Smart Coaching

I enjoy the subtleties of the game. The chess match so to speak between coaches and players that oftentimes get overshadowed by final statistics. For example, I'm not so much concerned with whether or not a player makes or misses a shot as I am in how they got open to take that shot.

In Wednesday night's victory over Northern Arizona, Lute Olson made three simple but extremely smart decisions that will have a lasting impact on the season.

In the game's opening minute Arizona was inbounding the ball from underneath their basket. Most teams in this situation would run a simple screen for a guard or flare a forward out toward the top of the key. The point is to get the ball in play in a good position to enter into their offensive set. Teams do this for two reasons. First, defenses at the Division-I level have seen every trick inbounds play in the book and usually foil out of bounds plays. Second, no coach wants to show their hand so early in the game by running a new out of bounds play so early in the game. They'd rather save their Ace Card for a must score situation when everything's on the line.

Olson broke from his norm and ran a set inbounds play for freshman Chase Budinger. The coaching staff had been concerned that Budinger, who scored 15 points in the first half against Virginia but only had two in the second frame, was deferring too much to the older players on the team.

By designing the play specifically for Budinger, Olson sent a clear message to the freshman superstar forward to attack when on offense. Budinger came off clean against a screen and promptly buried a 16-footer. Moments later, Budinger hit the first of five 3-pointers on six attempts. Budinger never let up and finished the game with 32 points on 11 of 15 shooting.

Olson's second smart coaching decision came at the start of the second half. Senior leader Ivan Radenovic spent the last 14 minutes of the first half on the bench because of two early fouls. Radenovic, who led the Wildcats with 24 points against Virginia, was basically a non-factor until Olson called the first two plays of the second half for Radenovic. On the first, Mustafa Shakur fed Radenovic in the post and the big man converted for two points. On the second, Radenovic missed a short turnaround jumper but it didn't matter. Again, Olson was setting the tone by getting his center involved early and not letting him slip into a game long funk that so many players tend to do when plagued by early foul trouble. Radenovic finished the game with 10 points on 3 of 4 shooting. He also made all four of his free throws in only 20 minutes of play.

The final smart coaching decision came at the 15-minute mark when Radenovic was whistled for his third foul. Traditionally, Olson wouldn't even hesitate in pulling any player who had three fouls at that point out of the game. With the Wildcats comfortably leading, though, Olson left Radenovic in the game and again was doing his best to teach Radenovic a valuable lesson. The lesson was learning how to play while in foul trouble.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that under different circumstances, say the Wildcats only leading by a handful of points, Olson would have never left Radenovic in. However, in this rare situation, Olson seized the opportunity to teach Radenovic and it should pay dividends in the long run.

We as observers are sometimes too eager to point out what went wrong in a game. In doing so, we are sometimes blinded to the fact that having a winning season is so much more than just winning games.

Last night, Coach O reminded me for the umpteenth time why he's a Hall of Fame coach by making three simple decisions – the kinds that sometimes go unnoticed by fans but never by players.

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