Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Arnold joins Manchester (Mich.) HS

Surely you remember coach Dave Arnold, right? He's a longtime proponent of The System who coached the boys' team at Monroe (Mich.) HS last season, a year after leading his team at Whitmore Lake (Mich.) HS to a 14-7 record a trip to the Class C District Semifinals.

Coach Arnold has taken his System knowledge to another Michigan high school, this time traveling to Manchester, Mich., to coach the boys' team at the local high school. This is particularly important to me, not just because I'm such a big fan of his, but I'm a big fan of Manchester, too. Well, not really the high school, although I am sure it is a fine place to educate the minds of the teenagers in that part of southern Michigan.

No, I love the town itself, a quaint village (seriously, it's called the Village of Manchester) of about 2,000 people located on the River Raisin, with a simply beautiful downtown area. There is an old-school Dairy Queen located on Main Street, near a bridge over the river. Wurster Park features a gazebo that is home to a weekly concert series in the summer.

I'm sure you are thinking at this point, "How do you know so much about Manchester?" And if you're not thinking that, hmm, have you been paying attention to the stunning detail of an area about 700 miles from my home? Well, I used to travel through Manchester on several occasions, a couple of weeks a year, taking one of my grandfather's famous shortcuts (man, I miss HP) to what is now called Michigan Speedway. On the way back to his house from the track, we always stopped at DQ for a quick dose of ice cream, and I marveled at what a wonderful town Manchester was.

Who knew that all these years later, I would have another brush with that fair village?

OK, enough about me and my childhood memories of that area. This update is to let everyone know that Coach Arnold is ready to take The System to Manchester this season, and few have done it as well as he has in the past. I mentioned the record he posted a couple of seasons ago at Whitmore Lake. In case you've forgotten, and I can't imagine why you have, here are some other eye-popping numbers the Trojans accumulated in his final year:

- Set a school record with 356 3-pointers in 1,225 attempts
- Scored 88.9 points per game
- During a 10-game winning streak, averaged nearly 95 points and 20 3s
- Set the Michigan record with 29 3s on Jan. 21, 2010, in a 117-80 victory over Morenci

This is what the good people of Manchester have to look forward to this season. Coach Arnold, as always, was gracious enough to respond to my email for details on the new job and what he plans to do with The System. You won't be disappointed.
(First of all, you will run The System, right?)

Dave Arnold: "Absolutely! Two schools in the conference have dominated basketball over the last 15-20 years. Even Manchester’s best teams, which were very good teams, have only managed third-place finishes. Therefore, I think it’s vital for us to attack them with something different, see if we can get them on their heels and force them to adjust us rather than the other way around."

(Whew, OK, good. What drew you to the job there?)

Dave Arnold: "Manchester has a strong athletic tradition, especially in football. My thinking is if you have enough athletes with the character to build and sustain a quality football program, you should be able to build a successful basketball program with those same kids."

(What has been the reaction so far from your team?)

Dave Arnold: "We didn’t have much time during the summer to introduce the basic concepts before we started playing. In our area, there are two basic options for summer leagues and shootouts: 1) You go to the small colleges in the area that host events. Every school you play is your size or smaller, and in our case, virtually every team in the league plays in these events. 2) Head into Detroit and play bigger schools and better programs.

"I don’t care so much about winning during the summer; I like to play big, quality teams. We usually take a few beatings, but you never see athletes or teams like that in our league, so there’s a huge upside for us that’s not always readily apparent. By our last season at Whitmore Lake, we were able to compete with and beat these teams. This summer, I chose to go big.

"Truthfully, the schedule was tougher than I even would have liked. We were able to hang around with some quality teams from schools five and six times our size because of the offensive concepts. However, I was also trying to introduce the defense, which just turned into a layup drill against these teams because of the quality of the guard play, team ballhandling and coaching we were competing against.

"That was a bit of a negative, but the overall reaction has been fairly positive."

(Last season at Monroe didn't work out as you had planned. Did that change your view of The System?)

Dave Arnold: "I don’t think it changed my view of The System, but it did open my eyes to adjustments that need to be made at times. At Whitmore Lake, we were just as athletic as the teams we played against, so we took a very straightforward approach – this is what we do, and we don’t change for anyone. We were able to get away with that approach because of the relative similarities in terms of athleticism and talent.

