Year 2: The Freshmen

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"He stays in the starting line-up," I agreed. "He'll be in the backcourt with Drew. I like the frontcourt of Mars, Peace, and Spanish."

They gave themselves the nicknames. It was funny how they all came about, too. Drew is just the short version of Andrew. Marvin can gun from deep, so he was pleased with Mars. Bud's has a dual meaning, a double entendre. He was everybody's friend, but he was known for making big shouts to finish scrimmages off. My favorite was Ferdinand's. As far as anybody knew, he didn't have any Spanish roots whatsoever. He was the most important piece on defense. So why not marry him to Queen Isabella and support Columbus' trek across the Atlantic? Royalty. I liked how none of them were detrimental as well.

"Okay. Now that's decided. What exactly do we want from them on offense?" It was his job to ask such questions. What exactly did I want on offense? I know I said to play freely, but as freshmen, they were still learning where each of them wanted to be. You ask Spanish, and he'll tell you he can shoot 3s all day long. He must've seen his AAU scouting report. I felt better with Mars letting it fly instead.

"Ideally, I like the idea of feeding the blocks, both to Spanish and to Peace. Peace can roam and find his spots. And if they get into trouble, I'd love to have Mars out on the perimeter to make them pay for collapsing the defense." Ideally. I felt we need some structure at first, to make up for their lack of experience, for their lack of team unity. "I have no idea how to make that happen. Keep me posted on what you're designing."

My assistants look at me for a moment, and then the meeting ends. I thought they'd be used to me leaning on them a bit more by now. I don't know what they did when Frank Thomas was running things here. They seemed happy about being in charge of something a year ago. It didn't seem right to take it away from them with a new squad of freshmen. Maybe it was harder on them than I suspected. They ought to try recruiting.

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A year ago, we beat Morehead St. to start the season. Everybody called it an upset. I felt the two teams were pretty evenly matched. The Eagles were the ones who were upset. Up until last season, Western Illinois had only one winning season in the last twenty or so years. To lose to our program probably felt like hitting rock bottom.

Well, they were back this year. In a way, it would be a tough situation to put all the freshmen in. Whether we thought so or not, this was a revenge game, and Morehead St. was going to make sure they were going to get it. Four freshmen wouldn't have any idea what they were getting into.

"Coach Rick, maybe not right out of the bat." My defensive assistant was worried that the Eagles had game-planned, and those kids wouldn't know what to do about it. "Let them play the majority of the minutes, but please, not from the get-go."

We weren't that far away from tip-off, and I knew he wouldn't bring it up unless it was bothering him this badly. This was the last chance for me to change my mind. And I thought of the freshmen. And I thought of the confidence I tried to imbue into them before the season started. To pull that from under them now, they might never forgive me. "I already turned in the official starting line-up card."

Ferdinand Thompson is listed on that card as the center, but I wanted Bud Richards to do the jump ball. He was more athletic. And I stand behind it, even if he lost the tip. Peace was late getting off the ground. The nerves were showing early.

Morehead St. went down and was running flex cuts back and forth, and with a few seconds left on the shot clock, found their power forward wide open a foot from the basket. The constant motion made it hard for Mars to see where his guy was, or which one his guy was. He had switched about three times in that one possession.

Drew then dribbles into a trap and my senior guard was out of position. The one thing the dunk on the other end did was allow my kids to see the 1-1-2-1 trap defense. Not that seeing it made it any easy to break. It forced two more turnovers, which lead to two open threes. We were suddenly down by ten. Time-out.

I resist the request to put in my other seniors. This was what college hoops was all about. It was a trial by fire, and if you come out the other side, you will be hardened. I instruct Peace to sit in the center of the diamond Morehead St. was forming, and if Mars or Drew speed dribble, he had to screen out the player planning to trap. My assistant didn't like having four players in the back court. It took away our threat of a fast break completely. "Having a threat and threatening are completely different, wouldn't you say? Right now, we're no threat at all, and those guys on the other side know that!"

We advance beyond mid-court, and for the next three trips, we find Spanish one-on-one, and we feed him. That stops the press. It doesn't reduce the gap, but it allows the kids to find a rhythm of some kind. It felt a little more like basketball. It makes the jitters go away, for most of them. Mars is able to penetrate at will it seems. Ferdinand's touch is soft against the rim. I wouldn't say he was keeping us in the game, but he was something to be optimistic about. When they doubled him, he kicked it out, but every time he got the ball to Bud Richards, Peace would hold it rather than attack, allowing the defense to reset itself.

Five minutes in, my plan to play the freshmen forty minutes is over. Bud Richards picks up foul #3. I've got #44, my starting center from a year ago, but his game is the same as Ferdinand's, without the ability. I end him in anyway, and tell Spanish to move to the high post. At this point, him shooting threes did little harm.

What happened next was something none of us as coaches could have predicted. The seniors I subbed in didn't know how to play with the freshmen. Either that, or they just didn't want to. I couldn't really explain what I was seeing any other way.

When we got beyond the ten-minute mark, I realize the terrible mistake I've made. I had romanticized my freshmen being able to play the whole game. There isn't a player in the world who could do that. This wasn't some kind of video game. These kids were winded. Andrew Wiedemann had spent the beginning breaking the press. Ferdinand had fought defenders to seal his block. Marvin Cisse had been penetrating the lane and firing threes with reckless abandon. His legs were gone.

I throw in the seniors. They give me a look as if to say it was about time. Maybe even I told you so. Well, in basketball, your play had to do the talking, and what it said was we were in a world of hurt. They were moving well enough, smooth passes, smooth cuts. Lipstick on a pig. They still weren't finishing. Everything at the rim looked awkward, off-balanced and difficult. A couple of threes went down, but not nearly enough of them. If our competition was a Power-5, I wouldn't be surprised if the deficit reached a hundred. That was how ugly things got.

The senior experiment ends with four minutes left in the first half, Leathernecks down by sixteen. I put the freshmen back in, minus Peace. I look over at my defensive assistant and whisper to the old-timer, "I trust we never have to have this conversation again."

I manage the second half much better. Within the game, I realize my senior shooting guard is the team's quiet leader. He doesn't score in bunches, but he plays well with the freshmen, and well with the other seniors. It's a dynamic worth keeping track of. Also, possibly because of that defining scrimmage in practice, the team's redshirt freshman also plays well with the starting unit. That's good, because if Bud Richards plans to keep playing defense this way, then the redshirt freshman was going to get minutes, gimpy or not. Peace fouls out after playing nine minutes. He took one shot, and when it bricked badly, was too afraid to take more.

"Hey," I tell him as he walks toward the end of the bench, "it can only get better from here, right? Keep your head up."

That goes for everyone. 73-46. Revenge, a dish best served cold. Or when your opponent is cold from everywhere. Freshmen against y'all. Y'all, apparently, are glad to accept the challenge. Maybe I just need more freshmen.

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