Coaches love to rail against the ills of summer pickup basketball. This has everything to do with control.
College basketball coaches are by their very nature major control freaks -- it's under "recommended skills" in the job description, is all I'm saying -- and pickup basketball represents the very antithesis of that control. There are no offensive sets, no zone defenses, no real structure. This can be a good thing -- a good pickup game is like nirvana -- but you can understand why coaches wouldn't be thrilled about their players spending an entire offseason doing whatever they want to do when they're on the court. Come October, that's not how things work.
Still, basketball is basketball, right? Coaches may not love the habits that form in pickup, but at least their guys are working on their games and staying in shape.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino fully disagrees. This offseason, he took the arguably drastic step of outlawing his Cardinals -- who are likely to be ranked in the top 3 in the first preseason poll -- from playing any pickup basketball whatsoever. Instead, per WDRB's Eric Crawford, Pitino told his players to play one-on-one games only, first to five. Why? So every possession mattered:
"I said I don't want you playing pickup basketball, because that's how you regress," Pitino said. "I said I'd rather you play one-on-one basketball, with these rules -- games of five. If you play games of five you're playing hard on offense, hard on defense, winners come on. Play no more than that. Anything more than that, you start to break down, you don't guard, you don't have your hands ready, you don't play defense, you don't really get after it offensively. So I've given them certain things to follow -- improve your quickness, improve your strength and spend 45 minutes on your game each day."
Pitino also said he's going to change his early season workouts. In the past, the Cardinals coach has used his first practices to install his offense and defense, and then worked on improving the individual parts within that system. His teams may have taken lumps early in the year, but they figured things out in time for March. Now, Pitino wants to get each one of his players in tip-top individual form early, so they can be ready to compete right away. Why?
"We'd put the whole in first then work on the parts, but the parts weren't really good. They'd grade out at a C or a B, and they'd start to become an A sometime in January or early February. Well, that's perfect because my whole goal was to get ready for March. But now, the solution for me is we've got to have, depending on how soon you need it, you may have to have Bs and As right away. Today, you may not be able to get where you want to go, because of the way you're judged, if you don't get there quicker."
This makes sense for the 2012-13 Cardinals, who, with minimal exceptions, return all of their most important players from last year's Final Four team. This group of players shouldn't need a steep curve to learn what Pitino demands on offense or (especially) defense; they should be all too familiar with it already. The large, systemic stuff is out of the way. Improvement at the margins is what matters most.
But this is also interesting for more general reasons: Pitino is essentially admitting that, thanks to college basketball's emphasis on early-season marquee matchups, and the NCAA tournament selection committee's insistence on granting every game the same importance (as opposed to its old-school "last 12 games" selection criteria), national title contenders and bubble teams have almost no margin for error in the early weeks of the season. You can't build to the NCAA tournament over the long haul; you can't pile up cupcakes in the nonconference and hope for the best. If you want a No. 1 seed, your work begins in November.
That means -- at least theoretically -- better basketball in November, December and January. The college hoops season as a whole still has its problems (namely, traction amid college football and the NFL and the NBA). But this is a decidedly positive development.