Friday, December 10, 2004

Northern League Champs

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As I think I mentioned on Tuesday, we had actually already clinched the league championship by beating Stephens on Monday night, but this was still an important game. As we huddled a few minutes before the opening tip, I reminded the boys that we had an opportunity to accomplish one of our goals -- to win the Northern League championship. I don't think that really was one of our goals, but is sounded good, and no one seemed to mind.

One of our team's greatest strengths is our transition game. I've talked about this before, so I won't dwell on it, but with guards Jesse and Bernard at the top of our defense -- two of the fastest players I've ever coached -- any turnover becomes an instant layup. Beyond those two, however, the entire starting five (plus the first couple guys off the bench) are incredibly athletic. They love nothing more than running. Additionally, they enjoy passing the ball, almost to a fault. It's not out of a selfless desire to create shots for teammates, though. A lot of these boys just like to make crowd-pleasing highlight film passes.

The problem with all of this is that there's a razor thin line between spectacular and careless. During the first quarter of this game we were solidly on the careless side. Part of the problem, also, was that we didn't take Washington seriously. They had already lost two games to teams we had beaten, so I don't think we saw them as any type of threat. Washington took care of the ball fairly well on offense, which limited our transition game, and we were surprizingly confused by their zone. We did a lot of standing around in the half court, choosing to pass around the perimeter of the defense instead of penetrating it with drives or passes. As a result, we took and missed an awful lot of outside shots, and we ended up trailing 15-10 at the end of one quarter of play.

In between quarters, for the first time all season I had nothing positive to say. I scolded them about their poor effort and reminded them of the need to keep the ball and the offense moving. They responded well, outscoring Washington 48-16 the rest of the way.

The most important moment of the game came early in the third quarter. After one of our missed shots rebounded all the way to the free throw line, Stephan somehow managed to get entangled with a Washington player under the basket. I followed the path of the ball, so I didn't see what happened between the two boys, but before I knew it one of the referees whistled Stephan for a technical foul and threw him out of the game. From talking to Stephan and the two referees, it seems that the Washington player had lost his balance and fallen into Stephan. Not realizing that it had been an accident, Stephan responded by swinging his elbow. The referee interpreted it as "a deliberate intent to injure," and explained to me that he had no choice but to send him to the bench for the rest of the game.

At this point, I was the only person in the gym who knew about the decision, so I called Stephan over to me to explain what had happened. I told him that even though I disagreed with the decision, there was nothing we could do about it. Now he had an opportunity to demonstrate his maturity and leadership remaining positive and supporting his teammates. He was completely shocked and extremely upset initially, but he calmed down fairly quickly. After only a few minutes, he was actually smiling on the bench and cheering for the five boys on the floor. I was probably more proud of him then than at any other point in the season.

One last thing. Seconds after the horn sounded, as most of the boys on the team were jumping around on the court and celebrating their league championship, one of the boys (Brandon) came up to me with a complaint. "Why did the same four boys who didn't play last game not get to play this game either?" This is the question that makes me crazy. I made a decision to keep sixteen players on this year's team knowing that it would be a headache. I explained to the boys that their playing time would be limited due to the size of our team, but no one complained. No one complained back then because no one thought that he would be the one losing minutes. Now that the rotation has pretty much been set, there has been some rising discontent.

My first reaction to Brandon was that he wasn't handling the situation very well. Another coach might've been angered by what could perceived to be his selfishness. While his teammates were celebrating, he was worried about playing time. Upon further review, though, I've changed my mind a bit. I played a group of bench players against Stephens, and then I followed the same rotation to get into my bench against Washington. As Brandon mentioned, the same guys sat on the bench in both games. If I had to do it over again, I'd go with some different guys, just to be sure that everyone had a chance to play in one of the games. Live and learn.