Hawk Talk: August 29, 2012
August 29, 2012
My general impression of the European trip...
This is a very special edition of Hawk Talk to me. We could do an hour-long TV show on this topic and I don't think it would be enough to cover everything I felt was important about this trip. It's very difficult to put what we saw and felt there into words. To me, the most appropriate description I can use is that it was moving. You could be moved by the history we saw, by the tour at the Sistine Chapel and Vatican, by the story of Michelangelo in both Rome and Florence, by the American influence in saving Florence in World War II, and just by the everyday people we met along the way.
I think what everyone gets out of the trip will be different. There are certain things that are universal that we all got out of it, but the ways that people were moved were different for everyone. AJ Avery, for example, went to St. Rita of Cascia high school, and we had no clue we would be playing our second game near there. We pulled into this small mountain town, and AJ looked at me and said, "Coach, there's a lot of stuff about St. Rita here." We had no clue that we would be playing in the town where she was born and where she is entombed. So AJ got something out of that part of the trip that no one else did. Connar Tava's and Kellen McCormick's families both made the trip, and they're Catholic, so for them the trip had special meaning.
I just gave a questionnaire to the kids at the end of the trip that they had to email back to me by today. One of the common themes that kept coming up through the questionnaire was how well they got along while they were there, and the bonding that took place. The freshmen fit in great with the rest of the team. It was plainly obvious to the coaches and staff that this group developed some chemistry. We could walk down the street and see four guys walking together, and the next day they would be walking as part of another group. In short, there were no cliques developing.
Dan Loney said to me that at first, he admitted he was a little nervous about losing the number of seniors we lost from last year, but then said the freshman that have come in this year could not have possibly fit in better than they have so far. They're not arrogant, they're willing to learn. They're truly just here to learn and play ball.
Another question I put on the questionnaire was pretty standard: what was your favorite part of the trip? Now, we stayed in Nice for the last three days, which has a very South Beach vibe to it. I expected quite a few people to list that experience, and to be sure I got a few of those. But I was happy to see that almost everyone said their experiences walking around the streets of Rome were their favorites, or their visit to the other historical sights.
On the team's basketball performance...
I think there were two major things we set out to accomplish and were successful in doing. The first thing is that we needed to establish the mindset on toughness and defense. Our team is very long this year, but we don't have a lot of muscle behind it just yet. We wanted to establish a physical level of play, a mindset of defense and rebounding. That was more important than even execution. We have more time to establish execution, but the mindset needs to be there from the beginning. The other goal was to come out of the trip without creating any more problems. We didn't want players worrying about playing time or line-ups. We were able to play a variety of line-ups and get everyone involved.
There were moments of clarity for both the players and the coaches. We asked the players to list their strengths and weaknesses after the trip, and the responses were candid and spot-on. Many of them recognized the things they needed to work on, and they also clearly recognized the things they did well.
From a basketball standpoint, I think the trip was incredibly successful. The 10 days of practice was the real benefit that will be felt next year. We were able to get some things in and establish some things in practice, and then go over there and put them into use. The games themselves are difficult to evaluate; overall, they were just about getting the opportunity to face outside competition, and in the case of the last two games, very physical outside competition.
But it's literally a different game over there. Some of the rules, such as the rules on traveling, are so drastically different in international rules than they are in NCAA that they directly fly in the face of some of the things we teach. We were also forced to play with a 24-second shot clock, which makes an enormous difference in the way you run your offense and defend your opponents.
On how the senior class led by example...
Everyone on the team this year, whether they were in a uniform or not last season, have different roles this year. Our seniors this year have different roles; they can't look to Big Brother anymore because they are Big Brother, and Big Brother has to act differently than Little Brother. For the most part, they handled it well. They needed a reminder here and there, but that's why this trip and so much practice time at this time of year is so valuable.
I'll give you an example. One of our younger players got into the game against Stella Azzurra late after having not played much during the game, and with the outcome of the game essentially already decided. On his first trip up the floor, he took an open shot from three and airballed it. Nate Hutcheson was joking with him later about it, encouraging the player to take a shot like that when he gets into the game. Now, we had just talked about this the day before, that the last thing a player should do when checking into the game is chuck up a three on their first trip up the court. Nate didn't mean it in a mean-spirited way, but I pulled him aside after and told him that as a leader, it's his job to encourage these younger guys to play the game the way we want it to be played, and remind them the coaches do these things for a reason. He was able to take that lesson to heart.
On the schedule...
I think we did a pretty good job of scheduling this year. I wish we could have had more home games, but we're satisfied with the challenge ahead of us. I think the most striking part of the non-conference schedule is that there are new series with opponents taking place. We're starting the first year of a home-and-home with Cornell, and they're a great program with lots of history. It won't be easy starting at their place. The South Florida tournament will be very challenging, and we'll have the home game against Oakland, which will be an in-state highlight for us.
