22 included every possible emotion. I'm grateful to be able to work with so many wonderful people and want to thank all of the supporters of Caltech and the men's basketball program. It's been quite an experience to meet and talk to so many new folks over the last couple of days. What our current program has accomplished in only a couple years is the result of commitment, collaboration, and confidence. To continue to battle day in and day out is the ultimate head game. I couldn't be prouder of our players ... More thoughts to come.

You can follow the story and aftermath on the Caltech Basketball Blog and Facebook Fan Page.

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