March 20, 2007

This Seems Familiar

Filed under: Basketball,Coaches,Dixon,NCAA Tourney,Tactics — Chas @ 11:16 pm

Howland and Dixon have a lot of similar traits. That isn’t surprising. It’s just amusing. Whether it is style of play or how they treat time outs.

Ben Howland consumes timeouts like bottles of water. The difference is that he – or one of his aides – can always get more water.

When Luc Mbah a Moute sprawled into a loose ball pit Saturday, he called time to keep from traveling or being set upon by Indiana Hoosiers. That was UCLA’s final TO of the game. It came with 5:11 left and with the Bruins leading by 12. Howland didn’t raise an eyebrow. He prized the possession more than the timeout.

Then came a series of dominoes that, had UCLA lost, would have sent the Bruins “faithful” into full riot. At the least it would have subjected Howland to some how-comes for the first time in his four years in Westwood.

Indiana decided to quit firing blanks and began a rally that tied the Bruins with a minute left.

The typical coach would rather surrender his spleen than call timeout in the first 15 minutes of a half.

Phil Jackson is famous for watching his players flail around and learn to escape the messes they’ve made. Of course, Jackson coaches 82 games in the regular season, and his playoffs aren’t single elimination.

Howland is different. It’s a difference that’s consistent with everything else he does. He’s a “now” guy. He is not going to go down with bullets in his chamber or timeouts in his hands.

I know I’ve seen it enough this season with comments freaking out about how Dixon uses and sometimes burns through timeouts. Generally, I’m okay with how Dixon handles the timeouts. I do find myself startled frequently late in games to see that Pitt is only down to 1 or 2 left, and I don’t even realize how many they used.

This article was one I wanted to post on back in the Big East Tournament when I saw it, but it got swallowed in the ether. Unfortunately it is now behind the stupid NY Times paid firewall. Here’s the summary. It talks about how Ben Howland spends so much time breaking down tapes of opponents in preparation. Trying to find out about everything they do and plan for it.

What struck me about it, was how similar — no surprise — it is to what Coach Dixon does in preparing. Watching tons of video. Trying to figure out everything the opponent will do. Consider this:  in the 7 losses Pitt had this year, only 3 occurred when the winning team did what was expected and the players performed as expected — Oklahoma State and Georgetown twice. In the other losses there were variables of players suddenly doing what they hadn’t.

Wisconsin — Bryan Butch suddenly finding a deep shot.
Marquette (at the Pete) — Dan Fitzgerald hitting shots and Marquette making FTs.

Louisville — Derrick Caracter playing well and the whole Cardinal team finally playing to its potential.

Marquette (at the Bradley Center) — Kinsella dropping the first 3s of his career and David Cubillan stepping up huge in place of an injured Jerel McNeal.

The Wisconsin game especially was what I thought of because of Dixon’s comments afterwards.

“(Butch) was the guy that, I think, kind of stretched us out defensively,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “Him making those shots really gave them a little different (look), another advantage in that area and helped them out.”

The key is the “different look.” Butch came into the game shooting rarely and poorly from outside. Everything else from Wisconsin was expected. It was Butch that threw things off

The good news about teams at this time of the year, especially in the post-season and definitely with UCLA. It is highly improbable that there will be any new wrinkles or player who comes out of nowhere.

I have to admit, I’d rather move to discussing the actual game and what to expect like the cool kids at Bruins Nation have started doing. The problem is there is just a lot of other material to at least link to to stay up to date. I’m hoping this is the big wave of “hey, Dixon and Howland are friends” stories that will subside.

The conference calls were yesterday. Howland spoke well of Pitt as you might expect but the local media did get some surprises.

But that conference call wasn’t all warm and fuzzy. At times, it was downright contentious.

Toward the end of his tenure at Pitt, Howland was tight-lipped about the then-possibility of taking the UCLA job. If his comments yesterday were an accurate barometer, what happened during his final few months at Pitt still rankles him, and he unleashed some scornful words in the direction of the Pittsburgh media.

“The media made it so difficult for any of this stuff to happen,” Howland said of leaving Pittsburgh and going to UCLA. “Really, it was a very, very difficult situation the whole year and [the media in Pittsburgh] was talking about me the whole year and trying to take the focus away from our team. … That is what I remember most about that situation.”

The. Pittsburgh. Media. Made. Things. Difficult? Are we talking the same Pittsburgh media in Pennsylvania? Located in North America? On the scale measuring media toughness with New York City sports coverage being the toughest and North Korean media on Kim Jong-Il’s golf exploits the easiest, the ‘Burgh media usually ranks somewhere south of Chicago Sports covering the first year of a Cubs Manager. All the local Pittsburgh media wants is access. Then it will generally roll over for you. It wasn’t the local media. All media was talking Howland to UCLA the entire season. Boy, I hate having to defend the local media.

Everyone knows they are close friends and will remain BFF. Even if Howland didn’t get UC-Santa Barbara to offer Dixon a scholarship. The one thing to expect is that neither coach expects much different on the court.

