Keno Davis Interview – Part III

Keno Davis has a year of coaching in the Big East under his belt, but next season will be the first one in which he can coach players that he's brought in to play his preferred style of basketball. ScoutFriars.com sat down with the Friar head basketball coach for a Q and A that covers everything from the Friar recruits to Coach Davis' thoughts on installing his up tempo style at Providence.

Part III

SH: Were you happy with the program's progress in year one here?

KD: Yes, I think when you come into a new program that has a veteran roster, we tried to maximize our potential in terms of wins. So we wanted to see how many wins we could get, and that wasn't necessarily by playing our exact preferred style on either offense or defense. We took what we had as a team and played to our strengths. Now we could have said "No, this is the way we're going to do it", and we would have likely won four games less.

I think it was important to the fans and for the seniors who had put in their time here that we played the players who could give us the best chance of winning this year. We went with the style that we felt would be most successful. I think it was pretty successful for us that we were able to take care of business. Maybe other than Northeastern, we beat just about every team that was equal or behind us at the end of the season.

SH: Perhaps you could have stolen either St. Mary's or Boston College?

KD: Maybe, but you're talking about beating an NCAA team in BC on the road, St. Mary's might have been the best team left out of the tournament, and Baylor, who was unbelievably talented despite their record. Could we have won those games? Sure, but we also beat Pitt and Syracuse and yet we probably weren't the better team even though we beat them. The thing is we won all those other games where maybe we were just a little bit better than those other teams.

SH: I think beating the teams you should beat was probably the most impressive facet of this past season. If you can do that going forward, you will have success here.

KD: No, you can't do that. It just can't be done. Someone was talking to me before the Big East season and circled all the games we should win to be in good shape. I told him it never turns out that way. This was maybe the only year that I can remember where it worked out that way.

SH: Sure, but if you generally beat the teams who you have a talent advantage over, doesn't it follow that as your recruiting improves, the bar will naturally move higher over time? Isn't that what building a program is all about?

KD: I think what you have to look at is it's not just about winning the games, it's important that you play hard in every single game. So many teams take games "off" when it comes to effort. If you take a game off vs. Rutgers, or vs. South Florida, or vs. Depaul, those are the losses that are unacceptable. If you play really hard, and you happen to drop one at Seton Hall, you can live with it. If you play hard and you just get beat you can live with it.

Now when you have more depth, you can fight through those nights when certain players aren't performing at their best and you can sit them on the bench and bring in the next guy. When we had eight players who were head and shoulders above the rest, they wanted to play and may have wanted more minutes, but they knew there was an eight man rotation and that they were in it. They knew that guys 9 or 10 weren't likely to get into the game. I would hope to have more flexibility going forward where I could move players in or out of the top eight based on performance, where up to 11 guys are fighting for a spot in the rotation's top 8 or top 5.

SH: Some have said that the players coming in need to be tougher than the players exiting. Is that just talk or do you agree with that sentiment?

KD: I don't know that we need tougher players, but I do think we need to have better intensity as a team throughout the game. I think what fans will see at times when they'll look out they'll say "I don't see players working as hard as they should, or fighting for every rebound, or in the right defensive stance, or running the court hard enough. They aren't showing the proper energy." We took a team that really wasn't an up and down team, and tried to go up and down with that kind of intensity. I was pleased with the progress during the year, but we need to increase the intensity of our team going forward. With a deeper team that is more suited to an up and down style, it will be easier to maintain the necessary intensity on the floor at any one time.

SH: The book on Providence in recent years has also been that they don't play good defense. When it comes to defense coach, would you agree that it's a key for the Friars to stay out of the bottom four of the Big East in team defense?

KD: I think when you look at the top four or the bottom four when it comes to defense in the Big East, what you have to look at is field goal percentage defense. You shouldn't really look at scoring as your indicator, especially if we are going to be scoring quickly.

If you look at North Carolina, Tennessee, or Missouri that really push the ball, and they are winning games 95-85, they're going to be last in their league in defense for scoring. What we really need to focus on is our defensive field goal percentage, and our defensive rebounding. If you take care of those things and then you are giving up 80 points a game, we're still going to be OK, because we're going to try to score 100 a game. I'm not worried where we finish in scoring defense, but I am worried about our field goal percentage defense in the two point range, in the three point range, and limiting free throws. Those are the statistics I really look at on the defensive end.

SH: I think the team did a solid job limiting free throws this year. In the past, even when the team would play a good set of defense, they would too often foul and bail out the opposing team. Doing a better job with that this past season also limited the team's foul trouble.

