We kicked off our season perhaps a week or two later than we would have liked, but these things happen when your permit for a practice space takes more time than anticipated to get approved. So instead of going down to Richmond for a tournament on April 16-17 (or to Delaware the weekend before that), we went up the road to Baltimore this past weekend for the Zero Gravity Maryland Madness tournament, the first of five (hopefully six, but the last one we need to qualify for) Zero Gravity events that we are participating in this spring, a seismic upgrade over our frustrating experience last year in a local league where games, even though they were played with a running clock, habitually started an hour and a half later than scheduled (or more) and were not always officiated by certified referees.
That has not been the only difference between last year and this year. I had initially expected to keep my roster mostly intact, but I started the season with only three holdovers; several players elected to play for other teams in the fiercely competitive DC market, including a couple who had been with Team Endless since its beginnings. But hey, that can happen here, so there was nothing I could do but move forward with a new group that would need a little time to adjust to me (and I to them). After some growing pains in returning to coaching boys a year ago, I wanted to simplify my approach as well as give everyone some measure of personal freedom on the court. Because I lack any sort of actual big men*, I decided to implement the dribble-drive offense pioneered by Vance Walberg and popularized by John Calipari during his time at Memphis. This would give my guard-heavy roster opportunities to try and beat people off of the dribble and create layups and open three-point attempts. Everybody on my team has had a chance over the first few weeks to prove that they can attack, pass, and shoot, and they embraced the idea pretty quickly.
*No player on last year's or this year's roster is taller than 6'4"-6'5". And I learned on the ride back Sunday that my tallest player this year, who might scrape 6'5", weighs all of 115 pounds. 115! Even as a super-skinny 16-year-old, I weighed 135. He needs a cheeseburger IV.
Defense can sometimes be another matter. It is my experience from playing pickup and watching plenty of high school basketball in this area that there is frequently less emphasis on defense than there should be; I have seen far too many teams loaded with good athletes content to sit in a 2-3 zone, and not the active kind of 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim has employed for decades at Syracuse. As a consequence, a lot of players simply have not internalized strong man principles, particularly the idea of help defense. So instead of teaching players one pass away from the ball to deny their man (leading them to face-guard and be out of position to help), I opted for a Virginia "pack-line" approach, where we would always pressure the ball, but everybody else would be in help position. When we do the shell drill in practice, we start with static players passing the ball around, and gradually add more movement (while prohibiting shooting), so that the defenders get more and more of an idea of where they are supposed to be at any given time. The idea, of course, is to have all five players essentially on a string.
I guess we had just not had enough time to internalize the basics, because in both of our games on Saturday, opponents were driving and cutting through the lane (both with and without the ball) without any semblance of help, which consequently led to a lot of easy layups. Switching to a zone after halftime of our second game didn't help, because some people forgot what defense we were in, and so there were more layups and way too many wide-open threes. Defense is really about effort more than anything, and we just didn't display enough on day one. That's on me for not preparing our team, several of whom have very little organized basketball experience and none of whom played for their varsity team this past year. Sunday I made the decision to play zone from the start, and while there were still some awful or nonexistent rotations, the effort and execution were much better, and allowed us to be competitive throughout the game.
On the offensive end, our lack of readiness for the speed and intensity of the games manifested itself in a boatload of missed layups on Saturday; we were down twenty before we got our first bucket, and most of our misses were within five or six feet. After the first ten or twelve minutes of the first game, we found our touch somewhat and played the rest of the game to a draw, more or less, but had already dug ourselves too big of a hole to climb out of. We got off to a slow start in the second game as well, although not as slow; this time we just kept bleeding points off of transition and drives to the basket. So after two big losses, we were looking to right the ship on Sunday in our final game.
We got a layup on the opening possession of our game on Sunday, and that helped set the tone for what turned out to be a back-and-forth affair against a team of the same caliber as the one that had beaten us by twenty-five in our opener the day before. We were getting to the basket and also getting good looks from outside; one of our guards, Jaquez, had ten of our first twenty points. At that point our opponents changed tactics and got more physical; they were older and bigger than us, and it had been well-established throughout the tournament that the referees were not going to call ticky-tack fouls. First we started to lose our composure, and then the refs (one in particular) lost control of the game. Three technical fouls were called (one on a player, two on the bench), there was some jawing between players and officials (on both teams), we lost our rhythm offensively (although another guard, Carlos, made several big plays early in the second half), and yet, we were still within four points with less than five minutes to go. Unfortunately, we tried to get it all back at once, even though there was plenty of time left, and turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions; we wound up losing by eleven.
Even though we hung a goose egg in the win column this weekend, I think it was a strong learning experience for our team. They learned a lot about the kind of effort and intensity they need to put forth in practice in order to be prepared for serious competition. They learned that they need to get stronger and play tougher; we had a lot of plays where we tried to avoid contact too much and wound up missing shots we should have made. And I think they learned a valuable lesson in keeping their emotions in check in the heat of the moment, even when it feels like the game is being played 6-on-5.
From my end, here's what went well: we had multiple players display an ability to beat their man off the dribble and get into the lane, which led to some good looks; we had only twenty-five turnovers in three games, a staggeringly low number (we averaged twice as many last year), and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 1:1; and we showed that we could hang with bigger, older teams as long as we were putting forth the effort. On the other hand, there is a LOT to learn on the defensive end (both in man-to-man - especially man - and zone); we have to do a better job of keeping focused and engaged throughout the game; and our abominably bad free throw shooting (8-for-32 for the weekend) simply HAS to improve. We've got another Zero Gravity tournament this upcoming weekend, and three more through the first week of June, so the process of getting better has to start right away.