Still, as they break down film, each sees what the other sees. Pittsburgh is playing a lot of zone, and Howland laughs, because Dixon didn’t learn that from him. Watching an inbounds play, it looks strikingly familiar.

“There’s a lot of similar stuff, and stuff that’s tweaked,” Howland said. “There are even some of the same calls. There are not a lot of secrets.”

Levon Kendall is the only current Pitt player that actually knew Howland as a coach.

From the ESPN chats, Andy Katz:

Marty Pittsburgh, PA: What about the Pittsburgh Panthers chances against UCLA? UCLA seems undersized in teh front court, and Pitt seems to handle smaller teams.

Andy Katz: I picked UCLA but I do like the advantage Aaron Gray has inside over UCLA if the Panthers can get him the ball. That’s the question. If the Bruins’ pressure the guards well enough that Gray can’t get quality entry passes then he won’t be effective. The homecourt will be a clear advantage to UCLA.

And that’s the $64 Question. You wonder why they aren’t going to double Gray? They believe their advantage on defense is with their guards. If the guards can’t get it to Gray then they will just be passing along the perimeter and forcing Gray to come out on offense simply to set screens.

Mark Schlabach:

alex (New Rochelle, NY): Everyone seems to have UCLA over my Panthers. I actually think the matchup is good for Pitt. They both play the same. What do you think?

Mark Schlabach: Thought Aaron Gray played better in first two rounds than he did at the end of the Big East Tournament. Shot the 3-pointer well in the two games, and Cook, Fields and Graves can stay with Bruins guards.

Glad someone thinks so. Stewart Mandel wasn’t impressed by either team as he looks at the remaining Sweet 16.

UCLA: It’s time to start panicking, Bruins fans. Maybe those two season-ending losses weren’t a fluke after all. In its 54-49 win over Indiana, Ben Howland‘s team did its best impersonation of last year’s Elite Eight game against Memphis as its offense completely disappeared. It also allowed the offensively challenged Hoosiers to mount a late 13-point comeback before holding on.

Pittsburgh: It’s hard to have much faith in a team that, over its past three games, got clobbered by Georgetown in the Big East final and blew a 19-point lead on Saturday against 11th-seed Virginia Commonwealth before prevailing in overtime. Here’s guessing Jamie Dixon has bigger concerns on his mind right now than having to face his mentor.

Or you could note that Pitt has won 4 of its last 5 games against NCAA Tourney teams.

Former Pitt Associate Head Coach, now Manhattan HC, Barry Rohrssen is somewhat torn over who to cheer.

“Obviously, I care about both people and their programs,” said Rohrssen, a Brooklyn native who was the lead recruiter for Dixon. “But there are more variables for me on the Pitt side, having helped with the recruitment of those players. But my respect for Ben is so strong, it makes it real tough.”

“Both programs are so thorough in scouting,” Rohrssen said. “But this week, they’re going to find it’s like looking in the mirror. There is just so much familiarity. Obviously, each team’s players have separate skills. But in terms of style and preparation, it’s exactly the same.”

I’ll be getting some of that style/prep stuff later.

Good news for those of you with HD, all the remaining games will be in HD (maybe next year for me).

Dealing With Ben Howland

Filed under: Basketball,Coaches,Fans,History — Chas @ 9:54 am

I don’t hold great animosity any longer to Ben Howland. I used to, but I don’t have the energy. I don’t hold great affection for him either. I’ll try to explain in my usual, concise way.

The Ralph Willard era was pathetic. Willard took too many chances on players with some talent but a lot more issues. Willard was horrible as a coach at Pitt. I don’t care what kind of job he has done or continues to do at Holy Cross, I won’t forget just how bad he was at Pitt. Pathetic in-game coach and even worse in reaching the players. I had the misfortune of attending the two biggest collapses by Pitt under Willard. A loss to Rutgers in February, 1996, 71-70. Pitt had been up by well over 20 points in that game and took the entire entire 2nd half to give the game away — 1000 paper cuts. The other, of course, was that epic collapse in December 1998. A 70-69 loss to UConn that Willard claimed caused the team to suffer a sustained hangover effect as they lost 5 of their next 7. I always have believed that Willard sealed his own fate then. Not by losing to UConn, but by saying the effects of the loss stayed with the team for over a month — essentially conceding he couldn’t get the team past blowing the game.

Howland came in as several of the bad seeds either failed out, left or were kicked out for criminal issues. There’s no getting around it or pretending Pitt may have had some of the seedier collections of players this side of a Jim Harrick team.

The resulting teams for the first couple of years were undermanned; but the team embraced a defense first style, the effort was obvious and the game plans sound. The turnaround wasn’t nearly as sudden as sometimes portrayed — except in attitude. Even the second year, the turnaround wasn’t huge. Pitt finished 7-9 in the Big East, a two game improvement. Then came a tremendous run in the Big East Tournament that got everyone’s attention — mainly because Pitt had never done it before. A team that went no more than 6 deep won 3 straight games (including an OT) to get to the Big East Championship. By that point the team was gassed and toasted by BC by the second half.

