Monday, January 16, 2017

It's All About the D Part 2 - Relentless (Recap of Ole Miss vs. South Carolina)

Later on in the day after our team won our first basketball league game of the season, Matt and I went to the Ole Miss-South Carolina Men's Basketball Game Saturday night.  Our day ended as it started - with tenacious defense.

It was to be expected to see tenacious defense with the Gamecocks.  They entered the game in the top five in the country in several defensive categories; second in turnover percentage at 25.2%, third in two point field goal defense percentage at 40.4 percent, fifth in three point field goal defense percentage at 28.4 percent and first in the country in effective field goal defense percentage at 41.1 percent.  

This is Frank Martin's fifth season at the helm of the Gamecocks.  He started at USC at the same time, I did, the summer of 2012.  I had always appreciated his Kansas State teams' defense.  It took him a while, but starting with his 2014-15 team,  the Gamecocks started playing very good defense.  After inheriting Darrin Horn's team that didn't have much talent, Martin's teams started improving their record season after season.  Last season,the Gamecocks went 25-9, including 11-7 in SEC play.  Only an upset in the SEC Quarterfinals to Georgia 65-64 kept them from making the NCAA Tournament, despite having beaten eventual NCAA Tournament team Vanderbilt in their only regular season contest.

This season, the Gamecocks started off strong, winning their first eight games, including a neutral site win over Syracuse and home wins over Michigan and Vermont (don't laugh, they're in first place in the America East at 5-0 and 14-5 overall).  Then Sindarius Thornwell, the Gamecocks leading scorer and first team all SEC defensive player last season, was suspended for eventually six games for violating team policy.   The Gamecocks struggled without Thornwell, going 3-3 with two close losses to Seton Hall and Clemson, along with a thrashing at Memphis.

But Thornwell came back for the start of SEC play and it was like South Carolina hadn't missed a beat.  First they won at Georgia 67-61, holding the Bulldogs to thirty eight percent from the field, four of thirteen from beyond the arc and forced sixteen Bulldog turnovers.  Last season, the Gamecocks lost all three games they played versus the Bulldogs.

Then came a hard earned, come from behind win at home vs. Texas A&M 79-68, where they forced the Aggies to commit twenty five turnovers, which gave South Carolina thirteen more shot attempts. Finally, the Gamecocks traveled to Tennessee and downed the Volunteers 70-60.  South Carolina forced twenty two Tennessee turnovers and held the Volunteers to thirty nine percent from the field and unseemly one of eleven from beyond the arc.

So in three SEC games, the Gamecocks forced sixty three turnovers, an average of twenty one per game.  Watching them play against Ole Miss, it's easy to see why.

First, the Gamecocks starting five; Duane Notice, Thornwell, PJ Dozier, Mark Kotsar and Chris Silva have length.  Notice is the shortest at six foot two, but he's a solidly built two hundred and twenty five pounds.  Thornwell is six foot five, Dozier six foot six, Kotsar six foot ten and Silva six foot nine.  Length matters folks.

Second, the Gamecocks contest every dribble, every pass, every shot. South Carolina is eleventh in the country in steal percentage and it was evident early on as Ole Miss turned the ball over five times in five and a half minutes.   Ole Miss, who was missing their leading scorer, Deandre Burnett, due to injury, would only score two points in the first six and a half minutes.  It was due in large part to the tenacious South Carolina defense, as the Gamecock defenders would pick up their man right after the ball was inbounded and they trapped Ole Miss at half court.  Kotsar was particularly impressive early on, grabbing rebounds and adding a block shot.

But the Gamecocks couldn't take full advantage of their defense, missing on twelve of their first fourteen field goal attempts, Dozier made USC's first two field goals, including a three pointer he was fouled on.  Dozier hit the free throw for the four point play and four other free throws by Thornwell and Silva gave South Carolina the early 10-2 lead.

Ole Miss would score the next five points to cut the lead to three, 10-7.  The Rebels would stick around within three for a good part of the first half.  Finally with South Carolina up 25-20, the Gamecocks went on a 9-0 run, with Dozier and Silva combining for eight of the points, to end the first half up 34-20.   South Carolina held Ole Miss scoreless for the last four minutes of the first half and held the Rebels to twenty six percent shooting in the first half.  USC forced fourteen Ole Miss turnovers in the first half, but didn't fully take advantage as they committed eight of their own.