"At Monroe, we played three games against teams that were in the Michigan and Ohio 'Final Four' in big classes the past two seasons. Needless to say, there was some exceptional talent on those teams, including two or three mid-major DI guards. I’ve been doing this long enough to understand that attacking those guards defensively wasn’t the best idea, but you’re torn between establishing a philosophy that says we do what we do, period, and making necessary adjustments, which can also be misunderstood by kids early in the process.

"If we had played either of these teams at Whitmore Lake, I may very well have held the ball. But because our kids knew me and understood the system, they would know this was a one-time change of pace to give us the best chance to win. With a new group, you constantly sell this run, shoot, trap, repeat philosophy, but the first time you play a good team you put on the brakes. There’s a big difference in how that is perceived.

"However, in looking back not only to last year, but this summer as well, I see ways and opportunities for us to incorporate adjustments that would allow us to compete against superior quickness without selling out our core principles.

"You still haven’t seen anyone at the college level in a BCS conference run the system, and this is why. The skill and athleticism is too good – teams finish way too much against the press and you just can’t be effective always taking the ball out of the net.

"That’s what happened to (Paul) Westhead with the (Denver) Nuggets. Kids in our league miss layups because of fatigue or lack of skill. High-level college players and pros don’t miss dunks. Yet protecting against those situations goes against the core values of The System, so there’s a struggle to find some balance."

(What is the biggest challenge in introducing The System to a new team?)

Dave Arnold: "The biggest challenge is getting the kids to understand what playing hard REALLY means. They typically have little or no idea in a conventional system, so to add the level of effort and intensity required of our system on top of that change can be a bit overwhelming.

"The schemes aren’t difficult; I could send the opposing coach a cocktail napkin before the game with our offensive and defensive sets. Getting kids to break habits related to 'normal' basketball can be a challenge at times – getting them to think shoot before pass, getting them to understand that a bad 3 is still better than a forced pass to a cutter that leads to a turnover, etc. It’s tough at times to get them to understand that less is really more with the system.

"We don’t do much at either end schematically, but we do what we do so with such intensity that it is still effective. There will also be plenty of questions early on, especially from the parents, because what we do is so different. Everyone gets caught up in the mass substitutions, 3-point shooting and quick-shot approach. However, just like conventional basketball, The System really works only when you defend in terms of forcing turnovers and rebound at both ends (especially offensively).

"This is the same formula you see winning at every level, but it’s not nearly as obvious with us because of the pace of play. Once everyone understands the 'method to the madness' and we have some success, the questions go away, although there will always be a few dissenters."

(Finally, what advice would you give some of The System newbies out there?)

Dave Arnold: "Keep it simple! One of the coaches described The System as, 'Run, shoot, rebound, press, repeat.' Sounds about right to me! The more you coach, the less System-oriented you become, quickly. Get them running, get them shooting, get them to attack the glass, get them to press hard (start with one scheme and stay there), get them to understand how to do it for 32 minutes and you should be fine!

"Truthfully, I agree with a fellow System coach who would really prefer to not see others running it. I know this comes across as selfish, but for me, it’s all about competitive advantage.

"You always hear coaches suggest it would be a great game if two system teams hooked up. This has happened, and the games have reportedly been rather ugly. Defense dominates, so neither team gets in an offensive rhythm. You have tons of turnovers and missed shots – not exactly a recipe for exciting basketball.

"I know if I was playing a System team, I would probably revert to conventional basketball. I had success against two very good System teams and coaches doing that in the past. One of the great strengths of The System is the contrast in style from the conventional team or the team that really wants to slow it down. We can talk aesthetics, but it still comes down to giving your team the best chance to compete."

As I said, I knew you would appreciate his knowledge, his honestly and, most of all, his passion for The System and basketball in general. I wish Coach Arnold the best of luck. Maybe I can get up there at some point and buy him a vanilla cone at the Dairy Queen.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

To pay or not to pay, that is the question

Perhaps no current topic in college sports is as polarizing as the one posed in the headline, as in, "Should student-athletes be paid beyond what is provided by their scholarship?" Yes, I realize you might not have heard it phrased quite that way, since many who feel these young people are treated unfairly simply want them to earn a salary of some kind. Regardless of whether you think college players are fairly compensated, it is a simple fact that the scholarship they receive is a form of compensation. Is it enough?

