Is playing against Air Force sort of like playing against Northwestern?
It is. I think it will be great prep for the two times that we will play Northwestern, and Northwestern beat us twice last year. This is a very scary game, and we have a lot of concerns. This is a team that really controls temp. We are not a big pressing team, so we have to do a real good job in this game of not just defending, but taking care of the ball and getting the right shot, because regardless of score, this team wants to control tempo.
They are the nation's best defensive team right now, giving up 49 points. We are coming off of a break and a big win against Texas Tech, so I have a lot of concerns with this game, as they are a difficult opponent for us.
Their coach played at Princeton and they like to shoot a lot of three point shots. How does that fit into their offense?
Well, that is their offense. They get an awful lot of three-point attempts, and they drive the ball awfully hard. The problem is that there are not a lot of possessions in the game; they make it a low possession game. That is why the start of the game is so crucial. It's like against Northwestern, if you get down eight to ten points, it's like being down 20, because the possessions will be limited. We have to do a good job of concentrating on each possession on both ends.
Air Force's offense is predicated on cuts and spacing. How difficult is it to stop their penetration and cuts and still cover the three?
That is a difficult thing. They cut with great pace. We have watched a lot of tape this year and a lot of games, and they probably cut with as good of pace as any team we have played. You are defending quick action, and they are very good because they are trained to make reads. It is a type of motion offense. I like this offense because of that. It's predicated off reads, seeing what the defense is doing and changing on the go, and they stay with it. Regardless of what you do, they will stay with this system for 40 minutes.
We preach defensive patience when we play against teams that play in this system. If you get uneasy or rattled or gamble, this system will chew you up.
Air Force is great in transition defense, but what kind of look do they give you in the half court?
It's more of a matchup zone kind of look. They have matchup tendencies and zone tendencies; they send a lot of guys back in transition, so that is one of the reasons why they don't give up a lot in transition. That is a Catch 22; you either take that away and now you put pressure on offense, in that you don't go to the offensive board as much. But they will send three and four back to take care of the transition. With what we can do in transition, I think you will see that, because we have been pretty good there.
Welsh is a solid player…he can hurt you outside and inside.
That is a difficult matchup. I think Erek knows him from the AAU days. He is tough, because he can shoot the three, drive and post. When you look at his numbers, he is averaging 13 and Hood is averaging 12, you don't look at those as phenomenal numbers, but in a low possession game, those are big time numbers for a team that is only scoring 58 per game. That is nearly 50 percent of their scoring and they are both hard to match up with.
Do you prefer the long stretches between games for the teaching benefits, or would your rather be playing two or three games a week?
When you are 10-1 and playing well, you probably want to play more games. But we can use the practice. I have said all along is that the neat thing about this team is that I don't think we are anywhere near our peak yet. I think this team can get better.
I thought we were really good in the second half against Texas Tech. We really showed a lot of maturity defensively, so I think there is a lot of room for growth. The practice is good, but we have not had a lot due to the Christmas break. We were gone in Thanksgiving, so we try to give the kids some time at home with their families at one or both of the holidays. We gave them three days off to do that, and came back late Christmas night. So it's not like we have had an abundance of practice, but now that we are getting through the holidays and getting into a routine, we will be able to do a lot of practicing and a lot of individual work just to try to get better on some weaknesses that we have.
Talk about Doug Thomas and his progress…what are some things about about coming from the Juco level that make it a tougher transition to this level, and do we expect too much right away?
One, it's a big adjustment academically. Then the level of a Big Ten schedule, to where you are playing in a high profile tournament like the Maui Classic, to coming home and playing three instate teams that you are not familiar with, then play a Big Twelve opponent in Texas Tech, the pressure of your own tournament around finals; it's an overwhelming situation where you never get to relax and say ‘I am in college now'.
We have seen great improvements out of Doug in the last 10 days. I felt he was much more active, more patient offensively, he started to rebound and run the floor, something he had not done well for a while, in the game against Texas Tech. He did not go home for the holiday, and he has been good in practice. That will be key for us, both he and Alex coming off the bench will be a key for what they can give us in the front court.
Is he a little more comfortable now?
He has been here through the summer and now he has been here for a semester. He now understands not just what is expected of him, but how difficult it is to be a student athlete, and the demands that are put on you. You can tell them that, but when you are a student athlete, you don't have a lot of free time. When you are used that and it's taken away from you, there is another adjustment. He has had a good semester and he has done the things he has needed to do, but just like for a freshman, it's overwhelming. Hopefully now with the break, he can relax and concentrate on playing basketball.
Steve, last year you described your coaching career as a work in progress…now a year later, you have beaten Pitino for the second time, you beat Bob Knight and you have a top 20 team. How do you feel now?
I hope each year that I keep trying to get better and do things that help me as a coach as well as a staff, and that helps our team gets better.
You are seeing a maturation of our team and program. We have had no distractions for close to a year, younger kids are getting older and understand the system and playing at this level. We have very talented guards, and you have to have that. I think we have had a talented guard here or there, where now we have talented guards. You have to have that to play at a high level. They are the ones handling the ball when it's close, they are shooting the free throws when you have to make them, when you have to get stops, they are the ones that start your defense.
That is not to say that we are not ecstatic with our front court, but through the years we have had a decent front court, we just have not been solid enough with a volume of guards, and we have that this year.
Is this the team that you have been waiting for, or building towards?
I love this team; there is no question about it. I am really enjoying them, and 10-1 helps. But I enjoy watching how they play.
I have been in this 13 full seasons (coaching). Christmas night was without question our best Christmas night practice. They are 10-1, coming off of a huge win, and three days off at home and a lot of travel problems. It was as a competitive practice as I have had, with high intensity. That is what makes it fun. I have not had to pull anything out of my hat to get this team to work hard and compete. They have listened and have tried to get better, and that is what we are excited about; the demeanor of this team is always ‘how can we get better'. Knowing that there is no senior in the rotation is pretty exciting.
With the start of the Big Ten season nine games away, what do you want to see your team accomplish this week aside from obvious two wins
We have not talked much about that. We have not even talked about St. Louis. These are two difficult home tests. We have done a good job at home and I am anxious to see if we can concentrate with all of the distractions of the holidays, if we can grind out two home wins and go into the conference season being perfect at home, knowing that we have eight home games remaining against outstanding opponents in our league, and knowing that we have played pretty well away from home, as well. I hope that we can just get better this week, get our bench some experience and put them into some tough situations and see how they react to some things. Not see our play slip, but see it improve when we go to the bench. Board play and defense; anytime you can beat a Big Twelve team by the margin that we beat them when your leading scorer has an off night, those are things we are looking for.
A year ago, it was tough for us to win games if Jeff, Pierre or Bru had off nights. This team has showed some good resolve when one of those guys are not on their top game. This team wants win #11. Michigan and the Big Ten are not a concern. This team knows that if they can get to 12 wins going into the Big Ten, that we have really set ourselves up for an exciting January and February.