Thursday, October 13, 2011

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Sure, I've used that before, but it doesn't make it any less correct. Basketball practice, at least for colleges, gets started in earnest this weekend around the country, which brings us even closer to the start of the season.

Can you feel the excitement?

Once upon a time, pretty much everybody started on the same day -- Oct. 15. The NCAA relaxed its rules a bit to allow more workouts in the fall, so most of the teams already have worked out together, leaving this weekend as more of a symbolic opening for practices.

I've asked a few of my favorite coaches to give me an idea of what they have planned for this weekend, and since Grinnell was the original System team, I'll let interim coach Dave Arseneault explain what is going on for the NCAA Division III men's program. Remember, he is taking over during his father's sabbatical:

Dave Arseneault: "Quite honestly, I don’t feel too different about this season compared to others in the past. I’m still just as ready and just as amped up for our practices to start as I have been for the last 6 years. I get a sense from the guys that they’re expecting some really big things from this season given that we are returning 12 out of our top 13 scorers.

"While it’s nice to have that kind of foundation to build on, I’m still not quite sure how good we are going to be for a few reasons: (1) We got a lot of lucky breaks last year and you just can’t expect that to happen again; and (2) I’m worried about our team chemistry.

"I’m hoping that we can find a way to avoid Pat Riley’s 'Disease of More.' Riley’s theory is that often times when a team is coming off a successful season all the returnees want more ... more playing time, more shots, more ball. The problem is that when everybody is returning, there isn’t more time, shots or ball to go around, so everybody has to accept a role that will help the team win.

"Even though we’re officially allowed to start practice on Saturday the 15th, we won’t actually start until October 20. Our Fall Break starts this weekend (the kids get a full week off from school plus the two weekends) so I’ve decided to be nice and send them home for the first part of break. I figure this way when I lay the hammer down on the 20th there won’t be any excuses.

"I live basketball, so the 20th can’t get here soon enough!"

I hear you, Coach Arseneault, I hear you.

Next we'll go to Bunky Harkleroad, the women's coach at NCAA Division II Glenville State. His day Saturday will include a special dinner for his team and the men's program, along with any fan who would like to attend. Chicken cordon bleu, lasagna, tossed salad and green beans all are on the menu, with chocolate cake for dessert. Man, that sounds good, right?

Bunky Harkleroad:
"We are really excited about this year’s team and are looking forward to getting to work Saturday. I’m a little bit nervous because I really like this team’s energy level and chemistry so far. I’m great at finding things to complain about but so far our kids have really worked hard and seem hungry.

"We did suffer a big loss with LaToya Hambrick; she tore her Achilles during the preseason and she will be out this season. Losing a senior post player wasn’t something we’d planned on but we’ve recommitted to playing faster than ever before and putting more points on the board than ever before.

"With the NCAA rule changes this season we were allowed to have some full team workouts (two hours per week total). Initially we worked out in small groups of 4 and over the past few weeks we made all of our workouts team workouts. Believe it or not we’ve spent the majority of that time addressing what we do on dead ball situations. We’ve never done that before but with a pretty experienced group returning we are trying to clean up turnovers as early as possible and do a better job of executing early in the season.

"In addition to our on court workouts our players have open gym sessions in which they essentially played pickup games with a 15 second shot clock, sometimes 3 on 3 half court, and sometimes our seniors would lead shooting drills. Open gym has been time for our seniors to set the tone with our new players.

"Finally we have short, intense conditioning sessions that simulate a shift. So basically we’ve spent the preseason trying to introduce our tempo, show some X's and O's, and focus on taking care of the basketball when the season starts.

"Our first few practices will be really long ones, I know this seems somewhat anti-System but we have so much to get done there’s no way around it. We pride ourselves on spending most of our practice time focusing on the fundamentals (passing, shooting, dribbling) and we don’t want to ever get away from that. BUT we’ve got a lot to put in, a lot of mistakes left to make (there’s no way around that), and a lot of scrimmaging to do.