At halftime, the Gamecocks honored their Rhodes Scholar, Jory Fleming, who has a perfect GPA and also has autism.  Jory has been the subject of several, wonderful national news pieces.  Jory was given several gifts, including an autographed football helmet given to him personally by USC football coach, Wil Muschamp.  It was a touching ceremony and the 15,000 in attendance gave Jory a standing ovation.

At the start of the second half, South Carolina outscored Ole Miss 7-1 to go up twenty, 41-21.  The lead was 46-28 with 13:56 left after two Silva free throws. Both teams would not score for nearly three minutes until two more free throws by dynamic USC reserve Rakym Felder, who scored twelve points off the bench in the contest.  

The Gamecocks lead would swell to twenty five, 61-36.   The Rebels would outscore the Gamecocks 20-6 the rest of the way but not before actually having four players on the court with four fouls each.  South Carolina would win the game 67-56.

The game was not pretty for the most part.  Ole Miss turned the ball over twenty one times, keeping with the average the Gamecocks have forced on a SEC game basis.  But South Carolina turned the ball over twenty times themselves.  Both teams shot under thirty seven percent from the field.  USC went to the line and had thirty one free throw attempts, almost hitting as many free throws, twenty two, as Ole Miss had attempts, twenty three.

At the end, it was an ugly but effective win for South Carolina.  At 4-0, they are right in the thick of things in SEC play.  They need to improve on their offensive sets, but after watching their defense play for forty minutes, I can tell their future SEC opponents that one word sums up the Gamecocks defense.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

It's All About the D (Part I)

I make this confession now. I love defense in sports.  Being a baseball coach, I love when the teams I have been a coach for play terrific defense.  There's nothing better than a nicely turned double play.  One of the true joys of my life was when my older son Matthew caught a fly ball in center field, then threw a strike home on the fly to his teammate/catcher/friend Eli who tagged out the potential tying run tagging from third for a game ending double play to win a travel ball championship.

As a basketball fan, I love watching teams play defense.  Whether it was Jay Wright's stifling man-to-man defense while coaching at Hofstra or Nolan Richardson's "40 minutes of hell" at Arkansas or Shaka Smart's VCU "Havoc", those teams dictated the tempo.  Their defense inspired their team's offense. 

Yesterday was the story of three teams; two that did well, and in the case of my alma mater, one not so much. And it was all about the defense.  This is part one of two stories about yesterday.

My older son Matt got the basketball bug on my birthday nearly six years ago.  As a favor to me, he came with me to William and Mary vs. Hofstra game. He got hooked after Charles Jenkins' heroics in regulation and overtime propelled the pride to a come from behind victory.  After that, he went to a lot of men's and women's college basketball games with me, especially in the 2011-12 season, where I covered fifty nine division one men's basketball games for the Mid Majority and my site. 

 For the past three winters, Matt has played basketball.  He's a guard with a nice shooting touch and plays on a church team, Trenholm Road United Methodist, with several friends, many of whom he has known for several years from baseball and school.  His head coach, my friend, Brad Painter, who I've coached with in baseball for several seasons, and whose son Jack is also on the team, was an all state basketball player in South Carolina and played college basketball at Wofford.  Until this past season, Brad had the record for the highest free throw shooting percentage in a season at Wofford.   Matt, his teammates, and I, who is one of his two assistant coaches, have learned a lot from Brad, especially on set offenses.

On Thursday, the entire team's parents got an email that said "We play this Saturday at 8:30 AM at North Trenholm again.  Coach Gary Moore will be leading us, as I have to work" (Brad is a pediatrician).

Oh boy.

We had travel baseball practice later on Thursday evening and I asked Brad. "I saw the email.  You want to have a beer and go over the offenses etc."   He said "Nah, you'll be fine.  The team knows what to do."  

I was like "OK".   Meanwhile, my mind is saying "Careful for what you wish for".

I've been writing about college basketball since December, 2005.  I've seen more than my fair share of men's and women's college basketball games at all different levels over the past eleven plus years.  I've seen the preparation, work and in game adjustments that my good friend, Seton Hall Women's Basketball Coach Tony Bozzella has done successfully coaching teams like LIU Brooklyn, Iona and Seton Hall.  I've seen the work put in firsthand by Brad.  In fact, Matt was on another team last season, when we got smoked by Brad's team.  Brad's team put on a clinic in offensive set fundamentals.

When Matt started playing basketball, I had no coaching aspirations whatsoever.  I just wanted to be a parent, especially given that I had been his baseball coach in one way or another since he was five.   But when Matt joined Brad's team this season, Brad needed help coaching.  So I volunteered.  