Many others with a higher importance and more talent than me have weighed in on this subject; HBO devoted an hour of programming to a roundtable discussion featuring FOXSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, former Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez and former CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer, among others, with Bryant Gumbel as moderator. There are a few others who have gotten my attention, as well, including Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski, CBS and Sports Illustrated college hoops expert Seth Davis and noted Civil Rights author Taylor Branch.

My view runs concurrently with Posnanski and Davis and as far away from what Branch believes as possible. If you took the time to read the thoughts of those gentlemen, I likely won't improve upon them. In case you didn't, I will do what I can to summarize those thoughts here. I suggest you read their full writings to get a deeper understanding of their position.

I'll start with Branch, who is a brilliant writer and historian. Unfortunately, he falls on the wrong side in this discussion:
Taylor Branch: He essentially believes NCAA institutions are making millions of dollars a year off the backs of unpaid labor, even going so far to compare it to slavery. A common theme in his long argument for paying college athletes is that no other business would be allowed to follow this model. He talks of the fact that the players should be free to negotiate the terms of their servitude, much like those of us in the real world earning a living.

Seth Davis: This article refutes much of what Branch writes, including the notion that athletic departments at institutions of higher learning are "making" millions of dollars a year. As Davis points out, among the 332 colleges currently making up NCAA Division I, less than a dozen of them earn a profit in athletics. You read the correctly, less than 4 percent. How could they and why should they spend more money?

He also hammers at another point that I often make in discussions on this matter, namely that the NCAA does not prohibit anyone from getting paid for playing his or her sport. There is no NCAA rule that stops anyone coming out of high school from turning professional immediately instead of accepting a college scholarship. The NFL and the NBA are the ones who have limits on who can be drafted, so any complaints about the current system should start with them.

Finally, Davis also disputes the notion that NCAA athletes be allowed compensation similar to the Olympic model, where the competitors can negotiate endorsement deals without compromising their eligibility, their so-called "amateurism." ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas is one who constantly belabors this point. Again, I often have asked (rhetorically) if we really want a world where North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, arguably the top returning college basketball player, earns hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, from Nike or another source. Davis takes it a step further, pointing out that recruiting battles could be contested based on the amount of money a business was willing to give the player. It is utter nonsense.

Joe Posnanski: He eloquently describes how college athletics really is about the school, not the player. It is the same argument used daily by people around the country, based on the old cliche that college athletes should play "for the name on the front of jersey, not the one on the back." It is a valid idea. If the aforementioned Barnes didn't attend North Carolina, would the basketball program in Chapel Hill really suffer? Wouldn't coach Roy Williams' squad still be on national TV nearly every game, and wouldn't fans still fill the Dean Dome to watch the Tar Heels? How can you measure the value of Barnes' impact on the overall program? You can't.

As I said, I urge everyone to read all three of these articles, along with Branch's rebuttal of Davis' rebuttal that was posted on his Website. He again misses the point, even if it makes for good reading.

There is one final thing I'd like to say on the matter, something I haven't heard from anyone during this debate. A simple way to end any questions about the "fairness" of the current system would be to award scholarships only to those who value them, as in recruits who plan to get a college education.

Doug Porter, whom you all know as the women's basketball coach at Olivet Nazarene, had these thoughts when I asked him his views on playing college athletes:

Doug Porter: "College athletes do receive compensation. It’s called a scholarship, and it provides them with a free education that other students often must pay over $100,000 to receive. This education also provides them with a college degree that opens doors for them the rest their working lives. They also receive free room and board for four or five years.

"In a culture that places such a low value on actually learning anything, it’s not surprising that people in favor of paying college athletes a stipend feel that they aren’t being fairly compensated. They must view a college degree and the skills/knowledge it represents as a worthless piece of paper."

Well said, Coach Porter.

The football program at North Carolina currently is under investigation by the NCAA, and the one fact that stood out from all the rest from the entire ordeal was this: one of the players who received extra benefits, Marvin Austin, took remedial English during his first fall semester on campus.

