Preseason practice takes on many meanings
Four new coaches. Four different approaches.
Three of the four looked to transfers to fill significant voids on their new teams. A fourth probably wishes he could find a transfer or two who could ease the transition into his unique offensive system.
Each coach is tackling the early season a little bit differently as they figure out how to handle their individual instruction and team concept work in the few weeks remaining before practice begins on Oct. 15.
The NCAA allowed coaches to use all of their players, if they wanted to, during the two hours a week they are permitted to work with their teams. There is no blueprint for this, and plenty of veteran coaches are still developing their philosophies on this increased access.
But for four coaches trying to put an imprint on their programs in their first year, the preseason can be critical in giving them a jump on the season.
Travis Ford (Massachusetts), Reggie Theus (New Mexico State), Jerry Wainwright (DePaul) and Chris Mooney (Richmond) were all faced with the dilemma of how much they should throw at their new teams, and in at least the first three cases, how much their transfers should be involved.
Here is what they decided:
Ford has four players sitting out this season. Four. Luke Bonner (West Virginia), Tiki Mayben (Syracuse signee that didn't make it academically; Mayben won't be on scholarship), Gary Forbes (Virginia) and Etienne Brower (Boston University) are all sitting out this season. Yet Ford, who came from Eastern Kentucky where he earned an NCAA Tournament berth last season, also has to put in an up-tempo pressure system for this season. He's got three newcomers in freshman Chris Lowe, and JC transfers James Life and Brandon Thomas. But Ford is treating his transfers as though they're playing now, integrating them into his system as fast as possible. Those players need to push his current team throughout the season to ensure the system gets in place quickly.
But Ford has been wrestling with how to handle the two hours a week.
"When the rule came in, I thought it was the greatest thing but now you feel obligated to do the team thing and you miss out on individual stuff,'' said Ford, who played for one of the kings of individual instruction and development in Rick Pitino. "You find yourself doing so much of it on the fly and trying to throw so much at them. Once Oct. 15 comes, we'll try to break it down a bit.''
Ford said he feels a bit behind and isn't getting enough individual time in with his players. He questioned why the NCAA allows the women to work four hours a week and the men only two.
The transfers are already having an effect. Ford said he likes to get transfers in his program because he feels they've got an "axe to grind.'' He said it's not about fast-forwarding recruiting but getting players who could help the program.
But the high number of transfers means Ford has to push his limited number of eligible players for this team: nine. That doesn't leave room for error or injury, but the squad that is led by forward Rashaun Freeman, Jeff Viggiano and possibly Pitt transfer Dante Milligan (eligible in December) will need these early practices to work out any kinks in Ford's system before practice begins next month.
Reggie Theus took a similar approach. He loaded up on transfers by adding Martin Iti (Charlotte), Justin Hawkins (Utah), Fred Peete (Kansas State) and Trei Steward (Northern Colorado) to sit out this season. The Aggies already had St. John's Elijah Ingram and Prairie View A&M's Tyrone Nelson on deck, although Ingram is out with a foot injury. He's not slated to be eligible until mid-year.
Like Ford, Theus needs his more experienced transfers to push his returnees to instill his system. But, unlike Ford, Theus is looking at the two hours a week for defense. Theus, who worked under Pitino at Louisville, wants the Aggies to establish an identity in the halfcourt first. The key player could be JC point guard Shaun Davis, who was once slated to go to Indiana and then USC before going from the College of Southern Idaho to NMSU.
"He's one of the best late gets in the country,'' Theus said. "The guys we've got here are going to get enormous playing experience against the guys sitting out and that will make us much stronger the following year. I'm very big on us being sound defensively so that's where we're spending most of our time.''
Conditioning has been a major issue, too. Theus wouldn't say who was the culprit but he said he had one player quit on a workout because of fatigue. He said he couldn't believe the shape a few of his returnees were in when he arrived.
"I had never seen a guy stop playing before,'' Theus said. "I just told him to leave the gym. I didn't know what else to say.''
Theus said the transfers all called him, wanting to play for him at NMSU, something he said he was stunned occurred. And that's one reason why he's being ensuring that the transfers are treated equally as the returnees in this early going. They'll have to help this team as much as season's team.
"I've only got one scholarship for next year so I want to make it a four-year kid,'' said Theus who will be back on campus this week to focus on individual instruction.
Jerry Wainwright got a jump on his colleagues last spring when DePaul, which is on the quarter system, went later into the spring than most schools. That's when he got a feel for his players. So, with DePaul starting in mid-September, Wainwright isn't feeling as far behind.
DePaul had three freshmen, all signed by former coach Dave Leitao, and one transfer, Temple center Keith Butler. Wainwright, who is a noted teacher of the game, doesn't look at the preseason time as anything but a period of development. He doesn't want to do any five-on-five, two-on-two, three-on-three or four-on-four. He wants his players to improve, gather information on the system and get out of the month injury free.
"The more you stress to kids early, the more you're rolling the dice physically that they could get hurt,'' Wainwright said. "We want to get in our press attack, fast break on offense but everything is against no one on defense. The intent of this rule wasn't to go five-on-five. We feel like we get all of that in conditioning.''
Wainwright said he would rather have his players standing in February than jump-starting the season in September.
"You have to remember that a lot of these freshmen are coming off playing hundreds of games the past year or so, so you have to be careful with the younger players,'' Wainwright said.
Wainwright arrived at DePaul from Richmond, where Chris Mooney is trying to shift the program in an entirely new direction.
Mooney is putting in a Princeton offense before practice begins, after losing five players who were supposed to be in school -- two signees from last season and three returning players. All of them were guards.
"We're finding out there was pretty good talent, but we don't have a ton of depth, no depth at guard,'' said Mooney, who was the head coach at Air Force for one season, a year ago. "I don't see anyone who can't play the way we play, but it's a challenge. We'd love to have four hours because we have so much to cover to get in.''
Mooney said getting the Princeton offense in isn't the trick. The problem is learning all the opportunities that open up for players within the offense. He said taking advantage of what the offense gives you could take a year or two. That's a year or two, not a week or two or a month or two. Yikes.
"They're absorbing it, but I know we're not getting all our stuff in,'' Mooney said.
The reality is that of these four schools, UMass probably has the only shot of getting into the postseason this season. New Mexico State, DePaul and Richmond are all at least a year away. But figuring out how they're handling this September and early October could go along way to getting their programs going in the right direction in year one.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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