It's been a learning experience for Matt and his teammates.  They have moved up to 6th and 7th grade level teams.  The kicker is, a number of the players, including Jack Painter, are fifth graders and the rest of them are 6th graders.  Based on experience, we may likely be the youngest team in the league.  And it showed the first two games, playing more experienced teams with mostly 7th graders and more importantly, taller teams.  We got beat pretty good the first two games.   

However, the last two games were tough, tough losses. We had leads in both games and lost late in the games, especially the last game, where we lost by a point, missing a jumper at the end that would have won the game.   That last game was a week before Christmas Eve and the league was off until the new year.  We won a scrimmage against another team in another league on January 2nd, but our game last week was canceled due to the threat of snow and ice, neither of which came about.  So our team hadn't played an official game in nearly a month.

While we had baseball practice Thursday, during a break at my station, I checked the Hofstra-Elon men's basketball score.   Elon was ahead at the half  50-34,  Hofstra had given up its fair share of points so far this season, giving up eighty plus points several times, including ninety six in front of a nationally televised audience to Kentucky.  But Elon had done something that not even Kentucky did, score 50 points against Hofstra in a half.  Elon would eventually win the game 96-80, marking the third time Hofstra gave up ninety or more points this season.

Thursday evening, I sat in my bed, thinking about how I wanted us to play, especially on defense.  Brad had taught the team the 1-3-1 half court trap, affectionately known by us as "Texas" (think about it for a second and you will realize why it's called "Texas").   We play that often in games, but not an entire game.  Usually we play a bit of 2-3 zone, some man to man and a good amount of "Texas" (our church league rules only allow you to press/double team at half court until two minutes left in the game).

Then I thought about how Hofstra always plays a passive 2-3 zone.  I have never been a big fan of the 2-3 zone, especially how Hofstra plays it.  It only works if you are active with zone movement,  have length, especially at the wings and point position and you can move to the shooter quickly.  Syracuse has always been successful because their players have length, are active and close on shooters well.  

However, zone defenses are susceptible to teams that shoot the three well.  It's one thing for us at the 6th grade/7th grade level to play zone, because most players at that level can't shoot the three consistently.  It's another thing at the college level.  And nowadays, every college team shoots the three for the most part and players especially like shooting the three, thanks to Steph Curry.

So unless you're Syracuse, as far as a college team, you should play either man to man or 1-3-1 trap.  Elon shot sixty percent from three against Hofstra Thursday night.  In fact, heading into their game against UNCW on Saturday, in their previous four straight losses, the Pride allowed teams to shoot a combined 39 of 80 from beyond the arc (49 percent).   Each team they lost to; William and Mary, James Madison, Charleston and Elon, all shot higher than their season percentage from beyond the arc.

So while doing a bad job of going to sleep, I thought about Hofstra's passive zone and decided we're playing Texas.  We're going to dictate the pace.  We're playing forty minutes of Havoc!

I texted Brad my plan early Saturday morning.  He was fine with that and he also told me to remind the team that we can press with two minutes left in the game. 

North Trenholm Baptist Church or NTBC for short, where we play most of our games, is not even five minutes from our house by car.   I had been to NTBC several times over the years, because the good folks there host several end of the spring invitational baseball tournaments and TLL has had several teams play in that tournament.  Matt has had a lot of fun playing in those NTBC baseball tournaments.

Matt and I were the first ones there.  The other players started showing up and we first went through free throw shooting drills and then eventually we had layup lines.  We have a ten player team and all ten players were there.  As the players were shooting layups, Phil, our other assistant coach, whose son Jackson plays on the team (also I work with his wife Michelle), and I talked about the game plan.  I said we're going to play 40 minutes of Texas against our opponents, which happened to be NTBC.  He said that sounds like Nolan Richardson and Arkansas.  I responded, "Yeah I know, but I didn't want to say "Forty minutes of hell!" in a church!  We both laughed and agreed.

As I looked at the game clock, I had forgot that we only played twelve minute halves.  So, OK, it would be twenty four minutes of Texas.

As the buzzer sounded announcing the start of the game, the teams joined together at center court as the NTBC head official gave a talk about good sportsmanship and then we all joined in prayer.  Then I got the team into a huddle and told them the game plan.  We're playing "Texas" the entire game, hands up the entire time on defense, look for the man on the block on offense and rebound/box out.  We have two squads of five that we shuttle in and out every two minutes and I told them we were keeping to that.   I made one change.  The squad that had been playing as the second five would be the starting five today.   Both squads were of equal talent, so it didn't matter. 

