Gottlieb: Five Keys to a Final Four Run

Former Oklahoma State point guard Doug Gottlieb, now an outspoken college basketball analyst for ESPN and the co-host of GameNight for ESPN Radio, shares with us what he thinks it will take for the Cowboys to make a run to the Final Four in St. Louis. This article can also be found in the March issue of Go Pokes Magazine.

What's it going to take for the Oklahoma State Cowboys to make a serious run through the NCAA Tournament? Do the Cowboys have what it takes to go on a run like they did a year ago – defeating Eastern Washington (75-56), Memphis (70-53), Pittsburgh (63-51) and St. Joseph's (64-62) – to get to the Final Four?

We asked former OSU point guard Doug Gottlieb, who played in three NCAA Tournaments for the Cowboys (1998-2000), to offer his insight in what it takes for a team to make a serious run during March Madness. Gottlieb and the Cowboys won their first game in the Big Dance three consecutive years but then lost in the round of 32, failing to advance to the Sweet 16. Gottlieb is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN and the co-host of GameNight for ESPN Radio.

Here are Gottlieb's five keys to Oklahoma State – or any team for that matter – making another run to the Final Four:

5. Maintain your conditioning and strength
Over the course of a season that runs almost six months (from the first day of practice in mid-October until the first of April) teams and players can wear down, Gottlieb says. "A lot of guys lose between 5 and 10 pounds during the season," he said.

But there's a fine balance between resting your players, especially as the season winds down, and making sure they stay in basketball shape and stay strong. In a normal week, teams will play two conference games during the season. But once in the postseason tournament they may play three or four games in as many days.

"A lot of coaches trim practice to an hour or an hour and a half, and sometimes you lose your conditioning and strength," Gottlieb said. "Therefore, in the weeks leading up to the tournament, coaches have to have the foresight to condition their teams."

Gottlieb used an example of a team playing an ESPN Big Monday game on Monday night and not having another game until Saturday (which OSU had happen three times during the regular season). "On Tuesday, coaches could have the players do extra lifting and extra conditioning and don't have a practice," he said. "What can happen, and often does, is by the end of the season the mind is willing but the body isn't."

And, coaches had better think about it during the final weeks of the regular season because it's too late once postseason play begins. "Once the (NCAA) tournament begins there really isn't time or the ability to lift or to condition," Gottlieb said. "Let's say you play on Thursday, that means you leave on Tuesday, have your press conference on Wednesday and play on Thursday, and there's no time in there for lifting or conditioning."

4. Shorten your bench
Gottlieb says it is normally not a problem for Eddie Sutton and the OSU coaching staff, but there are some teams that enter postseason play still using 10- or 11-man rotations. That, he says, usually is a recipe for trouble.

"By the time conference play is winding down coaches have to whittle it down to eight or nine guys, or maybe even seven guys," Gottlieb says. "If you don't do it, and you don't have a consistent pattern, players really don't know what their roles are. By shortening your bench your starters and the guys giving major minutes off the bench know exactly what their roles are going to be, and they have a lot more confidence."

Gottlieb says the same logic applies to players who face foul trouble during the season.

"Sometimes it's not a bad thing to play a guy in foul trouble," he said. "Sometimes when a player gets his second or third foul in the first half it's good to let him play through it, especially if you're going against a team you should beat or playing in a game that you know you're going to win.

"Coach Sutton did that with Stephen Graham and (Daniel) Bobik at Texas Tech (on Jan.8 ). A guy has to learn how to play with foul trouble, not to reach, and if a guy beats me to the basket I've got to let him go and not pick up another foul.

"I see coaches, and my father was this way too, when a guy gets his second foul in the first half, they sit a guy down, especially if it's a guard. To me, if you're a guard and you are one of your team's best players you have to be on the floor. I've seen too many times when a team's best player goes out of the game, that's when the game changes and a team makes a run that they shouldn't be able to make."

Just who does Gottlieb see as players OSU has to keep on the floor during the NCAA Tournament? "Joey Graham and Ivan McFarlin are irreplaceable," he said.

3. Have a swagger
There is always an upset here or there but invariably the top-seeded teams – especially those receiving a top four seed – prove why the selection committee thought so highly of them. How many times during the NCAA Tournament does a powerhouse like Connecticut last season jump out to an early lead over a first-round opponent like Vermont and then almost completely shut them down for a 8- or 10-minute stretch to take a commanding lead? By the time Vermont realizes what hit it UConn is on a roll en route to an easy 70-53 victory (see last season's first-round victory by the Huskies).

