It's time to get excited about college basketball again. The calendar afforded us an extra week of practice this year, allowing us to start on the Columbus Day Holiday Weekend, giving us 6 full weeks before our first game.
Coming back from Italy really made us look forward to getting on the floor together again, having gotten an early glimpse of what our team will look like in '02-'03. The excitement and energy level for the first weekend of practice is always very high, and it was great to start on the holiday weekend. Although we normally have Columbus Day off from our pre-season training to allow our guys one last chance to relax and maybe head home before practice starts, it was nice to start with 3 days on a long weekend where the focus was primarily on basketball.
Make no mistake about it, however, there are 13 other Big East schools just as fired up and energized for practice on the first weekend as well. We were very happy with the level of intensity and hard work for our first week of practice, but so is everyone else. Coach Welsh is constantly telling our guys that it is the teams that can sustain that level of intensity throughout the season that will be cutting down the nets at conference tournaments in March.
The emphasis during our first week has been on our team defense. We let too many games slip away last year in the second half on the defensive end of the floor, so we started with defensive drills early on in our September workouts. What has been great is that our guys all know that individually and as a team we need to improve on defense, so there really isn't any need to get them to "buy in." Defense isn't easy and it isn't always fun, so it is not easily embraced by a lot of players (Do you ever go by the park in the summer and see guys doing defensive slides?). But in our meetings with our players they have all expressed the need to get better defensively, and that is half the battle. Now it is a matter of hard work and repetition every day in practice. I think some guys got into the habit of watching John Linehan run his magic last year, and that might have led to us relying on him a little too much.
The offense is always at a disadvantage early in the season. Defense is mostly about heart, toughness and energy and with great effort you can usually play pretty good defense. The offense relies a lot more on timing, spacing and working as a unit, and these qualities take a little longer to build. That is why the first few practices are pretty ugly - lots of turnovers and forced shots.
As a staff, we consider that good news. We have a lot of naturally talented offensive players, and every basketball player loves to score. A lot of times the defense is about getting them to do what they don't do naturally, and that can be tough. We're confident that when the lights go on for real, we'll have plenty of guys ready to put the ball in the basket.
At this time of year, most teams talk about staying healthy, but unfortunately we have to talk about getting healthy. We have had two practices already where we only had 8 scholarship players, and it seems like everyone walks out of our locker room banged up in some way. We keep telling ourselves that it is better to happen now than in January or February, but it is still difficult to get into a groove and get a good flow going.
As Coach Welsh told our team the other day in practice, now the grind starts. The excitement of the Late Night Madness and first practice is over, and the schoolwork doesn't get any easier. We won't play against a different opponent for another 10 days in an exhibition game, so our guys will be constantly banging against one another. It takes great focus and effort to put yourself in a situation where you can get better every day, and we need to have that if we are going to be where we want to be come March.