Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber must occasionally teach remedial skills to entering freshmen. They play more games than ever before for their high school and AAU teams, but they are often too busy playing to receive formal instruction or practice techniques.
"It's a new age," Weber states. "It goes even to the AAU. Kids play 30, 40, 50 games in a summer and not working on their skills, not working on their passing and shooting, dribbling, quickness and strength."
The NCAA has permitted small-group workouts in the spring and fall, but they are limited in scope. Nothing is possible during the long summer, and Weber wishes something could be done about it.
"A passion of mine is, they pay us to coach but won't let us coach in the off season. The weight training, we have enough time with that, an extra six hours. That's fine. But the summer is the main time when you get better.
"We have four months of May, June, July and August where we can't do anything with them. That's very frustrating for us and the kids.
"Our guys will go work out with somebody else and pay them. That's my job, and we're making the kids go work out with somebody else and making them pay to go do it. And travel someplace and be around people they maybe shouldn't be around, to be honest. So it is frustrating at times for coaches."
All athletes need breaks in their routine to keep minds and bodies fresh. Weber recognizes that. But skills can atrophy if not maintained in the summer.
"Everyone needs a break. Everyone needs to get away from it to let your body recover. But there's a fine line there. A couple three hours a week in the summer is not gonna hurt anybody."
Even when formal workouts begin October 15, there are now more limits on practice time than was the case in the past. A former player for the legendary Hank Iba at Oklahoma said their practices ran at least four hours daily. They could win with average personnel because they had practiced everything to perfection.
When seasons ran no more than 24 regular season games, there were 6 weeks of practice before the first game and a couple weeks over the Christmas/New Year holidays without games to sharpen skills. Now games start earlier and are more concentrated throughout the season, limiting practice time. And practices are limited further by NCAA edict.
"We get 20 hours a week, and you have to give them one day off a week. So even if you go six days, three hours a day, and then you add weights and there's your 20 hours. That's the best you can do.
"After two weeks we're playing an exhibition game, and I still don't cut back. But once you start the games, you've got to cut back. Now you're going to 2 and 1/2 hours. Once you get into December you're at 2 hours. It makes it tougher and tougher because there's so much you need to do, but you have to keep them fresh."
Coaches who dare go over the time limits run the risk of becoming counterproductive. College basketball is a strenuous, intense activity with tremendous pressure to win.
"A great example of how hard it is, especially second semester is Tyler Griffey. He's a freshman. He's one of our most mature guys, a great student. Once we got into spring semester, he struggled academically.
"He actually played pretty well in the games. But it just took a toll on him, and people don't realize it. You have to be careful about not pushing them too much and giving them some of their own time."
Somehow, a coach must find a balance between too much and too little pressure for his players.
"I think it's a fine line. You've got to push them and then be careful about not going over. I think we got in that one stretch where we won a bunch of games in a row. If I look back in hindsight, I backed off in that one stretch, and it might have hurt us.
"We had a lot of freshmen, and I was trying to keep them fresh. We ended up not playing well anyway. We had a tough stretch of games, one of the toughest you could have, so maybe we wouldn't have played well anyway."
Basketball is a complex game, one that can never be learned perfectly. Weber barely has time to teach one defense let alone establish a quality second choice, as one of many examples. Illini fans complained repeatedly about a lack of successful in-bounds plays last season.
"I hear people talk about in-bounds plays. I've always taken a lot of pride in it, and it's kind of baffling to me. We do different things depending on people. Some of the things we did in 03-04 and 04-05 or two years ago, we're doing the same things. But you've got to have guys that can pass. You've got to have guys that can screen. Learning to come off cuts.
"Part of it is getting into the League (Big 10). Teams prepare. On out-of-bounds plays, everybody used to play man-to-man. Now, Ohio State will put a guy on the ball, and they'll play half man and half zone, switch everything and make it hard for you to get it in.
"So now we're not trying to score, we're just trying to get it in. We had one or two (bad days), but I thought we were pretty good at it. Did we get baskets? No. Michigan State sits in that zone and won't let you score anything around the hoop. Then they switch off to a man. They're smart. They take away the stuff you do well. That's part of coaching."
Everything cannot be taught every year in entirety. Weber told his 2003-04 team they were not just playing to win that season but were preparing for the following year since almost everyone would be back then. The two-year growth cycle led to a 37-2 record and Final Four appearance. A team with several new players doesn't always have that advantage.
"When you have so many young guys, how much can you throw at them? Even zone offense, we weren't the best at it. Part of it, we didn't have time to put in to really emphasize it. The second thing we weren't good passers, and you have to be good passers to beat a zone.
"Yeah, we were good shooters. If you don't know the little things like how to get an angle, how to draw two guys to you to kick it, to make the next pass, to skip it, to go inside-out (you struggle). Those are things you learn over the course of time."
In part 5 of this 8 part series, Weber continues his discussion of the learning process and clarifies coaching techniques Illini fans have pondered over the years."