"A lot of what happens in the NCAA Tournament is based upon the fact that teams play very confidently or they play very tight," Gottlieb said. "You have to play with confidence and have a swagger, especially on the defensive end where guys know that if they can crank up their defense they can take any team out of their offense. That can cause any team trouble. A couple of great defensive efforts at the end of the season in conference play make a big difference."

Gottlieb uses last season's Oklahoma State team as an example. In the last few weeks of the season the Cowboys used strong defensive efforts against No. 12 Kansas (defeating the Jayhawks 80-60, their worst in three years), Oklahoma (65-52, holding the Sooners to 30.9 percent shooting from the field), and No. 10 Texas (76-67).

"If you can take an Oklahoma, a Kansas and Texas out of their offense you realize you can take anybody out of their offense," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb said Eddie Sutton is one of the best at getting his players to believe they are better than their opponent when it comes tournament time.

"He's good at getting his team to relax and believe that they're better than the opponent," he said. "He makes you feel like ‘if we just do what we're supposed to do we're going to take them out of their offense and win the game.' You go out there believing that, ‘if you're doing things the right way and doing what you've been taught in practice, you enter the game with a mentality that allows you to feel like we know everything you're going to run, and we've got you.'"

2. Bring back old ways to score
Oklahoma State pulled a play out of the playbook that it didn't use a single time during the regular season to defeat Seton Hall in the Sweet 16 of the 2000 NCAA Tournament. It's a good thing they remembered how to run it because the Cowboys needed every single point in the 68-66 victory.

"We had a play we called Cyclone that we stole from Iowa State," Gottlieb said. "We only ran it my sophomore and junior years. We didn't run it my senior year. But during the game against Seton Hall, during a timeout Sean (Sutton) suggested that we try Cyclone.

"He said, ‘Want me to draw it up?' We all looked at him and said, "No, we got it.' We ran it probably about eight times that game and got layup after layup, bucket after bucket. It was the difference in that game."

Gottlieb said that teams probably have about 50-60 offensive plays they run during the regular season. "Over the course of a season coaches tend to fall in love with certain plays," he said. "But in conference games those plays change because everybody knows what you're running. When you get to the tournament, very few teams know what you're doing, so you bring back some of your favorite plays."

For a veteran team (ie. Oklahoma State this year) that works out well.

"Baskets and good looks are so hard to come by in the tournament," Gottlieb said. "You have to go back to your old ways of scoring, and go back to the plays your team feels comfortable running. In close games a lot of coaches get lazy. They just say run the high post, pick and roll offense. Other teams with a good point guard just try to let him make a play. "But if you can get a lay up or a wide open shot late in the game that can be a back breaker. That happened several times last year for Oklahoma State."

1. Continue to develop individual offensive games
Compare the shooting percentages from OSU's four wins in last year's NCAA Tournament:
1) OSU, 54.5 percent; Eastern Washington, 35.6
2) OSU, 59.6 percent, Memphis, 40.0
3) OSU, 48.9 percent, Pittsburgh, 36.2
4) OSU, 47.2 percent, St. Joseph's, 38.6
"The basics are this: So much of your focus during the season is on team, team, team, team, but to win in the NCAA Tournament and get to the Final Four you've got to have good offensive players and you've got to make shots," Gottlieb said. "So many great teams are not able to win in the NCAA Tournament and it's real simple, they weren't able to score. Michigan State several years back was a great team and everyone expected them to contend for the national championship but they didn't because they didn't have people who could score. Coaches can draw up the best plays in the world but if the shots don't go in ..."

Thus, practice at the end of the season should focus more on individual drills than during the middle of the year.

"Coaches undervalue working on a player's game," Gottlieb said. "Coaches have players spend the entire summer and entire fall working on their games, but then they spend the entire winter and spring working on playing team ball and the team aspect. Guys have to continue to work on their individual games. Late in the season guys should be spending more time in practice on shooting, developing ways to score, working on free-throw shooting.

"Everything revolves around getting the ball in the basket. It used to be that if you could just stop the other team you could win. But now with the three-point line, and teams being able to score quickly and in so many different ways, you have to be able to score."

Gottlieb says the OSU coaching staff does an outstanding job of breaking down film to show a player where he can improve offensively and then working one-on-one with that player.

"Good shooting will cover up a lot of your weaknesses," Gottlieb said. "In some games you'll hear people say a team played well when they hit 13 or 14 threes. And that may be the case, but more times than not they just got hot and by hitting a lot of threes they are covering up that they didn't play well offensively. "It's incredibly important, especially when it gets time for the NCAA Tournament, to remember no one wins without scoring."

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