Year 1 : Getting Started

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The players were confused by the new concepts. The old head coach, Derek Thomas, had used all of practice getting them set in different formations, and after spending so much time on it, they got used to do it. I wanted them to be free-flowing.

"Look, you guys have been playing this game for a long time. What I want to see you do is attack the basket," I explained. "If you can't score, kick it out to a teammate in an open spot who'll try to."

The three stooges seemed to be okay with that. The other players weren't too sold on the idea. It wasn't my original idea. There's a coach out in California I had gotten to know by the name of Vance Walberg, and I felt the system that he was using fit into programs unable to land prototypical positional talent. He focused on keeping it as simple as possible; space out the floor, and attack, shoot, pass, or attack. Since I needed to bring in the best players I could, I wanted to spend more of my time out of the gym than in it.

"Well, what do you want us to focus on then, Coach Rick?" my offensive assistant asked.

"Let's go back to fundamentals," I tell him. "Go one-on-one driving drills. Coach, you pass them the ball, they catch it on a jump stop or on a jump 1-2, and have to drive within 2 seconds."

The drill was met with hesitation, but after a few rounds, things began to heat up. Players called each other out, and brought up past instances in former games I wasn't present to pick up on.

Then, I added some defense to it. We switched to 3-on-3 ball, but now my defensive assistant was in charge of where the help defender would be coming from. It is the second skill most basketball players learn, finding the open teammate. The teammate had to learn how to stay open too, and shoot immediately once the pass came, wherever he was.

We eventually got out to 5-on-5, going for ten minutes at a time. I didn't call time-outs or fouls. I let them go after one another. It was a low scoring affair, but they started to communicate with each other, without the coaches yelling what to do. If they wanted to post-up, they could. If they wanted to set screens, they could. They just had to figure out what each of them was good at, most efficient at, and demand the ball when their time came.

"Thanks, Coach Rick," I was told by everyone. There was a new energy in the gym. "It was the most fun I've had playing ball in years."

After months of figuring each other out within the freer playing style, which really meant figuring out which spots and tendencies were the highest percentage for each player, the team's identity started forming. No 3-point shooters, or should I say, no one really comfortable jacking it up from deep with volume. Rather than force it down their throats, we adjust to allow them to go for their preferred midrange, as long as they keep to the principle to find the open spot on the floor. Since we really have no true low-post player, offensive rebounding becomes a point to address.

Still, everybody was happier than when I first got here. Are we dancing? I cannot insult the sport of basketball like that. Nationally, Derrick Rose in Memphis, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love out in UCLA, and Tyler Hansbrough at Chapel Hill were the true contenders. The only way to join that party was to win the Summit, and that looked like a long shot. The team was improving, but the ghosts of conference-play past was going to be hard to exorcise. I had the three stooges. Seniors they may be, but their play hardly displayed confidence. A winning record though, that would be a worthy achievement.

The season began with Morehead State. It was my first game as a head coach, and Stooge Tennessee, my 6'4" starting shooting guard, told me he wouldn't let me down. "We ain't starting Rick Time out here with no L!"

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