KD: That's a big reason why we were able to win a lot of close games. We didn't lose many close games going 10-8 in the league. When you look at all the close games we were able to win, I think it was because we were able to get to the free throw line, and we were able to keep the other team off of it. Marquette was a close one we lost, but we ran out of bodies in that one so I throw that one out. But if you look at the Seton Hall game, at Cincinnati, at Rutgers, all those games went down to the end and we were able to win.

We'd drive it and get to the free throw line, and then at the other end, they wouldn't always make shots, so there would be some trips they'd come up empty. Forcing a low field goal percentage defensively, keeping them off the free throw line, and your defensive rebounding are all keys to winning the close ones. If you can take four or five offense rebounds away from your opposition, which otherwise would turn into easy baskets, you're really helping yourself.

SH: You're losing a 1000 rebound guy in Geoff McDermott plus two other senior front court players in Kale and Hanke. Do you think rebounding is going to be a big problem this year?

KD: No, I don't think so. Say you take your fours and fives. Geoff was getting 8, Kale was getting 5 and 1/2, and Hanke was getting three. So from the four and five spots we were getting around 17 rebounds this year, so we've got to be able to do that next season to be the same. Now can we be better? Can our new guys and players like Bilal and Jamine out rebound the outgoing group? If they can, we could be really tough on the boards.

I feel that if we are able to go after the ball from all our positions next year, we're really going to be OK. Our guards have to be better rebounders this coming season. I just felt like this year there were too many times when there were not enough guys going after the ball. We might have seen one guy going after the ball when you need to see three guys in there. When the ball goes up, you've got to go after it every time and if you do, you'll get your share. I think guys like Jamine and Bilal are guys that will get after it and I'm excited about the energy they'll bring on the court.

SH: If you can play man-2-man defense next season, it seems it would make it easier to grab rebounds than it would be playing zone. Do you agree?

KD: I disagree completely.

SH: Really? Conventional wisdom seems to indicate that boxing out is easier when you aren't playing zone.

KD: You hear it all the time, but I would love to see the statistics that say you can rebound better in M2M. When you look at when John Chaney was at Temple, or Boeheim at Syracuse who always plays zone, their teams always rebound well. Why? Because teams shoot a lot of outside shots. When they shoot outside shots you've already got rebounding position on them and they don't get to the basket as much.

The other thing that might skew things a little bit when you hear announcers say it's harder to rebound out of zone is that some teams play zone out of necessity because they are not as good as the other team. If they aren't as good, they aren't going to be as good a rebounding team. So if you're not as good and you're playing zone because of it, you're going to get out rebounded no matter what defense you play. I believe that if you are playing zone and you have the inside position, you force outside shots and you're going to be a better rebounding team.

I think that the teams playing primarily zone, not the bad teams playing zone but the good teams playing zone…I feel they are some of the best rebounding teams in the country.

SH: You don't feel that if you're playing zone and the opposition gets an offensive rebound, they won't have an easier 2nd chance opportunity because the defense is not necessarily matched up on body?

KD: I don't see why. If you are playing man, and they drive by you, you have to have someone come over and help, as there is no weak side rebounding. However, if you are in zone, and they can't drive by you but are forced to take a jump shot, you've got the inside position. Even if they get the rebound, at least you are in position to play defense because they got ball on a long rebound. It's not like someone's dunking on the side of you because they go right by you on the weak side.

SH: So the boxing out assignments are not much different than you'd have in M2M?

KD: Yes, there are always box out responsibilities. It doesn't mean that we've always gotten the boxing out responsibilities figured out on the court, but I think the idea is that you have to box out who is in your area, and you're guards have to come in to provide help. In the 3-2 defense we play, you always have your 4 or 5 right on the weak side rebounding spot, so that's why if you are a really good rebounder you should be able to get double digit rebounds playing in that area. If you are playing M2M, you might be guarding someone on the perimeter, and now are you boxing them out on the perimeter to get the rebound? If you are playing inside in a zone, it can be easier to accomplish both things.

SH: You mentioned getting guards more involved in rebounding next year. What do you make of Brian McKenzie's struggles this past year and what might turn things around for him next season?

KD: I think with Brian and most players, you've got to be able to understand how to help the team in other ways when your shot isn't falling. Whether it's defense, rebounding, driving to the basket or running the break, you've got to contribute the best you can. I think he probably got frustrated that his shot wasn't falling, and he tried so hard he started to press and things got away from him. At the end of the year, you saw in the NIT game how hard he played. He was aggressive and he was getting after it and as a result, his shot started to go down for him.

SH: I don't want to play pop psychologist, but do you think he maybe he felt the NIT game was sort of his first game of next year and he felt some pressure may have been taken off his shoulders?

