Expanded column: Teamwork

I guess you could call this an extended mix. Actually, it’s the same column that ran in the paper this morning, with the discussions of UK and U of L basketball expanded a bit in the final third of the column, applying the subject of the piece more specifically to this year’s teams.

For what it’s worth . . .

Teamwork taking longer to develop

Forget the high five or the chest bump. The biggest move in college basketball so far this season has been the head scratch.

Western Kentucky beats Louisville by double-digits? Virginia Military Institute lights up Kentucky? Cleveland State wins in the Carrier Dome? Tennessee gets blown out by 4-3 Temple?

There are more. And there are plenty of explanations, but I was driving by a public court two days ago and saw about 15 kids playing at once and something occurred to me that might shed some light.

My premise, and I’m afraid it’s not new: Many teams ranked at the top right now just don’t yet know how to play together. And the main reason is that many of today’s best players have never had to truly be part of a team.

Outside of North Carolina, I don’t know that I’ve seen a team in the top 10 this season that has a great grasp of what it does best and consistently does it. And North Carolina may only qualify because it does just about everything well.

The job of coaches today is tougher. People scratch their heads at Rick Pitino and Billy Gillispie and their methods at times, but I’m increasingly convinced they not only have to develop players individually and get them to run the right things, but they have to teach the very concept of team itself.

This is not how it used to be. I saw the kids playing on the asphalt on a blustery day and I remembered recess at East Middle School in Shelbyville, Ky., more years ago than I’ll admit. There was one ball, and big 12-on-12 scrums of games would break out. There was an older boy, and I wish I remembered his name, who, if we played long enough, would begin to organize people one-by-one. The tall kid. The fast kid. The big kid. I remember the first time he tabbed me, as a kid who would pass the ball, and I remember the reason.

“Because you don’t shoot it every time,” he said.

The point? Even just fooling around, we eventually drifted to a team concept.

Today’s players want to show what they can do. A guy might be a gifted post player, but wants to show he can also shoot the three. A gifted ballhandler or passer wants to show off his scoring. Summer leagues are built around individual drills, with games that show off individual talent for coaches who are evaluating individual ability.

It’s not a knock on them. It’s the way the game in this country has changed. I heard yesterday about a fifth-grade coach who was heading out to scout an opponent. Seems like in fifth grade, they might want to think about just teaching the game.

But all this is why it takes longer, even with talented players. That’s why you can amass great talent, but not necessarily be a great team. Because when players don’t really grasp who they are as players, it’s tough to build an identity as a team.

Think fast — what is the University of Louisville basketball team great at? The Cardinals do a lot of things well, but they’re still searching for that groove — a groove that David Padgett, who understood his team, helped them find last year, or that the Cardinals of 2005 rode to the Final Four.

Think about this. How many times did Williams or Clark or Jerry Smith find himself with the ball in precisely the right spot last season, thanks to Padgett’s choreography? How often did Padgett shove a guy into position on defense? This season, Williams may have that kind of grasp, but it may take more than that.

When U of L went to the Final Four, the Cardinals were a very good team all season. They didn’t become a great team, however, until a freshman, Juan Palacios, realized if he could just get to double-digits in rebounds, the team would be hard to handle. Instead of floating looking for threes, Palacios went to the blocks, and the Cards went to St. Louis.

The University of Kentucky, with its stifling defense in the first-half against Indiana, might have caught a glimpse of itself, but last year’s team took a good bit of time to figure out how it was going to win games.

And UK’s challenge is even more significant when you think of what percentage of the time the ball was in the hands of Ramel Bradley or Joe Crawford (or even Derrick Jasper) last season.

Once UK realized that it was a team that pounded it in to Patterson or gave it up to Crawford or Bradley late in possessions on offense, it found a dozen wins in the SEC. This year’s team has more working parts, but that can also mean more time for sorting-out.

I watched the 1996 Wildcats on tape a while back. Every player who came in seemed to somehow do what he did best, and game after game. They found a way to fit.

And the farther back you go, the more pronounced it is. Watch the U of L championship team from 1980 go see a team that played to every player’s strength, and a roster of guys who all played to their team strength.

See the same thing from UK’s 1978 champs, or any of Bob Knight’s great Indiana teams.

Great teams still do it. It just takes longer.

In the meantime, I take quite a bit of pleasure in knowing that in college basketball, maybe more than anywhere else in big-time sports, the team still matters. A group of average players who want to play together can, on a good night, even beat the very best.


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