Bumped. GO BRUINS. -N
I have to admit that even with Ucla out it is impossible for me to stay away from watching March Madness. And this year has been one of the best in recent memory, in terms of both the quality of games and the beauty of watching the underdog emerge triumphant on so many different occasions.
There is one topic that commentators talk about with the teams that remain, or even the teams that put forth a great effort but eventually succumbed to better talent: team chemistry. Coach Wooden believed in it:
It really hit my attention in the post-elite 8/pre-final four articles, but to be honest I think it's evident in watching most of these teams that have put in special performances, that the team members trust each other, they love each other, there is mutual support. Maybe I'm seeing what I want to see, but I don't think so. I think that in general, a non-casual sports fan can just tell when a team gels and has chemistry --- a lot of time it is defensive (watching every round of the tournament has made me sick to my stomach as I've seen at least twenty teams play dramatically better defense than any individual game I watched Ucla play this year), but it can be offensive chemistry too. So I think we can see good chemistry in teams like Baylor, Duke, Michigan State, and West Virginia this year and we can see the lack of chemistry in really strong teams with superior NBA talent that results in an ultimate collapse under pressure (ie, Kentucky). And if you look at some of the teams that exited earlier, I would argue that many of them had no worse physical.
Nestor has done a great job capturing the tangible, measurable items that we need to get back on track in the future, if you missed it, it is a must read and is here. But in this post I would like to suggest that this concept of team chemistry is (a) one of the most important roles of the coach, (b) Coach Howland does not seem to be particularly skilled in manufacturing team chemistry or in motivating individuals who are not in alignment with his philosophy, and (c) that creating team chemistry might be aided by a public relations push to revitalize our lost identity as a defensive team.
So to point (a), that team chemistry is one of the most important roles of the coach. All I need to say here is two words, Tom Izzo. I'm personally not a huge Michigan State fan but find it impossible to not be in awe of what he does with that program, and I think it would be hard to argue that person for person he has gotten more results out of the talent that he has than anyone in recent history. I'm not saying that X's and O's aren't important, but the ability for Izzo's teams to overcome adversity is really incredible. Note that we could also make the same case negatively by two other words, John Calipari. Has anyone underperformed relative to the NBA talent on the team like the $32 million man?
Point (b) might be a little bit more controversial. After all, we have three final fours to our name, how can CBH not be considered a great motivator? I think it is important to consider that there are two factors in team chemistry: (1) is the coach, and (2) are the players. Special groups of players come along, and gel together in ways that go above and beyond. And the mixture of talent, coaching skill, and team chemistry all have to come together. But at the core some coaches are better than others at taking weird chemistries and making them work. Obviously the best example of this is Phil Jackson and the Lakers --- sometimes even the Zen Master can't make it work like the year of the Detroit loss, but in general, he does a pretty good job of bringing dysfunctional people together and making them work like a team. This is tough, though and still has a high failure rate...but I subscribe to the view that we have enough talent, or even had enough talent through this year, to be a tournament team and maybe even win one game, with better motivation. I've read all the posts about how athletically deficient we are, I just find it hard to believe that multiple top-25 recruiting classes don't have the basic physical skills to compete as an average Pac-10 team...or, the POTENTIAL PHYSICAL skills to compete as a top ten team. Since we didn't, I'm going to say that as a coach this is not CBH's strength.
So, point (c), what do we do? Can CBH become a motivational coach? I suggest that he probably can't do that very easily, the lack of relationship with players evidenced throughout the season with players reinforces this, and as much as we might hope that a brilliant asst coach might fix this problem, he has to do something about it.
My simple three points, I think, are almost mandatory if we are going to recover from the disaster of this season:
- A Public Reaffirmation of Ucla's Defensive Identity. CBH needs to publicly comment on the season, and take personal responsibility for Ucla losing a defensive identity this year. Bottom line, he needs to say that Ucla is a defensive team, we will recruit players who are committed to playing defense, and if players don't like that they should not join the team, period. I don't think that coaches with consistent winning records and performances have the radical variation in game plans that we've had in the last year --- look at Tom Izzo or Coach K, they tweak their strategies but aren't dramatically moving what they do.
- A Public Charge to All Member's of the Ucla Basketball Team, Incoming and Outgoing. CBH needs to publicly demand that his players have incredible work ethics and do whatever it takes to win. That means all the things Nestor talked about in the above-linked post, and I think it needs to be PUBLIC. Every person that is on the team needs to view it in an almost military way, where you are required to be in the best shape of your life at all times to be on the Ucla team, no exceptions. I'm not against having a good time, but I am when it interferes with basketball. Ragovic's partying is flat-out incompatible with excellence --- other guys might do it, but they don't let it interfere with their conditioning. CBH needs to make it clear that there are standards, and although he isn't a kill joy, the only people who can be on the Ucla team are those who are committed to excellence physically and mentally.
- A Public Acknowledgement of His Role in Creating a Poor Accountability Culture. I can't get around this. To be honest, if this doesn't happen, it is my opinion that we are running for a train wreck.
Ultimately, team chemistry may be easiest to come by re-creating an Us-Vs-The World Mentality on the team that reinforces what got us back from the abyss of Lavin --- defensive ugliness. This can only be achieved by getting our players to buy into being perfectly physically fit, being mentally tough, and hating to lose or be benched so much that nothing removes the focus on excellence.