Years ago, as the final buzzer went off at the Final Four, those who knew college basketball could rattle off the teams that would vie for the national title the following year and the players who would constitute the preseason All-America team. Usually, those experts would be very close to the mark on those off-the-cuff predictions.
Predicting the future was easier because college basketball was an "upperclass" game in which junior and senior lottery picks dominated. Those days are long gone.
Now, you have to get a pencil and paper out, wait until all of the knuckleheads have declared whether they are staying or testing the NBA waters (and in a lot of cases, drowning in those waters) just to see who is on the rosters. Then, you have to make projections that Nostradamus would struggle with, like just how big a leap freshmen will make into their sophomore years, and just how good an 18-year-old newcomer will be from his first day on campus.
At the very highest levels, fans can no longer watch a star prospect grow over his four years and play as a mature senior. The concept of watching a highly-rated recruiting class grow together over four years and become a finely tuned machine is ancient history. Surely the game must have suffered as a result.
Well, guess what? College basketball is still the best game on the planet.
Sure, you have to give due deference to the sadistic ground acquisition game of football, both college and pro. I still like baseball and the NBA is a blast in late April, May and June. But no sport, and I mean NO SPORT, can compete with college basketball for excitement, spirit, the care given to the game by its fans, players and coaches. And don't tell me that every game doesn't count for something. A team may not be under the same pressure of its college football counterparts when it comes to early losses ending championship dreams, but basketball teams build a NCAA-worthy resum´ from Day 1 with impressive wins, challenging themselves to get better in the non-conference season.
And, there is still no place on earth like a college basketball game, with the crowds, closeness to players and the ability to see the emotions on those players' faces as they bust their tails. You can see it in their faces, the determination as fatigue sets in late in a game. It's also on the sidelines, as coaches work every possession as its the last. No headsets, no huddles in between plays, just action and squeaking sneakers.
College basketball is the best game. And another season is finally here.
Once again, I took my annual preseason tour, traveling around the country to watch teams practice. I have been taking these treks for the last eight years or so, and I really appreciate watching coaches and players work behind closed doors. I cannot begin to tell you how much I have learned from all of the coaches and players I have been privileged to watch over the years.
As many players and assistant coaches, I was brought up in the game a certain way and have always had certain beliefs as to how the game is supposed to be played. Sometimes you can be fooled into thinking that your way is the only way, and over the years, I have learned that there are a lot of different ways to play and play the game right. I have seen several different philosophies of the game over the past eight years and have stolen a lot of ideas from some of the game's finest coaches. This year was no exception.
Among other places, I watched practices at Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, Syracuse and UCLA. As we did last season on SportsCenter and College Gamenight, ESPN put microphones on each of the coaches and got access to practice to see just how these great coaches get the job done. The features on each of these coaches will air this week (Nov. 10-14) on SportsCenter, and throughout the year on College Gamenight and at halftimes of games. Here are some of the things that stood out to me from the lineup of coaches:
Rick Pitino, Louisville: Pitino is a master teacher of individual development and runs outstanding individual workouts. He is very detail oriented, providing players with comprehensive drills and explanations of the moves that will improve their games for the college and pro levels. He is involved in every drill and points out every facet of play.
In practice, Pitino wears a wireless microphone to save his voice. He goes out over the loudspeaker in the gym, so he doesn't have to yell as much as he used to. Of course, this gives him the "voice of God" in practice, and the players can hear everything. In most practices, the players can hear (sometimes selectively) a lot of what the coach yells, but not everything the coach might say during a practice. You hear everything Pitino says in a Louisville practice. A lot of it is encouraging, some of it technical, some of it funny, some of it cutting, and all of it geared at getting a better and more productive performance from his players.
Pitino told me that he doesn't challenge players as often as he used to because he feels that things are different today, and that players don't respond as positively to getting chewed out like they used to. Make no mistake, Pitino will still chew on a player's tail from time to time for a mental mistake, but he maintains that his approach is vastly different now. These days, when a player makes a mistake of omission, Pitino sends the player to the treadmill to run for a few minutes away from the floor.
Lastly, being at Louisville practices confirms to me that you need to be in really good condition to be a Pitino assistant. Vince Taylor, Kevin Willard and Reggie Theus jump into drills often and take a pretty good pounding in a workout. At least they don't have to play in Pitino's legendary 6 a.m. pick-up games anymore because Pitino stopped participating himself. Confirmed rumor has it that Tubby Smith used to sleep in his jock and shorts with high tops by the bed, and that whomever was guarding Pitino had better let him have whatever shot or foul call he wanted.
Bill Self, Kansas: Like he did at Illinois, Self runs great practices. He is in the process of putting in his sets (i.e. the high-low looks, staggered screens, etc.) and getting the players used to a different system. Self is teaching this team his way of playing because he believes that his way is the best way for him. Roy Williams had his own style and system, which worked very well for him, but Self's is a different take on things. The focal point of the offense will be the inside, the ball will be pounded inside from day one and everyone will play off the big men.
