Friday, November 11, 2011

Gaucho Hoops notes from practice in the Thunderdome

I wandered into the Thunderdome yesterday to check out the Gauchos prepare for their first regular season game against Chapman tonight.  I got there a little early before the men's basketball team began their practice, and right when the women's volleyball team was just finishing up, while the team managers were breaking down the nets.

In doing so, I had my annual meeting with Coach Kathy Gregory.  Even with practice over, Coach was still coaching up the players still present, recovering from another grueling practice.  Coach never lets up--it's clearly evident that she not only played volleyball, coaches volleyball, but leaves, breathes, and eats volleyball.  After all these years, she still remembers me from the beach volleyball class I enrolled in decades ago.  Even as a novice, she would push us when partnered with her in two-man (woman) beach volleyball.  I can honestly declare her "vocal" encouragement helped me play better back in the day.

The good news is Coach Gregory is always recruiting also, so despite the departure of 3 seniors, she anticipates a couple of strong upcoming recruiting classes.  Speaking of seniors, Gaucholocos need to send out the three seniors in style this Saturday night against arch rival Cal Poly.  Chelsey Lowe, Lily Lopez, and Stacey Schmidt deserve a nice send off on Senior Night in their push toward a berth in the NCAA playoffs.  Good luck, Lady Gauchos!

Now on to the men's basketball team.  They arrived and started doing their normal stretching calisthenics, similar to their pre-game routine.  The scout team of Prince Arceneaux, Tyler Steinhause, Shawn Moore, and Duke Da Re ran simulated offensive plays from the Chapman playbook (tonight's opponent) on the opposite end of the 'Dome.

Under one basket, post players Greg Somogyi, Jaime Serna, Alan Williams and Christian Peterson did some Wooden layup drills, before being fed passes to knock down turnaround jumpers in the post.  Guards and wings Orlando Johnson, James Nunnally, Nate Garth, Kyle Boswell, John Green, TJ Taylor, Taran Brown, and Lewis Thomas performed some shooting drills from the perimeter under another basket.  Keegan Hornbuckle was riding the stationary bike, waiting for his turn in the near future, hopefully.  Obviously, we are loaded at the wing position, which will figure in the redshirt situation.

Next up was "Jailbreak", which I think was a 5-man secondary fast break drill.  I'm assuming it's labeled jailbreak because players sprint to their assigned spots after a made or missed bucket on consecutive possessions.  To simulate the missed basket, Coach Matt Stock would put in a weird contraption above one of the rims--a trash basket top.  I call it the Somogyi "roof" defense--"ain't no one scoring--not in my house."

Because the Gauchos are deep as well as talented, sixteen players rotated among 3 teams: silver, blue, and black shirts.  Not sure if this means anything, or if it indicates who will start tonight, but the silver team consisted of OJ, Nunn, Nate, Jaime, and Christian.  It doesn't matter:  because 80% of practice was dedicated to defensive rotations, I'm going to speculate whoever plays defense with the most intensity, and executes on their defensive assignments will get the most playing time.  This applies to All-Americans on the team or to the last walk-on on the bench.  Here's the good news:  even OJ and Nunn have internalized this:  not only for the benefit of winning more Gaucho games, but also to increase their chances at the next level.  Defense is underrated in Div. 1 college basketball, but it's also underrated at the NBA level.  Two buzzwords to remember:  Recognition and Effort.

Recognition means who and when to rotate to, and when to drop down, and when to close out--all with the desired outcome of challenging every shot.  Team defense means communicating and help defense--and covering for each other.  Without going into details of the various defenses (for obvious reasons), expect the Gauchos to mix up their defensive schemes between a switching man-to-man and match up zone.  Keep the opponents guessing, and at the same time, make the Gauchos harder to scout.  What impressed me the most is that you have to VERY smart to play for Coach Williams, because a lot is expected of you intellectually on the court.  Of course, the problem is if you have to think about it, you are smoked.  Hence, the constant repetition enables the players' decisions to either drop down or close out second-nature.  The reaction time has to be immediate--and anticipatory.

The flip side of the coin is that if it's a system which is difficult for the Gauchos to execute, it is even more difficult for the opponents to recognize once a possession starts.

Effort--well, that's self-explanatory.  If you don't put out maximum effort, you sit.

Aside from the secondary fast break drills, some time was spent on breaking the fullcourt press.  Coach Williams gave some very important insights on how to break it--again, I will leave out the details.  The halfcourt offense is mostly isolations and lots of double screens to spring an open shooter, a scheme which presumably enables our shooters to have optimal scoring opportunities.  Sorry to be vague, but we want our guys to win games, right?

I will say this:  on both offense and defense, it helps that our players are versatile enough to play several different roles, whether it's bringing the ball up, passing, or defending.  In other words, our point guards aren't the only ones who dribble up court on every possession.  Even if you're a 4, you better have handles.  And you better be able to defend several different players.

Next came some end of game situations, and the various defensive strategies.

Coach Williams commented that this team has very strong leadership, and not just with the stars.  OJ and Nunn lead by example, but they are also more vocal this year.  Nate is a transfer, but he's like a coach on the court.  But even the freshmen have leadership presence.  It's a sign they come from winning backgrounds.  The team of Alex Harris, Ivan Elliot, Chris Devine, and a young Justin Joyner also displayed strong leadership--they were true warriors.  This team has the same mental make-up.

We all know OJ's prolific scoring abilities and his indefatigable work ethic.  We've seen Nunn's beautiful outside stroke hit clutch shot after clutch shot.  But few know Somogyi has a great shooting stroke also.  And Boswell may be our most consistent outside threat this year.  We've seen John Green explode for a point per minute in his first exhibition.  Because his arms are so long, and his release point is so far away from the defender, his shot is difficult to block.  I tried vainly to pretend to guard him after practice as he knocked down jumper after jumper.  No dice.  He expectedly abused me--as he did San Francisco State.

My conclusion is this team can score in bunches--with many different options.  But the key to being a great team is their commitment to defense.  Because when the defensive focus was there, the offensive team on the court at the time just couldn't score consistently.

Coach Williams was also pleased with the class of 2012 recruits, announced here.

Without getting specific, he said this class was tough, athletic, skilled, and came from winning programs.  There was one open scholarship left.  Freshmen Green, Taylor, and Williams were definitely not redshirting.  The redshirt status of Thomas and Brown is dependent on injuries, readiness, and playing time--or lack of available minutes.  It's unwise to waste a year sitting on the bench.  A great example of the benefits of redshirting points to Mark Hull, despite Hull's initial protests.  That extra year allowed Hull to get stronger, develop his skills, and learn the game.  Hull later became one of four all-time greats in the Williams era, the others being BJ Bunton, Alex Harris, and Orlando Johnson.  James Nunnally has a chance to join that select group.

In summary, this season shapes up to be a good year, and potentially one of the greatest in Gaucho history.  It's all up to the team and their level of commitment.  The talent is there to get it done.

A message to Gaucholocos:  this could be a special year for the team.  Make sure you don't miss it.

A big thanks to the players, the assistant coaches, the team managers, and Coach Williams for allowing me this special privilege.  Now go out there and kick some ass tonight.  Go Gauchos!

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