Lessons from March Madness can Trickle Down to High School Ranks

Last Monday night concluded the greatest three week period in sports as Duke cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.  They were the last team standing out of sixty-eight who began the dream in search of a national championship.

The pure entertainment value alone is enough to tune into the action.  Where else can one find so much drama over a three week period?  Especially for those of us who live in a state where winter lingers far beyond the first day of spring, the tournament gives us something to rally around until warmer weather arrives.

March and early April is also a time for high school basketball coaches around the state to reflect upon their just concluded seasons.  Some new ideas are gleaned as preparation begins for the upcoming summer programs leading into the following winter’s campaigns.  While the NCAA tournament provides great entertainment value, it can also serve as a valuable tool for coaches in evaluating their own coaching methods and philosophies.  Now, most in this state will never coach the likes of those playing in the big dance.  Many concepts, however, can be applicable at all ranks.

There are so many different styles which come into play when watching the NCAA tournament.  To me, that’s the beauty of the game of basketball, so many different ways to play the game yet many are effective.   The great coaches evolve over the years and learn from others.  How about Mike Krzyzewski utilizing a 2-3 zone at key times during their run, borrowing a page from Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim?  Of course Krzyzewski and Boeheim have coached together through U.S.A. Basketball.

Speaking of Coach K, what an example of someone who wins and does so with such grace and class.  I know Duke is a polarizing program, people either love them or hate them, there’s no in between.  Whether or not you are a Blue Devils fan, if you can’t admire and respect what Mike Krzyzewski has done, that says much more about you than it does about him.

Rick Pitino at Louisville effectively used a match-up zone in leading his team to an elite eight run.  Of course, Mr. March, Tom Izzo got Michigan State back to the Final Four.

Then there was Bo Ryan and Wisconsin.  In watching their games, this wasn’t your old grind it out, win 55-50 Wisconsin team.  This group of Badgers played fast yet were efficient.

There is an old adage, which I don’t completely agree with, which states “You play to win, you don’t play not to lose”.  The point is to create an aggressive mind set, which I understand.  As legendary coach Bob Knight eloquently points out “stupid loses games a lot more than smart wins them.”  Wisconsin virtually eliminated things which causes teams to lose games, which are turnovers, poor shot selection, and putting the opponent on the foul line.

Now, there isn’t a team I can think that wants turnovers, poor shots, or lots of fouls.  So, what sets Wisconsin apart?  They must make these areas a point of emphasis at practice.  Davidson coach Bob McKillop said at a clinic speaking on out of bounds plays and special situations that “It’s not what you teach that’s important, it’s what you emphasize.”

Speaking of reducing turnovers, not only is this a point of emphasis for the Badgers, but I believe Wisconsin has concrete rules in which to achieve this.  Many coaches will scream in frustration “take care of the basketball”.  Having rules, boundaries, and subsequent accountability for not adhering to those stated rules can help greatly reduce the number of turnovers.  One particular rule that should help is fairly simple:   know where the ball is at all times  Now, this may seem pretty basic but you’d be surprised.

Secondly, don’t pass off the dribble.  Passing off the dribble allows the defender to easily read the pass which often results in a turnover.  It also allows for only one option, the pass for whom it was intended for.  If a passer stops quickly before making the pass, he or she has so many more options if the defender takes that pass away.  They can get a backdoor cut for a basket if the defender over plays.  The receiver can also screen for someone else to get open or the passer may be able to hit another open receiver.

Thirdly, don’t pass the basketball once you leave your feet.  Just as in passing off the dribble, once you leave your feet your passing options are limited to one.  Players are much better off shooting the basketball and having an opportunity for an offensive rebound.  How many times have we seen a player leave his feet and go to make a pass only to have his teammates turn to rebound?  Either the pass goes out of bounds or is intercepted and a fast break gets started down the other end of the floor.

By eliminating these kinds of mistakes it makes the turnover battle much more manageable.  Of course there are going to be bad passes, mishandled balls, and the like during the duration of a game.  Wisconsin also seemed to get the ball in the right players hands at key times for the big shot.  Basketball is not an equal opportunity game.  The best coaches get their players to understand their weaknesses as well as their strengths.  Work on weaknesses in practice but game day is not the best time to have your fifteen percent three-point shooter jacking up three’s all night long.  There is probably a reason certain players are open during games.

Just because a player is open does not mean they should shoot it, despite the screams from the crowd “shoot it, shoot it.”  By the way, I think if our players shot it every time the words “shoot it” were hollered from the coaches in the stands we could easily play with a fifteen second shot clock.  Of course, those in the seats don’t have to deal with the consequences of poor shot selection.

If a player can’t demonstrate the ability to make at least one out of every three attempts from beyond the arc in practice, they have no business shooting from out there in a game.  Be sure to set parameters for all of your players shooting ranges based on what they have shown in practice.  Players should only shoot the type of shots they should make, not what they can make.

Finally, good aggressive fouls can be lived with.  The kind of fouls that hurt are those caused by lazy defense, in particular reaching or not being in proper position and then being slow to recover.  Usually, the teams that win the battle at the free throw line win games and Wisconsin was no exception.

If teams can do those three things, reduce turnovers, take great shots, and avoid fouling, they put themselves in a position where the other team will have to beat them.  If the opponent make plays and beats you, so be it.  All things being fairly even, the team that minimizes these things will be most successful.

Teaching your players to reduce mistakes which cause you to lose games is vital to the success of your program.  Take a page from Wisconsin and best of luck as you head into the summer and next season.


Bob Beatham

About Bob Beatham

Bob, a lifelong Bangor resident, has just completed his 21st season as the Public Address Announcer at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. Bob is also the public address voice for John Bapst Crusader football. He also currently serves as the scorekeeper for John Bapst basketball. Bob is an avid follower of Maine high school athletics, particularly football and basketball. The University of Maine at Farmington graduate is the service coordinator at Aging Excellence, which provides in-home care for seniors..