Self pays attention to detail, holding his players accountable for being in the right spots at the right times and making the right reads in his progressions. He will get animated when he needs to get his players' attention, but he is very positive as long as there is good effort being given on the floor. Most important, his players work hard.
As to his attention to detail, Self is exacting in what he expects of his players in the mental side of the game. In every practice of his that I have been to, I always hear Self tell a player to "wake up" after he makes a mental mistake. Self does something that I love in coaches -- he teaches his team to play, and then let's them play without trying to coach every dribble. His players are not afraid to make a mistake and play with a free mind on the floor. He provides guidance throughout a practice or game, but it is targeted and balanced. And, as any coach or player will tell you, that is a hard balance to strike. It is far easier to stop every play and make a teaching point, but Self is one of the coaches that does a great job of picking his spots.
Self is a normal guy with extraordinary ability. He is easy to work with and the people at Kansas already love him. They loved Roy and hated to lose him, but the Jayhawks won't miss a beat with Self. As long as someone makes shots from the perimeter.
Roy Williams, North Carolina: The Swiss can set their timepieces by a North Carolina practice. There is no detail overlooked, especially time. If a drill is on the practice plan for a certain time, it starts and stops at exactly the time stated on the plan. Practices are extremely well thought out, and no time is wasted.
In my judgment, Williams is one of the best recruiters in the game -- today or ever. He is also one of the best teachers. While his demeanor is "aw shucks" in nature off the court, he is fiery and uncompromising on the court. If it is to be done by one of his players, then it is to be done right, at full speed. When Williams says he is going to get five good minutes out of his players during a drill, he gets five good minutes or the players run.
Everything at a Williams practice is competitive, and everything is charted. That comes from Dean Smith, Williams' mentor. If you are on the losing team in a drill, you run at the end of practice while the winners watch you. In other words, you are accountable for every action you take on the court at Carolina, and everything you do is important and has consequences.
After watching Williams for so many years, he's certainly a coach I would have loved to play for. And after talking to many of his players who loved playing for him at Kansas, I doubt I would be disappointed. Of course, when you win over 80 percent of your games, you should love it. Carolina will be good this season, but the Tar Heels are thin beyond the first six guys. If there are injuries and foul trouble along the way, Williams will know exactly how Matt Doherty felt when Sean May went down last year in December.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse: Jim Boeheim is not only a great coach but also one smart guy, which is something he rarely gets credit for. While Boeheim will never admit this publicly because it cuts against his being a smart guy, I was his first recruit from California, and Syracuse was one of my visits in the early '80s. Boeheim likes to joke that after he almost landed me, he then realized he could go out to California and try to recruit the GOOD players, instead. Any player would love playing for Jim Boeheim.
When you talk about picking your spots, nobody picks them better than Boeheim. He offers words of advice and encouragement to his players, much of it technical (especially on the offensive end), but he provides his players with the confidence to go out and play without fear of making a mistake. Of all the coaches in the country, I think that Jim Boeheim would make the best NBA coach. He is not a self-promoter, doesn't have to be the center of attention and allows his players to develop without over-coaching them.
Boeheim is more relaxed over the past several years than he was when he recruited me, and he has a lot to be relaxed about this year. Boeheim has a team that could make a return trip to the Final Four. Billy Edelin and Gerry McNamara form perhaps the best backcourt in the country, and Hakim Warrick is going to be a monster this year. Watch for Boeheim to design plays for Warrick to get the ball isolated on the low block. I know Warrick wants to be a small forward and play on the perimeter, but his bread will be buttered in the post, where he can be devastating. Fear the Orange.
Ben Howland, UCLA: I absolutely love the way Ben Howland teaches the game. He is no-nonsense, and his practices are very business-like, fast-paced and fun for the players. Howland gets a lot done, but he doesn't go very long relative to other coaches around the country. He believes in lacing them up, getting after it in a very disciplined fashion and getting on to the next thing.
Howland values toughness. Not just the smashmouth stuff, but mental toughness. He wants the guy that is tough enough to get down in a stance and control the ballhandler. To be aggressive to the point of having to tell a player to calm down. He wants his players to make mistakes by being too aggressive, making the other team react to you rather than you reacting to them.
The mantra is defense and rebounding all the way down to the guards. But make no mistake, Howland is very good offensively. If anyone, Howland is like Tom Izzo in that regard. He values defense, rebounding and toughness above all, but his offensive schemes are well thought out and he expects his team to hunt shots and look to score at every opportunity. Howland has a great coaching voice, and it really fills up the gym. He would be a great guy to play for, and you could see really playing your tail off for him.
That being said, most of the tails he has at UCLA this season should be sitting on a bench somewhere.
UCLA has some good players, like Dijon Thompson, Cedric Bozeman and Trevor Ariza, but most of the players do not live up to the high standards for talent that UCLA has established over the years. The Bruins will play harder and be more disciplined but will have to scrap and claw to be over .500 nearing the Pac 10 tournament. But after watching Howland at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, I have no doubt that he will get it done in a big way at UCLA.