Seriously? A university with the reputation of North Carolina offers a course called remedial English? There is no way that should happen, unless of course, unqualified students are being allowed into school simply to play sports.

OK, so I know that happens at nearly every "big-time" athletic program, so I shouldn't pick on the Tar Heels. Still, that highlights how out of kilter the entire concept has gotten. Let's start allowing genuine college students to play sports for their universities, instead of ones who are athletically talented, yet educationally inferior. This would end most of the troubles befalling our favorite teams now and return college sports closer to what they are supposed to be.

A novel concept, right?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

New System coach takes a trial run

Kevin Moore did an incredible job last season, his first as the boys' basketball coach at Mount Olive HS in Flanders, N.J. Taking over a squad that posted a 4-21 record in 2009-10, Moore led the Marauders to a 17-7 finish and their first conference title in the history of the program.

Sounds like a perfect candidate to switch to The System, right?

For this upcoming season, Mount Olive will be employing the most exciting style of hoops ever seen, taking its previous up-tempo pace a little further as Coach Moore takes the plunge with the creation of Grinnell coach David Arseneault. He and the Marauders already have enjoyed success using it, scheduling a practice game at the end of summer practice (complete with referees) to see just where they were.

The results were pretty amazing. Mount Olive beat Hackettstown 122-97, a game which included the Marauders scoring 73 points in the first half to top their average for an entire game from the previous season. There were the usual moments where Coach Moore wondered if he had made the correct decision -- mostly while watching Hackettstown drive in for layups against the press -- but there were enough good things to leave him excited about the immediate future.

He was kind enough to take time for an interview via e-mail, and I wanted to share his thoughts.

(Tell me about the decision to go to The System.)

Kevin Moore: "I think it was a progression. If you really enjoy the pressing and running game, it simply made sense to me to take it one step further. I believe that as a running team you can come up against another running team that either does it better than you or that is more athletic than your team is.

"This is where I think The System becomes the great equalizer. We also were a very deep team last year and I found that I was forgetting about guys on the bench, so The System made sense to utilize our numbers advantage."

(How did you first hear about The System?)

Kevin Moore: "A number of years ago I came across Coach A's videotape in Syskos, ordered it, and thought that it was just another fast break system. I became fascinated by it, and actually went as far as to dabble with it that season, I believe it was 2003-04 season. The problem was, we had numbers but we did not have the offseason to get enough threes up. We could run and press, but simply couldn't score."

(What surprises have you come across in your thoughts about this style?)

Kevin Moore: "I think I have been surprised by the polarizing effect it has on people. They either love it or think it's a terrible, undisciplined style of basketball that will never work."

(After studying it and implementing it, what jumps out at you about The System?)

Kevin Moore: "The first thing that jumped out at me (and I think our players too) was the effort required to run the system. When you first explain it, it's one thing to talk about maximum effort, it's an entirely different story to play at maximum effort. It's pretty remarkable that in the past I thought my teams played pretty hard, and now I think I have a much better understanding of what that really means.

"I think the second thing is simply the sheer amount of points that can be generated. When I mentioned our first outing in The System to some coaching colleagues, many just didn't believe me that it was possible to score 122 points in a four-quarter high school game, they thought I was fudging numbers."

(Did you share your decision with your staff, the school administration and the players, and what was the reaction?)

Kevin Moore: "Our staff was great from the beginning. All of them embraced the idea, did a lot of research on their own, and we did a lot of talking it through for most of the spring. For us, the pros outweighed the cons and we decided we were all in. We implemented/introduced The System to our players in the beginning of July at our three-day mini camp. The players fell in love with it immediately. They enjoyed the running game last year and are enjoying the turbo charged version even more.

"It was a pretty easy sell to them, we have some pretty bright guys on the team and many of them are also lacrosse players. This helped tremendously because they were used to subbing in numbers and saw the value in prescribed playing time. Also, once you present the numbers and the data to them, they begin to quickly realize that their shot attempts will quickly exceed the amount of times they were able to shoot the ball last season.