I remember that run vividly because I had to go to a nearby dive bar to watch. I had just moved in with my girlfriend and she didn’t have cable (and I still married her). So I spent 4 straight days in a little bar filled with cheap beer and smoke. Intently watching the game on a smeared TV screen in Euclid, Ohio I was able to get them to switch to. Drinking probably a little too quickly and much because of the nerves. It was great.

But now there was real hope, belief and some actual expectations. The next two years were very special.

In the 2002-03 season, it quickly became clear that Steve Lavin was not long for staying in charge of the Bruins. All talk centered on Ben Howland considering all that was happening at Pitt. Locally and nationally, few doubted that Howland would be pursued by UCLA. His Southern California roots, his father still back there, Jim Rome pushing him for the job any chance he could get. As my friends and I debated and discussed whether Howland would leave Pitt for UCLA, I posted (way back on my original blog) some of what worked pro/con in Howland leaving; and what goes into being an elite basketball program. By elite, I don’t mean a top team right now, I mean a team that has sustained success, storied tradition, history and fans with a sense of entitlement. UCLA fit that mold.

As you would expect from most coaches, Howland did the usual coachspeak, denial/non-denial cliches: I haven’t been contacted; I have a job; I don’t want to discuss it… Nothing unusual or unexpected. UCLA didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament and Lavin was gone quickly. That meant heavy speculation on Howland was underway early. There was wishful thinking that perhaps the Bruins would cast their eye on Mark Few at Gonzaga.

It didn’t happen. A few days after Pitt lost to Marquette and Wade in the Sweet 16, Ben Howland was introduced as the new head coach of UCLA. I was not surprised, and really was more concerned about who would take over the job at Pitt. There were plenty of compelling reasons for him to take the UCLA job — from prestige to family and all the stuff in between. Disappointing to lose a very good coach, to be sure.

Then some things came out to sour the feelings. (The stories about why Donatas Zavakas was pulled from the game and appeared to quit on the team — for what he said to Howland about the UCLA job, allegedly — I did not hear for a while. For some this is a reason to hate Howland — being distracted by the UCLA job and a player calling him out on it. For me, since I didn’t hear the story at the time it never really entered into my issues with him.)

It turned out Howland didn’t even want to tell his old players he was leaving. That fell to the Jamie Dixon. After that came out, Howland, belatedly, returned to meet with them. That left a bad taste. Then came reading the story of his introductory press conference.

The day after Pitt lost to Marquette in the third round of the NCAA tournament, Howland had a friend contact Guerrero.

“I knew right away what I wanted to do, which was to pursue this opportunity,” the coach said.

That was the killer for me. All the coachspeak about not looking, and happy where he was just went out the window. He had just stated that as soon as Pitt had lost. The pain hadn’t even receded for the fans, the team, and he was having intermediaries tell UCLA he wanted the job. Howland couldn’t even wait for UCLA to contact him like everyone knew they would. The corpse was still warm. It was open and admitted pursuit and made me along with most fans wonder how much he really cared or tried as a coach in the Marquette loss.

As a Pitt fan, how does that not come off as incredibly cold, callous and just wrong by Howland? How does that not create some very hard feelings in what otherwise may have been an amicable departure?

Yes, Howland did a lot of good at Pitt. He helped — along with the new building and an aggressive AD — change the culture around Pitt basketball. That doesn’t change that he created some hard feelings with the way he left.

There’s was also — and while this is not at all Howland’s fault, it contributed to fan frustration and animosity to Howland’s departure — the piss poor way that Pitt handled trying to decide on a new coach. Pitt was acting at the time with only an interim AD — no excuse for that since it had been 4 months since the former had left (and he gave notice). So you had the school chancellor and an interim AD doing the search. They only interviewed two candidates: Wake Forest’s Skip Prosser and Jamie Dixon.

Prosser was the guy they wanted. It was to the point where they were down in New Orleans for the Final Four and didn’t even contact any other possibilities to at least informally talk about the job. Prosser ultimately turned down the job and chose to stay at Wake Forest. A good deal of which had to do with still not finding a full time AD. After very publicly flubbing the pursuit of Prosser, the school hired Dixon. Now, obviously this has turned out to be a good hire, but the issue wasn’t the hiring. It was the process — or rather the complete lack of planning and thoroughness in searching for candidates. It just has seemed much more luck then skill.

It was one thing to pursue one particular coach hard and strong, but to not get him, and then fall back on an assistant, who at the time was an unknown and the interview seemed like a courtesy to him and the players that wanted him. It wasn’t like Dixon was the “hot assistant” at the time. The highest profile job he had been considered was at Wright State. This was and is no knock on Coach Dixon. It was the reality of the situation.

Well it came off as minor league and a decision that if they couldn’t get the guy they really wanted, the school would take a clear 2nd choice on the cheap. That contributed to fan frustration and more annoyance at Howland leaving.

Is it all logical? Is it fair? No. It also doesn’t matter. Being a fan has very little to do with logic. There’s just too much emotion involved. A coach leaving a team is like a divorce. It doesn’t matter how many good times were had. It doesn’t matter if on side professes to still care after they were the one to leave. The fact is they left and it is the last memory. There’s going to be bitterness.

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