I did see improvement this season. The team played extremely competitively at home and did not get blown out once at home. There were some disappointing blowouts on the road, some expected (Michigan St), some not expected (San Diego and Fresno).
I was hoping for a .500 conference record and a win in the WAC tourney. We did not achieve either goal and I'm very disappointed there. The last month, when a good team turns it up a notch and plays inspired, smart basketball, it never came. There was serious regression, which has me concerned. I will chalk a good part of it to playing very young players who need time to jell.
I also am concerned about some of the coaching decisions, overall fitness, and toughness in general from the team.
There are some very correctable situations that can occur from now until the first game next November.
I now will list some of the things that can be improved upon:
--Depth. I think our recruiting should reap some better players. Replacing the outgoing seniors with better transfers and incoming freshmen will help.
Another guard who can handle the ball and run the offense will take pressure off Graham so that he doesn't have to run the show for 40 minutes, although if he gets stronger (and he should, naturally), his stamina should improve to allow him to play 30-35 minutes instead of in the 20s.
--Fitness. I don't know how the players train during the offseason but all players should come into camp in top shape and ready to run their offensive and defensive sets from the first day of practice.
There's always in season conditioning and "game shape" to work on, but coming into training camp in top shape is mandatory. Last season, they went to England so they already had an advantage in game shape and fitness. This season, the players have to do it on their own until October.
--Defense. The team had too many lapses this season in areas where I think they're talented enough to perform and execute but did not get the job done. The guards allowed way too much early entry, causing our big guys to constantly get into foul trouble. I hope that we have more depth on the wings next season and can start pressuring the opposing team's PG and wings a little better.
If we can have wings playing all out for 20 to 25 minutes a game, it will allow our big guys to stay out of foul trouble and will cause serious matchup problems in our favor the last 5 minutes of games. Also, downside rotations and weakside coverage need to improve.
So often, it looked like the guys were chasing too often and were out of position on covering the three-point shot and then the sliding offensive players through the blocks.
These days, it's hard to play just straight-up man-to-man all game and not give the other team a chance to break you down. A good mix of zone and various man-to-man seems to be the way to go. Ultimately, I'd love to see the team have a 2-3 base, but move into a 1-2-2 with pressure and trapping at the baselines all the way up to the hash. I think our big men are good enough to defend the inside while the wings go out and harass the perimeter. This is fun to play, also.
The players love to play pressure defense and harass the other team. This is much more fun for the fans to watch and will get the fans into the game. I don't know how Ness feels about full court pressing. I think that unless you have a really deep team, it's better to pick up at half court and pressure at that point.
--Fast break. I don't that we have a team that's set up to be a pure running team, but with the rebounding capability, it's definitely a team that should be able to beat other teams down the floor consistently in a "secondary break" style.
What I mean is that there may not be many occasions where they get a true 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 with wing guys running and passing, but I do see (and did see) plenty of occasions where you get a 4-on-3 and 5-on-4, or even 4-on-4 with 2 of our big men coming down the court and the other team's big guy trailing the play.
What I did not see much of in these cases was the wings clearing out the lane, and one of our bigs crashing into the lane, and posting up the defense's trailing wing guys. I would so often see CJ or Oakes coming down the lane and just standing straight up, quite often behind a much smaller defender. Our bigs need to dive into the lane, plant themselves around the dotted circle, and post the crap out of a smaller guy.
The guards to need to look first inside and reward these guys for doing it. It's a great way to draw a lot of cheap fouls. It also forces the other team into a major quandry. Do they now go small to try to regain an edge on the break, do they go bigger to try to be able to defend the post players, or do they slow the game down to a crawl to limit the break?
This is COACHING, and when you have big guys who can run the floor a bit (they don't have to be speedsters, just fast and aware enough to be a couple of steps quicker than their opponent, then take advantage of it. Another advantage to running the secondary break is once your big guys are jamming the post, then if a wing guy shoots a 3, the big guys jam their guys under the basket, so that when that long rebound comes, the offense has a huge advantage for the offensive rebound. This has to be practiced and the big guys have to get the ball enough to want to continue running down the court.
--Finishing. I saw a young team this season that still has the thought of losing in their minds. Quite often, there would be occasions where they were just on the verge of going up large in a game (like 10+ points) and they would just stall out.
The team would start settling for outside jumpers, not pass the ball around to make the defense work, not crash the offensive glass, then come back on D, allow easy dribble penetration, forget about downside and weakside responsibility, and let teams right back into the game. In the college game, you're constantly coaching in 4 to 5 minute increments, in between each mandatory timeout.
If your team is down 8 with 8 minutes to go in the first half, you tell them that you'd like them to cut the lead to 5 by the next timeout--something manageable. You don't want your team to fall down double digits. You also know that you probably are not going to be leading by the next timeout but of course you don't tell them that.
I actually think Nessman does a reasonable job of this aspect of coaching when the team is trailing. But I think something's missing when we're ahead. Part of it is youth and inexperience winning, but the coach can definitely change that up. This is an area that I will watch big time next season.
If this aspect does not improve, then I think a coaching change is in order. I believe that if you go back and look at every game, if the team puts together a slightly longer run to either put more pressure on a team or finish them off near the end, that we have at least a .500 record.
--Toughness. I will end here. I think team is fun to watch, they showed improvement from the beginning to middle part of the season, but faded at the end. Part of that is toughness. For young players, the season is a grind.
It's longer than high school, and the road travel is much longer and frequent. These are adjustments. That's why I expect a young team like ours to struggle with the conference road games.
However, although the team played much better at home, they should have won more at home. The last 2 home games vs. Boise St and Idaho should have been victories. The team did not finish either team off when they had a chance. They also never made a definitive statement in either game, starting with the coaches and ending with the players.
The coach needs to call proper timeouts to stop the action, make adjustments, and let his players know that he's in it, every second of the way. Ness, IMO, should have gotten himself T'd up both games, if only to get the crowd on the refs more. Also, as a player, I know from experience that if my coach gets T'd up, I'd better step up my game in response or my ass is going to the pine for a long time.
I also am of the belief that on occasion, when a team is driving and diving, that you knock them on their ass once in a while. If a team sets a lot of screens, you beat them to the screen, and you run them over.
I had a coach who taught us that when we beat a screener, to knock him down definitively so that the ref would call an offensive foul. It worked, too. You talk to the ref, tell him what's about to happen, and the way I coached it was that you always picked up your opponent after you knocked him down to let them know that you're not dirty and to let him know that you're always on him.
Every sport has a clean, physical way of dictating the action. In baseball, you pitch inside (at the legs, never at the head), slide hard and clean, take out the catcher if he's blocking the plate.
In football, you do it every play, good and clean. In hockey, you check your guy and get in front of the net. In basketball, you set good, quick, clean screens, block out hard with an occasional elbow when the ref's not looking (never to the face), and on defense, you knock a guy down occasionally inside, or a guy driving and diving, and you blow out the screeners.
The toughness aspect comes from an individual's makeup, of course, but the overall toughness, and how you execute, comes from the coach. Some coaches teach to contest every layup, some say let the easy layup go through and don't get in foul trouble.
Some coaches like to switch on screens and some like to contest every screen. A mix is usually preferable if the players are savvy enough to pick and choose when to be aggressive and when to hold back.
But it seems like this team holds back most of the time. There's nothing wrong with dictating the play occasionally.
Just pick up your opponent and let them know you're not being dirty.
Remember, Banana Spartan also knows the truth!