Issue January 22, 2008

Ballz: Sports Commentary & Analysis: Does anyone remember the good old days?

I went to a rather average game between longtime rivals New Albany and Jeffersonville high schools earlier this month. That description is astonishing, really, given that both schools have more often than not been competitive with the best teams statewide.

Not long ago — in the 1990s, before Indiana switched from single-class basketball to four classes based on enrollment — those games were a big deal. Both schools had major talent, with several future Division I players who knew one another well from years of youth competition, and the games were intense. Fans had to work to find tickets, and the overheated gyms simmered. The specter of an altercation, on the court or in the stands, was typically present and real.

This year, New Albany’s Bulldogs are loaded with talent — they’re currently No. 1 in 4A — and they simply had too much for Jeff. It’s kinda rude to have a 6-foot-5 kid with long arms playing the point on a 1-3-1 zone trap — an embarrassment of riches, as it were — and so the game turned mundane as the Bulldogs methodically pulled ahead and won. Throughout, there was nary a hint that anyone would get in anyone’s face, although I’m told New Albany coach Jim Shannon was overheard in the team’s huddle saying, “I hate Jeff. Annihilate them!”
That’s more like it.

After the game I headed to Connor’s Place, where I sat with a handful of guys who once upon a time worked in the sports department at The C-J. It’s a salty bunch — most of what was said we can’t even print in LEO — but one particular debate amused me no end.
To summarize: Denny Crum may not recruit like Rick Pitino, but he’s a superior bench coach. Which, beyond triggering my reflexive thought about the hollowness of such “either-or” propositions, got me thinking about coaches and coaching.

One thing that distinguished Crum was his long view. He preferred a competitive schedule to a smorgasbord of cupcakes, and those games taught his teams how to perform under pressure. Crum’s Cards often lost early but progressively improved as the season funneled toward the NCAA tournament. You didn’t want to play them in March.
Pitino, on the other hand, tends to step on the gas from the get-go. That’s worked well for him, too.

In the Marquette game, the Cards showed improved decision-making. They did things right that they weren’t doing six games ago. The Seton Hall game proved they still have much to learn. I have my doubts, but we’ll see.

Obviously, the college game is far different than it was 20 years ago. The hype and quest for NBA money are in conflict with the concept of team ball. Still, the best college teams — the ones that win — figure out how to play collectively.

Crum’s philosophy would still be relevant. John Wooden could still coach today. And so can Rick. I know Pitino is telling his kids, regularly and emphatically, what they need to do to improve. But it comes down to one simple thing. The kids have to do it.
It sounds simple. It is not.

Contact the writer at
leo@leoweekly.com