We scored the first two baskets quickly.  NTBC got a basket to make it 4-2.  We scored the next five straight points and made it 9-2 after Matt hit a free throw, then Bryson stole a pass, drove down the court and fed Jack Painter for a pretty layup.   We were aggressive to the ball on defense and offensively we were having our best game.  Our defense was creating fast break opportunities, our point guards were finding open players, we were making our layups and unlike our previous games, we hit our open shots.  If we didn't hit a shot, we crashed the boards and made the best of our second chance opportunities. Every two minutes, I made a full hockey line change of five players in, five players out.

As for my coaching style,  I would yell out "Good play" to our players when we made a nice play.  If we took a good shot but missed, I tried to say "That's OK. Good shot."  When I could yell out advice to a player, I did, whether it was shot selection, positioning or whatever.  But it was always positive

My favorite moment was when, near our bench, Matt clearly fouled a player by extending his arms out blocking the opponent from driving to the basket.  After the ref blew the whistle and made the foul call, I immediately told Matt what he did wrong and how he should have played defense there.  Then I turned to the ref and said "Good call, ref."  The ref replied "Thank you, coach."

Towards the end of the half, we were getting complacent and not boxing out or crashing the boards.  I called timeout and asked the team what were we not doing.  Immediately, our one squad's point guard, Thomas, who reminds me of Jose Juan Barea in stature, talent, shooting ability and confidence, said "We're not rebounding and we're not boxing out".  So they knew and I just told them to fix it.

At the half, we were up 22-6.   The second half pretty much went the same way.  Early on in the second half, in a teaching moment, I put Jack Painter, normally the point guard for the second squad, in for Bryson and moved Jack to wing with Thomas at point.  Free from having to play point, Jack went off offensively, scoring at will, including nailing an open three pointer, which I told the guys not to do.  But it was off a nice pass and he was open, so even though I grabbed my head in a little frustration, I dealt with it.  Bryson then would come off the bench and played outstanding as the point guard for the second team, aggressively driving the lane, either firing bounce passes or driving to the basket and getting fouled. 

The highlight of the second half was Jack Painter making a perfect entry bounce pass on the block to Jonathan, who's been our best player lately.  Jonathan pivoted, and as he banked the ball off the board for the layup, got fouled for the "And one".  He would hit the free throw for the three point play.  It was beautiful. 

Everybody on the team scored; I already noted Jonathan, Bryson and Jack Painter for their play, Thomas was electric at the point, Jacob, who was a second chance scoring dynamo, Jack Moseley who must have had double figures in rebounding, Franklin, who hit a nice jumper, Jackson who made some open shots and fed players with nice passes, and Alex, who is equal to Jack in size and also has a nice free throw line jumper.  Finally, Matt had three baskets and a free throw.  They all had big games.  All the little things you want to see in a game - free throws were being made, help defense, loose ball hustling, boxing out; all those things occurred.   

With six minutes left in the game and the outcome a certainty, we switched to a 2-3 zone.   When we got the ball with a minute left, I told Bryson, "Dribble it out, Don't take a shot".  Bryson relayed the message to the team and dribbled the ball out.  I turned to the ref, since there was no shot clock by league rules and said "We're dribbling it out. No more shots."  He nodded his head and at right the end, the other team stole the ball but time ran out.

We had our first league win of the season.  I was so happy for the team.  You can coach all you want, but it comes down to the team executing.  They did an outstanding job of that and they finally showed the talent they possess with an all around, convincing win.

After the game, my friend and ever the kidder Chris Moseley, whose son Jack, an amazing baseball player, has been friends with Matt since Chris had the good sense of blind picking Matt for his eventually undefeated Trenholm Little League Championship Coach Pitch Baseball team, the Moseley Builders' Blue Thunder.  Chris said to me "Good job, Bobby, you didn't throw any chairs!" I don't remember what I said, but I laughed, because I know how intense I can be.

When I got home later, I found out it was Chris' birthday.  So I texted him and said "We got you a win on your birthday!"  He responded with a LOL and "Thanks, Coach!"

After the game, I brought the team over by the stairs into the stands and showed them the score, told them they could do this regularly, how everyone contributed and how proud I was of everyone.  Finally, I reminded them we had practice tomorrow at 4:00 PM.

Afterwards, I texted Brad the score and told him later on a phone call that I was retiring and returning to be an assistant coach.  It was a great experience for me but I am happy having Brad, who taught me so much, coaching the team.   I'm quite happy being just an assistant. 

But it is something I will always remember.  And it all started deep in the heart of "Texas".