I may have mentioned that I grew up in Kentucky. Consequently, when our family gathers for the holidays, we don’t usually argue about politics; we argue about basketball. Which recently led to another argument about the University of Louisville and its recent troubles.
After finally firing Rick Pitino, UL hired assistant coach David Padgett to run the program as interim coach. For $800,00 per year. I’ve said that my preference as an alum is that the University shut down basketball completely for 3-5 years and then start over. I understand that’s probably unrealistic. But I do think the university should at least wipe away all traces of the Jurich/Pitino regime until a new, squeaky clean coach can be found. Not that there’s any evidence that Padgett was involved in all the skullduggery; but the program needs a completely clean sweep. News reports indicated that the University president said (paraphrasing here) that they wanted to appoint somebody who was already familiar with the players because UL expected to be good this year.
The points presented to me were that UL went as far as it should go in house-cleaning, and bringing in an interim coach from outside the program would penalize the current players who – so far – have not been accused of any wrongdoing. And that a coach unfamiliar with the players and their program would have little chance to effectively lead the team.
Regarding the last observation, I countered that it’s just basketball. Nobody has invented new plays or defenses in a long time. Most teams run pretty much the same stuff. Danville coach Brian Barber told me that his team runs one out-of-bounds play called “America”.
“We call it that ‘cause everybody in America runs it,” he said.
All of which started me thinking about the relative importance of coaching in basketball. I’ve been playing, watching, coaching, and refereeing basketball my whole life (though, obviously, well below the major college level).
What are the major recent innovations in the game? The Pack Line Defense? Land sakes, it’s so complex. You have to play off your man to within 16 feet of the basket unless he has the ball. That’s it.
The VCU “Havoc” defense? Um, it’s a press. You play defense for 90 feet instead of 45. Thirty years ago Arkansas ran the same thing, but they called it “Forty Minutes of Hell”. Quick, somebody run some computer simulations!
The Triangle and Motion offenses are like fifty years old. They’ve been running the pick and roll for about a hundred years, and, when executed properly, it still works.
One time I asked veteran Indiana high school coach Ron Hecklinski how you tell the difference between a good basketball coach and a bad one. He said it basically comes down to who can get his team to play harder. Whether it’s through fear of running sprints after practice or adoration of the coach doesn’t matter. If two teams are equal in talent, the team that plays harder usually wins. If they’re not equal in talent, then the lesser team has to play a LOT harder to win.
I’ll concede that some coaches make better in-game adjustments than others, but I also think it’s really hard for an outsider to make that assessment. Just judging the effectiveness of a strategy move based on results is dicey. It’s awfully tough to isolate the variable. Did the coach change defenses? If so, was the other team ready for it? How did they adjust? If it was such a stroke of genius, why didn’t the team start out in that defense?
I think coaching has a much greater impact on football and baseball. In the latter, the manager is potentially making decisions prior to every single pitch. Moving fielders, calling pitches, considering pinch hitters on both his or her own team as well as the opposition. In football, the playbooks run to hundreds of pages, with blocking schemes changing every play.
None of which necessarily makes these games more compelling to watch than basketball. It’s not that much fun to watch somebody think. I do believe that basketball coaches in particular get too much credit and too much blame for team performance. The game just moves too quickly for coaches to make the micro-changes during each play that might accumulate over the course of the game.