Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Outside the Aviary: "They Can Run."

What exactly happened here? Xavier had the “best team in the nation” on the ropes-- a multi-possession lead, the ball, timeouts left to stop momentum if needed, and confidence in their main guard, Drew Lavender. They were playing a near-perfect game. Greg Oden was in foul trouble, they made adjustments ot neutralize Mike Conley Jr. and their shot selection was pretty incredible. Then Coach Sean Miller blew it.

The coach knew he had the game won. You could see it in his face. He was smiling with his players, pumping his fist and keeping them calm. He overthought (like most coaches tend to). He went to well for the play that killed them—the play that kills them all. Hold the ball. Change the pace. Run the clock. Limit possessions. On consecutive possessions Xavier ran the clock and settled for terrible jump shots (one of which Drew Lavender double clutched from just inside the three-point line) when points were there for the taking. Most offenses start around the 25 second mark, and Xavier began their set around 13. Ohio State had to do absolutely NO work to guard them. All they had to do was rest and await their turn with the ball. We all know what happened next.

What most people don’t seem to understand—coaches and announcers especially—is the rhythm of basketball. Xavier is fantastic when they run at a mid-tempo pace. I’ve seen it. They can run or play with normal pacing. Sean Miller seems like the type that doesn’t mind innovation and ad libbing, either. You could tell when Xavier broke the structure of their offense that Miller was happy with the results more than half the time. They were a team with the build and chemistry to upset Ohio State. So, instead of continuing to work for good shots and continuing the pace and spacing that was beating Ohio State, they completely switched their mindset.

When coaches call this offense, it does three things: plays into the psychology of the players on the court, takes the ball away from the players that control the ball and it changes the pacing. You can see whether a team will panic in big situations by studying run reactions. Whether your team is putting together runs or emphatically scraping for every point in a back and forth contest, there are times when you know if the two teams on the floor can handle pressure. At the end of the game, Sean Miller essentially said to his team: we cannot handle the pressure. Ohio State responded and Xavier didn’t. Part of the reason was the change in tempo—from Xavier being in control of the game to admitting they were not capable of stopping Ohio State and playing keep away. That plays into the psyche of a club used to winning. As soon as I get the ball I am going to score is different from as soon as I get the ball I HAVE to score. If Xavier continues to run their offense, they score at least once in their held ball possessions or, at the very least, they keep the pressure on Ohio State to think they HAVE to score. Playing keep away makes a good scorer want the ball more thus playing into their hands.

The exact opposite is true for the players holding the ball. They have done enough right to earn a multi-possession lead and their reward is to stand around and overthink the defense. What was working is now out of the question. Have you ever watched—I mean really WATCHED a team that is standing toward the end of a game? The point guard dribbles and watches motion that isn’t happening yet. Overthinking. The coach is doing the same thing. Coaches can’t think of what will go wrong. They can only consider beating the other team—running their set well enough to produce a good shot. Now, though, the players and the coach are just thinking. The rhythm of the game is undulating through their minds, but it is as dead as it can be on the court itself. Announcers think this is smart basketball and mature decision making from that young man or even a veteran coach making a veteran decision or other such nonsense. Meanwhile, the defense’s workload is shrinking. Opposing players are standing and waiting. Resting—considering how they will beat their man or where they will be open after the inevitable penetration.

After these held ball possessions, consider how little the men have actually touched the ball in a meaningful way. Most teams start their offense around the twelve-fifteen second mark on the shot clock on a slow down set. This allows the point guard to distribute a far less number of meaningful dribbles and passes than on a normal possession. While it is important not to take a quick shot, it is still important to get a quality shot. Most of these possessions end with one of three things: a hurried long ball, a failed try for penetration or a decent, if not good, shot. Running a 13 second shot clock is setting the offense up for a two-thirds failure rate and keeping the ball out of the team’s hands (remember, the same team that has gotten you a lead to begin with) when they are most ready to bury their opponent.

Sean Miller, in effect, ruined his team’s killer instinct by overthinking a simple process. Run the offense. Take good shots. Keep doing what you did and the lead will stay. If it doesn’t, it is not because you didn’t limit possessions. It’s not because you took terrible shots at the shot clock’s buzzer. It’s not because the tempo wasn’t in your favor. It’s because their players responded to the pressure you put on them. That’s it. It's such a simple rule for such a simple game: don't stop winning the game. Slowing down the game like this is basically like running the Prevent Defense. The only thing it prevents is winning.

I was pacing. I was moving more than the Xavier offense and I was saying—run the ball down their throats (and I'm not even a Xavier fan). Go inside. Oden was out. There was no shot blocker, no reason to fear them. Ohio State was defeated. Sean Miller and his announcing buddies made a classic mistake. They lost all their momentum at the worst possible time. These decisions make me wonder, who the hell is in college here? Is it the coach, the announcers, or the players? The latter are told to listen when the two previous have a lot more to learn. Meanwhile, the Xavier players have the rest of their lives to think about losing this game rather than all week to bask in the victory and prepare to play again. Good thinking, Coach.

(By the way, my dad would kill me if I didn't say this: I can see Herb Sendek really wore off on Sean Miller.)

USC over UNC (If there is a God).
G'Town over Vandy (If there is a chance for my bracket).
OSU over Tennessee (If the "winning a close game you should have lost" corollary is true).
Texas A&M over Memphis (If the Law can prevail... sorry).
UCLA over Pitt (If the Pac-10 is all that good).
So Ill over Kansas (If the world were completely insane).
Oregon over UNLV (If the world makes any sense).
Florida over Butler (If I can stand to watch it).

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