KD: I think psychology plays a big part in it, and sometimes throughout the year a player has two or three games where the shots just start falling and all of a sudden you are shooting well. Maybe a guy can get to the free throw line even though his shot is not falling. If you can make a few free throws maybe you then develop a little more confidence to knock down the next outside shot. You would see nights this year where Weyinmi would throw up some air balls. Yet, he could get to the free throw line two or three times in a row rather then just take himself out of the offensive flow.

So for Brian, the more he can develop other parts of his game, the more he'll be able to fight through any shooting struggles he might have in any game or week. He can be a good shooter though, he's just got to learn to be more consistent. As he develops the other parts of his game, he'll be more confident when he takes shots, because he knows that if he doesn't make them, he can rely on other things to contribute to the team. When shooting is the only part of your offensive game and the shots aren't falling, you think too much about the next shot and you can't do that. You've got to just shoot the ball and not think about it, so hopefully another development summer will get him where he needs to be.

SH: You've been through one season in the Big East now. How is the Big East different than what you expected or what did you take away from this season coaching in the Big East?

KD: I think it's easy to see how the very best Big East team's are able to succeed on the court with all the NBA talent they have, but what I found more interesting to learn was how some of the other teams managed to challenge for the top 3 or 4 and made the NCAA tournament without a bunch of McDonald's All Americans to get there. You want to try to do the same thing but yet you want to do it with your own system. But yet you can still take away from it "Yes, it can be done."

We can be in the NCAA, we can have a winning team, and it can be done without recruiting McDonald's All Americans. It would be great to get a McDonald's All American and we're going to try to do that, but if we don't we can still be successful. I think if you look at the development of Dante Cunningham at Villanova you say "Wow, what a great shooter he became", when he wasn't that highly regarded coming out of high school. Or what did Ryan Gomes do in his time here at Providence? You try to take those examples and teach your freshman to see what they might be able to achieve if they really buy into it.

You want to make sure that any player who comes in doesn't short change their opportunity to become that type of player. You've got to be able to lay it out for them and tell them, "This is what you need to do to give yourself a chance." If they do it and you are able to have a few of those guys really improve along with some of your players who were more highly regarded coming in, you're going to have yourself a pretty good team.

SH: Besides the leap in talent from the Missouri Valley to the Big East, did you also find there was a jump in the level of scouting, video analysis, or coaching adjustments you saw at this level? Or did you find that coaching is coaching and it's all the same?

KD: A lot has been talked about the Big East, and I'm not downplaying any of the accolades that coaches have received in the Big East, because they are Hall of Fame coaches. Some of these guys are Hall of Fame Coaches. But what's the difference between the coaching in the Missouri Valley and Big East? It's tough to say.

You could take a Missouri Valley coach and give him a Big East team and say "here you go." Would you be able to tell the difference in coaching if you watch as a fan, or do you just look at the jersey and say "oh, that coach is a lot better." I'm not so sure. I came from a conference where we were sometimes playing in 16 or 17 thousand fan arenas at times. So, I think the difference between the Big East from where I was at is that the talent is better at this level.

In the Big East, you are getting guys that are a little bigger, a little stronger, a little faster. Generally not as good at shooting at the highest level because they do other things well. So, you try to understand all that in your game planning and how you develop your players. It doesn't mean you want to mimic what Pittsburgh does, or what Syracuse does. You want players who fit your system. If we try to play the same way Pittsburgh plays, we'll always be behind them. We need to say that this is what we're going to do, and we're going to be the best at doing that.

Maybe in the future we can recruit some McDonald's All Americans, because some will want to play a 90 point game. They might say I don't want to play a grind it out game, I want to go to Providence because I want to play 90 and 100 point games. We may be able to beat out some really high profile programs once guys really get a chance to see us play.

It was tough coming in and saying to recruits this is how we are going to play, because every coach likes to talk how they'll be a running team, even if they are putting up 40 point games. Once we establish our identity here, it will be much easier to distinguish ourselves.

SH: Establishing an identity for a program is critical, and I think John Beilein has done a great job establishing his style of play both at West Virginia and now Michigan, and I take it you will be looking forward to branding your own style of basketball here at Providence?

KD: I think Michigan is a great example. Michigan kids are going to be able to shoot the ball. Kids know what Tennessee is about where they know they are going to get up and down the floor. So, what's Providence's identity going to be? Hopefully a lot of both.

When people look down the road, I'd like to think they might say, "No team runs as much as they do." I'd like them to think that we have a style that's fun to watch, that's fun to play in, and fun to be a fan of. Hopefully our system will be successful for us, partly because we'll be able to get our type of recruits here, and partly because we'll be able to get easy baskets and not get forced into half court games against the top teams in the Big East.

SH: Thanks for your time Coach, and best of luck with all your plans for this off season.

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