It hadn’t dawned on me until yesterday. Coach Pearl hasn’t mentioned last season once to this year’s team. There has been no Wayne, JP or Bobby did this or our Elite Eight team did that. Well, that was until after the first 40 minutes of yesterday’s practice that focused on defense. Unfortunately the majority of our players performed these drills with a lack of energy and purpose despite constant energetic encouragement and instruction from our coaching staff. As our staff’s demands were not consistently met by the majority of our team, that encouragement soon turned to frustration. Guys not doing the drill correctly, ran sprints. Losers of the drill, ran sprints. Guys that the coaching staff felt didn’t give it their all when they sprinted, sprinted again.
As our players struggled to get through down screens during our demanding 4-on-4 Defensive Shell drill Coach Pearl finally stopped practice and asked the team “Have I mentioned last year once?” He quickly answered his own question with a “No, I haven’t! But here’s a teaching point. The reason we got to the Elite Eight last year was because we were more committed to our drop back defense and did more shell work than ever before.” This is so true. After our 1st Round NCAA loss in 2009, we worked really hard to become a much better defensive team last year. More importantly, after the New Year, our team bought into it. Our defensive toughness, urgency and purpose became our identity last year. This has carried over to almost every day of practice thus far this preseason. However, we weren’t doing that yesterday.
Coach Pearl went onto say, “However, the reason we didn’t make it to the Final Four is because we couldn’t get through a down screen! We got hit time and time again and gave Michigan State easy look after easy look! Are we going to learn from that?! Are we going to let that experience drive us to get better or are we gonna stay the same?!” Coaches’ message was dead on. Talent is one thing. Every team on our schedule is talented. UT-Chattanooga who we play against on November 12th is talented. Belmont, Charlotte, Pitt, UCONN, USC and every team in the SEC…TALENTED! But are they going to defend every possession every day of practice? If we don’t do this every day we will be average because we’ll be creating bad habits. Complacency and lack of purpose every day in practice won’t amount to wins against the teams we face this year. Do we want to finish 4th in the SEC? The decisions of action we make daily will determine that.
The intricacies of this 4-on-4 shell drill that Coach Forbes taught Coach Pearl is one of the best things that I have learned since being a member of this staff. With two offensive and defensive players starting on the blocks and two players starting in the slots Coach Pearl efficiently has the players drill getting through downscreens, back screens and flare screens. This is a great drill because it not only works on our defensive principles (jumping to the ball, getting through screens, communication, ball pressure, high hands) but it forces our offensive players to get better and requires accountability and toughness. I love this drill because no matter if you are on offense or defense, you got to be tough. Guys can’t take a play off or they let their team down. If you’re soft, this drill will expose you!
Our guys have been great so far this preseason. Defensively, I think we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were at this point last year. This will only make us better offensively. However, with our first preseason game 1 WEEK AWAY, that needs to start happening now. Right now, our team assist to turnover ratio is bad. In some cases this can be justified by players trying to do a little too much to impress the coaches or a lack of focus. However, I think this has a lot to do with the fact that we have put a huge emphasis on defense this preseason. Coach Pearl may not have mentioned last year until yesterday, but I promise you that being a few seconds away from the Final Four has been in our staff’s minds since that buzzer went off and Michigan State stormed the floor. It’s fueled our fire to get even better. I strongly believe that in every adverse situation and every defeat there is a lesson to be learned that will help you improve. My hope is that our team learned from yesterday, and will be better today!