"As far as the administration was concerned, we have a great athletic director at Mt. Olive. He is totally supportive of any basketball decisions we make, so when i shared with him the general outline of what we're doing, his answer was simply, 'So you're going to play 15 guys a game, every game?' and that was all he needed to hear. In high school, the biggest parent gripe is always playing time, so he was thrilled to hear that. But of course, he hasn't actually seen it yet, and I'm sure there will be some surprised looks on some faces."

(What challenges do you see?)

Kevin Moore: "Definitely making sure our big guys stay on board. We have two sophomore post players, 6-foot-7 and 6-5, and I want to keep them from thinking they are an afterthought in The System. My second concern would be keeping everyone on board if we start the season the slow. I already broached the subject with the team to begin to prepare them for it. There may be growing pains at first but we have to stay the course.

"And finally, the possibility of having that game where we simply have a terrible shooting night and are down big, and having to stick that out will be tough."

(What do you hope to get out of The System?)

Kevin Moore: "Honestly, I want our guys to have a great time playing basketball this season. They really seem to enjoy this style of play so far, so if their happy than I am happy. They have an opportunity, especially the 10 seniors we have on the team, to do something extraordinary on the basketball court this winter and I'm excited for them.

"Secondly, my personal view is that a lot of high school basketball has become extremely boring to me. Most coaches coming into the profession wind up running the same system their first head coach used for much of their career. Flex, motion, work the ball for one guy to shoot bores me. I can't stand a 44-35 high school basketball score anymore. We will be successful in The System? If I didn't think so we sure wouldn't be going to it. I think our players, our high school, and our community are ready for it, so we're all in."

Congratulations to the players at Mount Olive. It sounds as if they have a coach who cares a great deal about them, and one who is making this change for all the right reasons. I wish Coach Moore and the Marauders all the luck in the world this season, and I'll be sure to check back in with them as we get closer to the start of hoops.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A blog favorite gets a new gig in Arizona

I'm going way back in the history of the ol' blog here. Hopefully, you remember Mario Malaby, a System aficionado from Phoenix who formerly coached the junior varsity boys' team at Alhambra HS. I say "formerly" because Coach Malaby has moved on from that job to a new one, and this is pretty exciting news: he has been given the task of starting a program at the school where he teaches, Metro Tech HS, also in Phoenix.

Oh, and yes, he's going to run The System. How could he not?

There will be challenges, of course, as there are anytime something is new. Things coaches at established programs take for granted, such as scheduling some open gym before the season. That posed a bit of a problem for Coach Malaby.

"I got started with a schedule and then stopped. I realized I don't even have a basketball yet!" he told me earlier this week on the phone. "I figured I'd better develop an infrastructure here before I got too complicated."

That shouldn't take too long. Coach Malaby is one of the most determined and passionate people I ever have had the pleasure of speaking with, even if our friendship is based on a few phone calls and some e-mails. He's a huge fan of the "Rocky" movies, even going so far as to joke about using a line from one of those films during his job interview.

At first, Coach Malaby wasn't sure he wanted the job. He will have the issues of starting from scratch, and since the team is new, the schedule will be sort of piecemeal, with Metro Tech placed in a division with charter schools in the area. The Knights will have to wait a while to face some of the top talent in the area on a consistent basis.

Still, Coach Malaby said he couldn't turn down this opportunity.

"The AD approached me and I was vaguely interested," he said. "You want to play against the best, even if you get your headed pounded in. But then I thought, 'How many times am I going to have the chance to start a program from scratch?' You have to take the chance.

"I had a really good interview. I was really encouraging, because I was able to come up with a five-year plan to sell myself and my ideas. I was not shy. I said we are going to run, we're going to press and we're going to score. I'm going to push the ball.

"I think I got the job simply because of what I said. I talked about what is most important. At the beginning, wins and losses don't really matter, it's all about effort and keep going forward. Or some line I got off 'Rocky.'"

Whatever he said worked. Coach Malaby will have a bit of a hybrid approach to his version of The System, running pure "Grinnell" on the break, while mixing in some Paul Westhead/Loyola Marymount offensive schemes as well. On defense, he likely will run a press developed by noted coach Vance Walberg, who also is credited with creating the "Dribble, Drive, Motion" offense widely used at the NCAA Division I level.

