Coaching Clinic: Strategy and Psychology from the NCAA Title Game

Tim CarySenior Analyst IApril 8, 2008

Every sports website will have multiple game stories recapping Monday night's Kansas-Memphis overtime thriller. 

I haven't read any of them.  Yet. 

Instead, this column will take you inside the game -- from a coach's mindset.  As an assistant high school basketball coach, I spent last night fixated on the decisions and moves that ultimately decided the national championship -- some you may have heard about or noticed, some you may have not. 

As a big-time coach like Bill Self or John Calipari, the strategy and psychology never stops (even after the game), and this article lists what a young coach can learn from the NCAA title game (about moves you should make...or not make!)

One of the reasons I believe coaching played such a huge role in this game is how close the two teams were on paper.  80 points a game...allowing forth and so on.  The Jayhawks and Tigers are almost mirror images of each other...and so without the benefit of hindsight (which we all know is 20/20), here's what coaching lessons I took away from watching the championship game.

#1. Believe - and convince your team to believe.

Bill Self's pregame talk was aired on CBS, and he basically told his players "Thanks in advance for the feeling we're going to enjoy in a few hours".  No ifs, ands, or buts - talk about the power of positive thinking!  To be honest, I thought Memphis was a better team and would win the game, but Bill Self didn't.  It's a lot easier to will your team out of a nine-point hole in the last two minutes when you've already established how the ending will turn out.


#2  Defense wins championships.

Memphis hadn't been seriously challenged in the last three rounds of the tournament because their guards had been able to penetrate at will.  Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts constantly got into the lane, and either finished at the rim or, if the defense collapsed, kicked out for wide-open perimeter jumpers.  The reason Kansas dominated the first half of the game (and the final seven deciding minutes) -- their defensive pressure on Memphis's guards was the best the Tigers had seen.  Rose couldn't get inside without a screen...if Memphis set a screen, Kansas doubled him and got the ball out of his hands...Douglas-Roberts had to try and create his own shot...and the perimeter shooters had a hand in their faces. 

I heard an interesting interview with Purdue coach Matt Painter early in the season where he made no apologies whatsoever for teaching defense early in the year - his "Baby Boilers" spend a  lopsided percentage of their practice working on defensive intensity, and Painter doesn't care that the offense may suffer as a result.  He basically believes the offense will come around, but you can't win without focusing on good defense.  Every young coach should take note - defense wins championships.  

90 seconds into last night's game, I had already noticed what great lockdown defense the Jayhawks were playing, and Memphis never got comfortable.  Until...


#3  Don't outcoach yourself.  

I believe the score was Kansas 47, Memphis 44, or something like that, early in the second half.  The Tigers were laboring through every offensive possession (see #2 above), and their only points were coming from Chris Douglas-Roberts - he had 13 at the break.  All of a sudden, Kansas inexplicably switches from their man-to-man defense to a box-and-one zone, shadowing CDR, the Tigers' leading scorer.  This decision brings to mind every cliche in the book ("if it's not broke, don't fix it"..."why mess with what's working"..."trying to have your cake and eat it too") and almost cost the Jayhawks a national championship.  If Memphis can't score points, who cares that Douglas-Roberts has more than any other Tiger?  Your team has been outscoring and outplaying Memphis for 30 minutes...why dump your defensive game plan and start over?

One huge run later, Derrick Rose had his confidence back, Memphis had the lead back, and the Jayhawks' man-to-man defense had returned.  Of course, Memphis was now up nine intsead of down three.  Note to coaches everywhere - don't try and get fancy and outcoach yourself.  Just ask Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints what happens when you run a double reverse for Reggie Bush with the lead instead of kneeling the ball.  Just win the game. 

Of course, Kansas did win the game, as you all know...and that brings us to:


#4  Don't let the opponent hit a three to tie!  Ever!

Here's the Cliff Notes version of how the game was decided:

Memphis missed free throws down the stretch like we heard for six weeks that they would...and in a play that won't get enough credit, Kansas came out of a timeout down seven with under two minutes to play, and promptly stole the ball and hit a three to cut the lead to four. 

After all that, Derrick Rose had a chance to give his Tigers a two-possession lead with 10 seconds to play, but only split a pair at the line.  And that brings us to the most-debated play in coaching...a dilemma I will forever solve for you right now.

When you have a three-point lead in the last ten seconds and your opponent has the ball, don't you dare...ever...allow them to attempt a three-pointer that will tie the game. 



Think about it - Chalmers comes off that screen with four seconds to play...and instead of elevating for a jumper that will change Kansas's basketball history forever, a Memphis guard wraps him up and puts him at the free throw line.  3.3 seconds to play, and the Jayhawks are attempting two free throws down three. 

Now, I understand that it's possible to make the first free throw, miss the second on purpose, and tip it back in...or heaven forbid, tip it out for a three-pointer to win the game by one.

But if Kansas makes that three-pointer, do you think Memphis is going to win in overtime anyway?  I mean, really.  They don't call it momentum for nothing.  I've been on the fence in the foul/don't foul debate for years, but not anymore.  If my high school team's up three with five seconds to go in the fall, we're fouling.  End of story.

And in Memphis's case, end of championship dream.   Speaking of dream...


#5  Don't mix metaphors...or psychological strategies.

Did anyone else notice that John Calipari spent all of March playing the underdog card?  "We're the upset special -- you guys don't give us enough credit -- our conference isn't that bad -- we'll make our free throws when they count"...give the man credit, after all.  He managed to turn a team that had won more games than any in NCAA history (38) into an underdog in every game they played.  So why'd he stop on Sunday?

All of a sudden, Memphis has disposed of historic power UCLA...and it went to their collective heads.  Did you hear the phrase "Derrick Rose and the Dream Team"?  I did. 

News flash to Memphis:  Underdog does NOT equal Dream Team.  Memo to coaches everywhere: Don't spend three weeks convincing your team they're overlooked and  underappreciated, then change your tune the day before the biggest game of your lives.


#6  You can apply psychology to any situation in life - not just between the lines.

Exact quote from Bill Self shortly after winning his first national championship: "I just hope the meetings with my athletic director go well".  Um, ya think?  At first, I laughed - what's the AD going to say?

"Sorry, Bill - your team didn't perform this season.  You really should have won in Manhattan back in January." 

But upon closer look, there's some genius here - especially since the upcoming Oklahoma State offer to make Self the Cowboys' coach is college basketball's worst-kept secret. 

As a lowly assistant high school coach, my translation of a good meeting with my athletic director is: "Tim, you guys did a good job.  We're looking forward to having you back for next year."

Bill Self's translation of a good meeting: "Coach, don't go to Oklahoma State.  Please.  How's a _______ raise sound?  Not enough?  Okay, how about ________ ?"

If you can use psychology on athletic directors, you can use it on anybody!  


And that's what this coach learned from John Calipari and Bill Self during their one shining moment Monday. 



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