"This year’s approach has been a little different than the past but with the NCAA rule changes we think it only makes sense to mix it up."

Great stuff there, right? Look for Coach Harkleroad and the Pioneers to build on last year's trip to the NCAA tournament.

The NAIA women's team at Olivet Nazarene is coming off a successful season, as well, which ended in the Sweet 16 of the national tournament. Coach Doug Porter has nearly everyone back from that team, along with some talented newcomers, so the Tigers should be ready to roll again.

Doug Porter: "We are looking forward to the upcoming season at ONU. With 13 players returning off last year’s successful run, we’ve got good experience and a very quick squad. Defensively, we were strong last season, forcing over 36 turnovers a game, and we should be even more effective this year.

"A big change for us is our move to more of the pure Grinnell offense. In past years, we’ve used a very simple “dribble-drive” approach, running to spots and using penetration to create shots, along with some basic down-screening action and post play. With our experience and strong point guard play this season, we feel the Grinnell set will give us more room to get to the rim, and will allow us to create better looks for our perimeter shooters.

"Grinnell’s offense is more complex, but I like what I’m seeing from our players so far in the preseason!"

Seeing a new wrinkle from Coach Porter's team should be interesting, and I know he's right: the Grinnell break is perfect for his point guard tandem of Danielle Pipal and Danielle Tolbert.

The women's team at Jackson (Mich.) Community College got a head start of its four-year counterparts, beginning its workouts at the beginning of this month. Coach Andy Hoaglin has high hopes for this year's team, which led all the National Junior College Athletic Association in scoring a year ago (notice the banner with the story), and gave some insight into what he has been focusing on so far:

Andy Hoaglin: "Official practice actually started on October 1st and we've been at it 5 days a week, re-implementing the almighty System. We've got 12 returners from last year's record setting squad with 6 freshmen who are either skilled shooters or rebounders.

"I believe this team has the potential to be better than last year's squad for a variety of reasons.

"-12 players with one year under their belt WITH the experience of results garnered from the system. They know it works.

"-Instead of 2 skilled shooters, we have 7 skilled shooters that can knock it down from beyond the arc.

"-We're 2 deep at every postion, and 4 deep at the all important point guard position (all sophomores).

"-We're more athletic than we were last year. We've replaced traditional posts with pretty much all guards.

"We have our first scrimmage of the new season this Saturday and the ladies are excited for it. We're a little banged up right now, and will go into the scrimmage with 12 able bodies, which is fine, because its still preseason and scrimmages don't matter except from a standpoint of getting experience.

"I believe this team has the capability of winning a conference championship, winning our national championship qualifying district and rewrite many of our offensive and defensive records from last year.

"If we stay healthy and continue working intelligently, I think special things are in store for this team."

One of the new System teams this season will be at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, where coach Brad Vanden Boogaard has his NCAA Division II women's team ready to take the plunge. Following his progress will be exciting, starting with the opening of practice.

Brad Vanden Boogaard: "We are really excited about starting full team practice this weekend. Our individual workouts have gone well we have shot a ton of 3s this fall which is no surprise. Our players are really catching on to how fast we are able to play and are being able to see where we will force our opponents to play at our pace. It is a daily thing that we have to remind them of the aggressive nature they need to play at and that they can play without a fear of failure because they are going to play.

"That thought process is a hard one to get through ... and we are just looking forward to seeing how far we can go by playing The System. Some of our players will have the opportunity to play near their home towns, when we are in Denton, Texas, and Pocatello, Idaho, so they are excited for that. Idaho State is our only D-I on the schedule, it will be interesting to see how the system works against a team at that level. We were able to get that game because the head coach at Idaho State played his final two seasons of college ball here.

"That is all the excitement here it is homecoming week and we will be on the floor Saturday morning shooting and causing chaos on the hardwood."

Great stuff from a System "newbie." I wish all these coaches luck this weekend and throughout the season; I only wish I could be there for everyone's first practice.

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