"What I love about the Walberg press is there is no press-breaker for it, and it's not hard to teach," Coach Malaby said. "I'm a big proponent of using something like that."

Practice begins Oct. 22 for Metro Tech, and with the basketballs now ordered, Coach Malaby can look forward to what the season holds.

"I'm excited, because I know our league is not that tough, so I think we can have some initial success with The System, having a chance to compete against some lower-level teams," he said. "We're the only public school in the league. If I can raise enough money, I'm hopeful we can get in some tournaments and play against anywhere from the eight to 12 of the best schools in the state. That's what I'm hopeful for."

I have no doubt Coach Malaby will be able to accomplish whatever he sets his mind to. Even if he does need some help from time-to-time from Rocky Balboa.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A System team brings the show to N.C.

I have spoke often of my desire to have a System team closer to me. Instead of driving 17 hours or so to Grinnell, Iowa, or 4 hours up to Bluefield, W.V., for a Glenville State away game, to see the best style of basketball around, it would be so nice to have some place to go that was nearby.

Well, that still ain't happening (excuse my English, Mrs. Lambeth). Not quite, anyway. I do have some incredible news, however: one of my teams has scheduled a game in North Carolina for the upcoming season!

What a surprise when I got the news from Mike Curta, the boys' coach at Eisenhower HS in Blue Island, Ill., just outside of Chicago. He e-mailed earlier this week to say he was close to signing a game at Southern Durham HS, located, coincidentally enough, in Durham, N.C., then got back in touch Friday with the final word. The game was signed, sealed and (nearly) delivered.

It will be held Saturday, Jan. 14, just before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, so Coach Curta and the team will have plenty of time to return to Chicagoland for classes. I'm still pinching myself to make sure this really is happening.

Of course, I wanted to share the news with those who check out the blog, so he sent more information on the genesis of this trip, as well as his ideas on travel in general. Here is what he wrote:

Mike Curta: "When I was at Mount Carmel during my first job as a head coach, our team statistician and school historian gave me a list of all the gyms that he wanted to visit before he died. He was a huge fan of Indiana High School Basketball and knew the history of the game in that state inside and out.

"That got me to thinking about traveling because he was such a good friend of mine and we had the luxury of having some exceptional players at that time that made us an attractive opponent. We went to some of the biggest gyms in the state of Indiana and played some of the most storied programs at the high school level. It was a great experience for our kids, coaches and most importantly that statistician, Frank Kiszka, who has since passed away.

"We didn’t travel much over the next six years at my next two stops, but when I got to my current job we really took traveling to another level. Allen Dandridge, my assistant coach, is the man really responsible for our opportunities now. He works tirelessly putting on weekend tournaments for all age levels that help us raise the money to be able to travel. In our first three years we have gone to Hawaii, Reno (Nev.), Las Vegas, Kentucky, and Wisconsin.

"So that brings us to this year. We originally were planning on a trip for the entire program to Cincinnati, but that fell through. Because I knew you were in North Carolina and were such a passionate fan of System Basketball, I started looking for games through the North Carolina High School Association Website. We didn’t have much luck until last week when we made contact with the head coach from Southern Durham High School. We struck up a conversation, agreed on the dates, and got our Athletic Directors' stamp of approval and now we are just working out the minor details of the trip.

"We play on Friday, January 13th at home. We plan on boarding a bus with our sophomore and varsity teams and heading down to Durham after our game that night. That should put us in Durham early Saturday. We will play that night and then spend the night before returning to Blue Island on Sunday.

"We are excited about the opportunity to play the game, but more for the opportunity to see the campuses of North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke. I made the trip to Greensboro while in college for the NCAA tournament, but have never been to any of those campuses. This should be a great trip and we look forward to playing our best for our #1 long distance fan in Keith Parsons."

I questioned whether to leave that last sentence, but in the interest of staying true to Coach Curta's wishes, I went with it!

As I said, I can't possibly thank Coach Curta enough, not simply for scheduling a game near me, and not simply for always responding to my requests, no matter how ridiculous, and not simply for running The System. It is really all of the above, and at the risk of missing out on some good stuff between now and then, I hardly can wait for January.