A Lesson in Chemistry

Until quite recently, Rutgers appeared to be a team going nowhere fast. The Scarlet Knights lost to both St Peter's and Rider, and were 0-6 in Big East play. Then RU thumped Villanova at home in a game they never trailed, and then traveled to Pittsburgh to hand the Panthers only their 9th home loss in 100 games. Both wins were by double-digits. Why has this happened? SOR takes a look at why.

Basketball is a truly unique game. Like any sport, individual skills are obviously necessary, and players that can take over a game stand out. However, unlike football, and especially baseball, it's also a game that when played at its highest level is a game of interaction. The degree to which this is the case is indeed much more so than in any other sport. Hall of Fame coach Al McGuire once said you play the five guys who play the best together as a team, not your five best players.
If you want proof, take a look at any team that ever wins a championship in basketball, be it high school, college, or the NBA. It's a virtual certainty that any championship team, at any of these levels, is a team in the truest sense of the word. Each player knows what his role is, and everyone is on the same page. There is no bickering about someone taking too many shots or someone not getting enough shots- and if there is, it's less so than on other teams. The defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs are a classic example of this.
Developing this harmonious balance - commonly referred to as good team chemistry - is often quite difficult. The NBA is a league that is somewhat notorious for the individual, sometimes outright selfish, play of many of its members. This includes some of the leagues greatest players, with Kobe Bryant being perhaps the most notable. Here's a player who may have actually resented sharing the spotlight by playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal in his prime (keep in mind that this pairing resulted in three NBA titles).
He only lately seems to have changed. As Dave D'Alessandro wrote recently in the Newark Star Ledger: "Kobe Bryant is having his worst statistical year since the dynasty broke up, but because he has learned to shaddap and go with the flow, the Lakers are having their best year." Many basketball fans are aware of this propensity among NBA players - it is, after all, a league that is all about its stars. The degree to which such a mindset is prevalent on the amateur level might surprise some people.

To fully understand this, consider the events surrounding one of the most special memories that many Rutgers basketball fans have: the 1988-89 season, when Rutgers went from seven wins the year before to the NCAA tournament the next. That was a team where everyone knew their roles, everyone knew what the "pecking order" was: Tom Savage would take the most shots, Rick Dadika would take the next most, and Craig Carter (currently an RU assistant coach) would take most of what was left. Emory Ward and Anthony Duckett would primarily bang down low and rebound.
That team would return four starters the following year, graduating only Ward. It would be joined by two promising freshman, Mike Jones and Donnell Lumpkin. However, by far the most anticipated and consequential additions that next season would be Keith Hughes and Earl Duncan, both highly regarded transfers from Syracuse, who sat out during the turnaround year. The expectations for Rutgers were now the highest they had been since perhaps their final four year.
Things, however, did not go as planned. Suffice it to say that the new pecking order needed rearrangement, and that it never did get completely worked out. So while there is no doubt the Scarlet Knights were a far more talented team the following year, they were not a better team. In fact, they weren't even as good. Despite the suddenly high expectations (Street & Smith's had RU at #20 in their preseason poll), they actually took a step back the following year, only making the NIT.
Although the comparison is far from exact, the current Scarlet Knights squad has had transitions as well. A core group of returning players, all upperclassmen, has had to meld together and adjust with four freshmen, two of whom - Corey Chandler and Mike Coburn - came to RU with a considerable amount of hype (especially Chandler). Players, even at this relatively young age, have egos, particularly in this era of year-round basketball and the internet, where they can emerge as "stars" as early as the 8th or 9th grade (not that any current Rutgers player ever received that kind of attention).
Perhaps the single biggest impetus for change this year had been the losing. After being practically laughed off the court up at the Carrier Dome (and you know it's gotten out of hand when the other team just starts running alley-oops on every possession), the young men on this team took a good hard look at themselves, and came to the extremely worthwhile realization that they way they had been doing things was not working. It was time for a change, and they were ready to make it.

Anthony Farmer has probably been the biggest factor in this. He has basically said, "Look, I'm a three year starter, I know what I can do, and I'm not going to settle for this". Leadership is indeed an indispensable quality. JR Inman has responded to some extremely harsh criticisms (much of it unfair), and realized just how many ways he can help this team aside from scoring. Players his size that possess his agility, athleticism, and lateral movement don't come along too often (particularly in an RU uniform), and his don't-show-up-in-the-box-score contributions on defense have been critically important.
Jaron Griffin has recovered from a nightmarish start to become a veritable model of efficiency of late. His ability to persevere and come through an incredibly difficult stretch is emblematic of this team. Byron Joynes meanwhile has quietly kept choppin' (sorry, it just fit) and is now having an impact, and if you still doubt it, just ask DeJuan Blair and the rest of the Pitt frontcourt. Hamady continues to get better and better and better. Before he was just a tall guy that took up basketball - now he's a basketball player.
Then there's Mike Coburn and Corey Chandler. As incomprehensible as it may have seemed before (particularly to yours truly), there was actually a silver lining to Chandler's injury: it enabled Coburn to get more minutes as a starter. Coburn has clearly settled down and settled in, and the reigning Big East Rookie of the Week now suddenly appears a force to be reckoned with. His ability to handle the point and mesh with Farmer is what that chemistry thing is all about. Chandler meanwhile continues to recover and get better and make vital contributions while now coming off the bench (Once again it's that chemistry thing).
All things considered, it might be wise for RU fans not to get overly excited about this recent turn of events. Once again, no exact comparison is intended between this team and the '88-'89 squad, and it is no way suggested that this team will win the Big East tournament and make the NCAA's the way that team won the A-10 tourny and made it. This team needs to first show it can even make the tournament this year. Each game will of course reveal a lot, and Wednesday's blood feud at home with Seton Hall (a team with many similarities internally to RU), will be telling. Should RU pull that one out, however, and even this writer will acknowledge that a corner has been turned.

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