We have Talent, Now what? Role of Team Leaders

Talent is always important to a winning basketball team but good leadership is frequently a trait of championship teams. Today VU hoops analyst Jake Lowery takes a look at this critical aspect of the 2005-06 Vanderbilt men's basketball team.

"See man, that's the worst attitude I've ever heard."

"Attitude reflects leadership, captain."

-- from Remember the Titans

So, the buzz around the SEC is that Vanderbilt has arrived in terms of top-to-bottom talent. What now? What takes a team from "talented" to successful?

Two years ago the Dores were called "too white," perhaps because the media thought that Matt was the team's only important player. Sure enough, when Matt left, Vandy was astoundingly slated to finish dead last in the SEC East by several media sources, below even UGA. By the end of the season, the team's veteran players had stepped up their game, and the freshmen had proven themselves, as a group, to be even more talented than anyone expected. This coming season, although the Dores lose three seniors, that is overwhelmed by the gains in maturity, experience, and new talent in the program.

What does this team need to do if they want to accomplish something great this season? Finally, Vanderbilt's limiting factor is not a talent issue, now that they appear to be among the top few teams in the SEC in terms of ability. Duke's famous Coach K put it this way: "Talent is important, but the single most important ingredient after you get talent is the internal leadership. It's not the coaches as much as one single person or people on the team who set higher standards than the team would normally set for itself." Vanderbilt is lucky to have two seniors who can fit that role to a T.

Mario Moore (photo right by Bryce Wells) is in a position to be a great leader for this team. As the starting point guard, who will likely play 27 or more minutes per game, Mario will be making key decisions and leading the team when they are on the court. As he split time with Russell Lakey at the point as early as his freshman season, and became the uncontested starter in his sophomore year, he has a wealth of experience that gives him capability to lead and credibility with other players. Obviously, his status as a senior makes any leadership role a more natural one. He and Coach Stallings have had rough spots in the past, but having come through those situations, they have a relationship of mutual trust and reliance that will allow Mario to effectively represent the team's opinion and help Stallings "take the pulse" of the squad.

Julian Terrell is another obvious senior leader. His performance as an individual will be important to the team, and he is the most experienced big man amongst Vandy's relatively young post players: the others being a freshman, redshirt freshman, two sophomores (counting DeMarre Carroll), and a junior. Last year, he experienced hard times in his life off-the-court, including the death of his mother. That experienced surely has helped him to mature and learn some difficult life lessons. A silver lining to his tough 2004-05 year is that he emerges as a stronger person and a man more capable of effective leadership, both on and off the court. Julian has always had exciting potential, and showed flashes of brilliant play late last season, and if he can play that calibur of basketball, he can further enhance his ability to lead.

With Mario and Julian, the team certainly has leaders, but that is not enough on its own. The NBA abounds with examples of team leaders who do more harm than good with that leadership. So what is it that makes a team leader's role on the team a positive and important one?

(1) A good team leader helps the team develop high standards, a positive team culture, and a tough work ethic. Mario and Julian need to be the guys leading the way in the weightroom and the classroom, not just on the basketball court. Players take their cues from the leaders on everything from respecting the coaching staff to their expectations of success for the season.

(2) If a team crumbles under pressure, the leaders aren't doing their job. Two years ago, Vandy's team leader was also the "go-to guy" when the team needed points in a key situation. Mario and Julian, as a duo, need to be able to take the pressure in similar situations this year. Other team members have better shot selection when there are "go-to guys" on the court -- they play with urgency and intensity, but not panic. Their physical and mental abilities are still at a peak when the pressure is on, but they feel comfortable passing it to a known leader if their opportunity just isn't there.

(3) Good team leaders are an extension of the coaching staff. They can tell the coaches about discipline problems and help the coach understand why another player might be having difficulties. Teammates are much more likely to know about the players' personal lives than the coaching staff is. Julian and Mario need to be able to discern if there is a serious issue the coaches should know about, or whether a player is just in a short-term funk on the court.

(4) Likewise, leaders need to keep the team accountable about off-the-court decisions. CKS won't be snooping around the players' suites on campus a night or two before a game to see if anyone's drinking excessively, but team leaders have the credability and responsibility to stop that kind of thing from effecting the team's performance. As several authors have put it, team leaders and team captains should be "insurance against stupid decisions" that could hurt the program or its reputation.

Mario and Julian more than likely already have enough credibility with the team to be able to lead in those four ways. However, the coaches can always promote good leadership and further magnify the role of their leaders, increasing the leaders' credibility. Coaches can give the players opportunities to lead the team through little things, like leading warmups and drills to being an official conduit for the team's opinions. Coaches can also give the team leaders input in decisions, from small things like location of a team dinner or when to have practice to bigger choices, such as scheduling an out of conference matchup or having input on disciplinary actions. If the coach and leaders show respect for eachother, it sends a clear signal to the rest of the team that cliques will not be tolerated, and the team will probably experience unity throughout the season.

So now that Vanderbilt has the talent in place, alot will depend on the seniors' leadership. While younger players can also fulfill some leadership roles, Julian Terrell and Mario Moore are uniquely positioned to be exceptionally strong leaders for Vanderbilt. Keep checking VandyMania.com this summer to hear about other factors of "team chemistry" that could have a huge impact on Vandy's success this season.

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