Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Best Team in Our League


As I sat at the coaches meeting last month and looked at our schedule for the first time, I figured that our season would be defined by this game against Hughes. I wasn't completely sure how good our team would be, and I had no idea how much talent Hughes would have, but I was fairly certain that our game with them would be a good one. I was right.

There were two things I wanted to focus on during Tuesday night's practice, our last chance to get ready for Hughes. First, we needed to go over our press a little bit. We run a 2-2-1 press, which places our guards up near the free throw line, forwards at half court, and center back deep as a safety. When we ran it against Bancroft in our first game, it was successful because of our huge advantage in athleticism, not because we knew what we were doing. When we played a better team in our second game, Hoover was able to easily navigate the press by finding the gaps and seems left unprotected. As a result we tired quickly and abandoned the press early in the second half.

I never considered scrapping the press altogether; it just needed to be fixed. I believe strongly (and John Wooden agrees) that defense should be played from baseline to baseline, mainly because it makes the game more fun to watch and more fun to play. The problem, though, is that you need a stable of athletes to implement this style of play, and I haven't always had that. This year's team is insanely athletic, so it would be a crime not to press -- we'd just have to learn to do it right.

My second point of emphasis Tuesday afternoon had to do with our offense. I know the Hughes coach fairly well, well enough to know that his favorite defense is a 1-3-1 zone, common at the high school level, but extremely rare for middle school. We spent about forty-five minutes installing an offense to counter that zone. Practice went well, so I was hoping for good things on Wednesday.

The game started out slowly for us. Using a 2-3 zone on defense, Hughes jumped out to an early 12-6 lead. Our press looked a bit spotty, and my assistant suggested scrapping it, but I chose to keep the faith. Almost immediately, the press began paying divendends in the form of turnovers and easy buckets. We trailed by a basket at the end of the first quarter and quickly jumped out to a ten-point advantage midway through the second. Just when it looked like we were ready to run away and hide, Hughes took a timeout and switched into the 1-3-1 we had been waiting for. (They actually played four different defenses during the game, clearly the mark of a well-coached team.)

Not surprizingly, their version of the 1-3-1 was an awful lot better than the makeshift one we put together in the previous night's practice, so it took a while for us to adjust. Eventually, though, we were able to get the ball into the corners, either to Jesse or Raynard, or to the high post where Derek or Koko could distribute the ball. By halftime our two-point defecit had turned into a two-point lead, but it felt like we had lost an opportunity take control of the game.

At halftime I stressed that we had played well the entire half and that I expected the press to be even more devastating in the second half. I was right. The 2-2-1 is a passive press in the sense that the defense waits for errant passes rather than actively trying to steal the ball. As the game goes on, the press usually becomes more effective simply because of the mental and physical strain it exacts upon the offense, and so it was tonight. We won the third quarter by ten points, and were it not for a flurry of Hughes three-pointers midway through the fourth, the final margin would've been close to twenty points.

There was one play from the game that sticks out, and it happened early in the fourth. Jesse took a defensive rebound and held the ball for a few seconds before heading up court. As he neared the timeline, he kept his dribble alive as he turned around 180°, preparing to pass the ball back to Markes. For some reason he paused ever so slightly, and as his momentum tilted his body to the right he looked for all the world like Jerry West's silhouette on the NBA logo. As a defender lunged towards him, Jesse changed his mind about passing to Markes, choosing instead to complete his three-sixty, leaving the defender in his wake. He then dribbled hard past the top of the key, crossed up another defender at the freethrow line, and finally knifed into the rim where he scored while being fouled. It was absolutely ridiculous, so good that I jokingly rubbed by eyes on the sideline in disbelief. So good that we had to spend part of the next timeout talking about it. So good that students were still talking about it the next day.

The win meant that we were now 3-0, we had established ourselves as the best team in our league, and we could start thinking about the playoffs. In short, it was a big, big win. I interviewed the author (and one-time coach) Charley Rosen several months ago, and spoke about the rush of playing or coaching in a big game:

You’re still buzzing, your mind is buzzing, your emotions are buzzing. You can’t just turn a switch and flip it off. It feels good, it’s a rush. Man, it’s a rush! Even coaching in a game like that is an incredible rush, you’re right there, in the here and now -- it’s tremendous. You can’t come down, and you don’t want to come down...

He's got it absolutely right. If your team plays at the height of its capabilities, executes a game plan to perfection, and wins an important game in dominant fashion, it doesn't really matter whether you're playing on the court at Madison Square Garden or in a sweaty middle school gym. It's a huge rush to coach and win a game like that, a game that truly matters. (If you've read the interview you know that he went on to speculate that players turned to cocaine in an effort to duplicate this competitive high. Don't worry, though. I came home and celebrated with a tall glass of apple juice.) Anyway, with my wife a couple rows behind our bench and my students, colleagues, and former players sprinkled throughout the crowd, all watching my team play its best game so far, one thing was clear. This was possibly the most enjoyable game I had ever coached. At least until next week.

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