We're playing High Point in an unusual series, in that we have a home-and-home with them in the same year. The reason we did that is because next year we plan to move to an 18-game conference schedule, so in order to clear up two games for next year, we had to find a team that was willing to do a home-and-home in one season. It was a logistical issue, and High Point was a school that was willing to work with us on that.
Then we get to a very difficult stretch where we're at Michigan, at Illinois State, at High Point, and at Duquesne, and that should be great to go through. Mount St. Mary's comes in, and they're a program with a lot of history, and one that has been pretty good over the years. Obviously the non-conference wraps up with North Carolina State, and that presents its own challenges. We feel we have a lot more balance.
As far as conference play goes, it's interesting in that this year the interdivisional games are sprinkled throughout the schedule as opposed to having them all played in the middle of the conference season. We start at Akron, who was last year's regular season champion, and then face Ohio here, who made the Sweet 16 last year. Not an easy way to get into the conference schedule, but everyone has to play everyone eventually, and we're ready for it.
July 30, 2012
On what we hope to gain on the European trip...
These games mean almost - not completely, but almost - nothing in the grand scheme of things. The schedule is still in the process of being set, but ultimately the opponents don't matter. The real benefit of going to Europe is the 10 days of practice, and be able to work this incredibly young team in practice in addition to the work we've already done is extremely important.
The cultural experience these players will receive is also an important factor. This will be my third European trip, and I just can't put into words what this means to the players. I still get feedback from former players about it. Some of the things they're going to lay their eyes on are things that some people live their entire lives without seeing.
Finally, we get a chance to do some team bonding. We have no idea what this team's identity is going to be at this point. We have players working out in drills, but you don't know until the guys in the striped shirts come out and the lights come on. Someone might be a better game player than a practice player, and vice versa. They need to start finding themselves.
In terms of winning and losing, we never want to get in the habit of losing; that's why I stop short of saying these games mean nothing. It's just a difficult thing to assess when we're not really sure of the skill and talent level of these teams we're playing. In a way, we're looking more to establish the mentality of our team and then evaluate the skill set. As long as I'm here, we'll always be a team that emphasizes rebounding, defense, and running on offense, but these games are a chance for us to evaluate the little things and better understand what we have.
On the departure of Larry Farmer from the coaching staff...
First of all, losing Larry is something that's going to be a bigger blow to me personally than it is to the program, because of how close we are. We've been close friends for a long time and I absolutely wish him the best. That our coaches are often able to further their careers at Western Michigan, and move on to other things, is something I'm proud of. This situation will be no different.
Normally the timing is such where coaches are moving along in April and May, but because this happened in July, it was surprising to me to see a list of very capable candidates at this juncture. We feel we've got it narrowed down pretty well. This process of looking for a new coach started close to a month ago; I've known about it for that time, and the rest of the basketball world was more or less aware of it for the last three weeks or so.
The thing that was important to me, right away, was the profile that I want to fill. We are losing a lot of experience in Larry, and we need experience to replace experience. We want a seasoned coach who knows what they're doing on the floor, off the floor, recruiting, and how to conduct themselves on a Division I campus. Most importantly, they need to be someone who can blend in and get themselves up to speed quickly. I think we're in a good position to get that.
On how the NCAA's new offseason workout rules have impacted the team...
This is an interesting topic, because I've just spent three weeks on the road with other coaches. It was the hot topic of conversation: "What did you do with your workouts?"
Well, the workouts have been great. The guys have been very responsive to it, and the camaraderie has been excellent. We've been able to get a lot in. We've tried to work harder on individual skills than on team things, but it's impossible to separate the two entirely. We'll be modifying our offense quite a bit this season, and the guys need to know when their shots are coming, so they need that individual work.
The big question our staff wanted to address was the schedule of the individual workouts. Normally these workouts start on the first day of school, right after Labor Day. When they were taking place at that time, we wanted to set the tone for what is important to our program: defense, rebounding, and running on offense. Our drill work was very geared towards establishing that mentality.
This season, with eight freshmen, we debated whether we wanted to start with that kind of drill work and mentality-building, or would we run the risk of running them down too early. We decided to balance it. We went with offense and individual improvement in the first week, and in the second week we moved on to more defense and rebounding. I was recruiting last week, but the assistant coaches ran the workouts and continued to work on more of that mentality.
On the development of leadership this summer...
I've been very proud of the upperclassmen this preseason. I hope to never go through last year's challenges again. When the injuries started to mount last year, the seniors' response to adversity was admirable in that they tried to step up to a leadership role. The problems arose, though, in that there were too many chiefs and not enough braves. They didn't butt heads in terms of not getting along, but rather the problem was there wasn't a singular voice. It's like the old football adage; if you think you have two good quarterbacks, you don't have any.
The three seniors on this year's team haven't had experience in those leadership roles yet. We're confident they can grow into those roles, but for right now we've told them to worry more about leading by example and not vocally. It's more important to us that they show the others the value of working hard and doing things the right way.
We wanted to go through a stress-free summer, a building summer, and build a positive environment.