On the Road with Mike: A Meeting of the Minds

Years ago, back when Frankie Sullivan, Ed Hockenberry, Mitch Buonaguro and I were assistants with Rollie Massimino at Villanova, our staff would go away for two or three days every year to strategize for the upcoming season.

Some of us returned to that tradition when Rollie, now the head coach at Northwood University, invited a panel down to Florida for a Coaching Strategy Session earlier this month. It was great to see so many familiar faces from all parts of the country who are part of the basketball community at various levels.

Back row: Mark Sanford, John Olive and Dwayne McClain Middle row: Dom Savino, Jonathan Tsipis, Ken Gabelman, Don Mackay, Ken Sullivan, Christopher Walker, Tommy Percora, Chris Champeau Front row: Mitch Buonaguro, Mike Fratello, Rollie Massimino, Dick Versace

We had high school and college coaches from both women’s and men’s teams as well as former NBA coaches including Dick Versace, who used to be Chuck Daly’s assistant with Detroit and the one-time head coach of the Indiana Pacers. The majority of us were head coaches and there were also some assistants and a couple former players who played for Rollie at Villanova and went on to coaching. John Olive played some pro ball for a couple of years and was Rollie’s assistant when Villanova won the 1985 NCAA Championship. Now he coaches at a high school in San Diego.

Rollie’s current assistant coach Dwayne McClain played in Europe for a number of years and was on the Villanova National Championship basketball team along with Ed Pinckney, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the historic win over Georgetown. Ed planned to attend, but he was named as a new assistant coach with the Bulls so he had to reroute to Chicago. Joining Thibodeau’s coaching staff is a great opportunity for him.

When we arrived in West Palm Beach we went over to the Northwood University campus and saw some of Rollie’s players working out on their own in the gym and playing pickup games. But the clinic was held at the Comfort Inn hotel five minutes from campus. We spent two complete days covering a variety of topics that Rollie had outlined before we came in.

Rollie assigned each of us a particular topic to present, though anybody could chip in. He had asked me to be ready to talk on trapping in the post and rotations that come out of it. They had a big room set up for us with video monitors so some guys illustrated their presentations with videos, which was very helpful. There was also a camera running the entire time while guys were talking, demonstrating or drawing on the board.

We went from about 11 in the morning until 10pm on the first night. Because we wanted to keep going we had lunch and dinner brought in – big trays of meatballs, sausage, pasta and salad. There were so many funny comments made during the course of the clinic – that’s part of the camaraderie that has developed over the years. Rollie and I are each other’s families. I’ve known Dick Versace for years. John Olive played for the Wildcats back when I was Rollie’s assistant so I got a chance to coach John back then. A shared history makes the group what it is.

It turned out to be a great basketball forum that hopefully will help those of us coaching this year win a couple extra games along the way.

On the Road with Mike: The Trained Eye

This evening I will head over to the NBA’s annual referee training camp. They have invited various members of the media who cover teams around the league to attend a debriefing regarding rule changes for the upcoming 2010-11 season.

The training camp got underway yesterday in Jersey City. The 60-person NBRA staff consisting of both young and veteran officials must undergo both physical and written tests to make sure they not only have a clear understanding of the rules, but also can meet the physical demands of their floor-pounding job.

We in the media will also be tested. Last year they had us answer about 20 questions regarding various rules and scenarios. After being involved with the NBA in one capacity or another for over three decades, I figured I’d know most of the answers. But I was surprised by how many I wound up getting wrong due to the nuances of the regulations. It was indeed an eye-opener.

In addition to helping us appreciate the difficulty of their job, the NBRA will ensure that we are informed of any new rules. From what I gather The NBA Board of Governors has again approved the expanded use of instant replay to help officials get the calls right.

Each season they call up a few officials from the college ranks or NDBL. A handful of vets have recently retired including Joe DeRosa, Joe Forte, Sean Corbin and Phil Robinson so I’m anxious to see who the new faces are and I look forward to meeting them. I also look forward to catching up with a couple of the old-time refs who missed last season due to injuries like Steve Javie, who will try to come back and pass the physical in order to return for his 25th season.

Once the pre-season gets underway on October 3, they will send refs around the country to NBA training camps and do the same thing with coaches and players that they are doing with us in order to facilitate understanding and help them avoid those costly technicals.

The good news tonight is whether I pass or fail the test, I won’t get hit with any technicals and lose money out of my pocket like back when I was coaching.

USA Basketball: Gold Rush in Istanbul

Two teams made history in yesterday’s 2010 FIBA World Championship Semifinals. Kevin Durant scored 38 points in USA’s 89-74 victory over Lithuania in Istanbul, setting a new US FIBA World Championship record for point scored.

It was an impressive win for Team USA and a much better showing than their previous friendly with Lithuania prior to the tournament. The U.S. kept turnovers down and through pressure defense managed to create opportunities to get out in front and score. In addition to Durant’s huge performance, Lamar Odom finished with a double-double while Eric Gordan and Westbrook really contributed off the bench.

Now Team USA is one win away from World Championship gold. But they must contend with undefeated Turkey, a team bolstered by the hopes, prayers and thunderous support of a nation looking to become the first host country to take the title in forty years.

Turkey trailed Serbia for most of yesterday’s semifinal. But the momentum shifted when Kerem Tuneceri drilled a 3-pointer late in fourth quarter to give Turkey the lead for the first time in the half. And Tuneceri would be the hero of the game.

With just seconds remaining on the clock, Tuneceri penetrated and sank a layup to steal the game 83-82. The announcer bellowed, “Turkey is going to the gold medal game and the roof might be coming off the Olympic Dome.”

As thrilling as it was, atmosphere at today’s final between USA and Turkey will be off the charts. Pandemonium will erupt hours before the game and will continue throughout. Turkish fans will not stop cheering. They will not stop chanting. They will not stop whistling. They will not stop waving their flags. This is the first time Turkey has reached the world basketball finals. And they have done so in their own country knowing they will have a chance to topple arguably the best team in the world. It will be a wild spectacle.

Not only will team USA will have to contend with the emotion of a crowd that will be after them the whole time. Turkey also has experienced NBA players including Hedo Turkoglu, Ersan İlyasova, Ömer Asik and Semih Erden. This group of guys is not going to be in awe of Team USA or afraid of competing with NBA players because they play against them all the time.

Turkey may not be as athletic as Team USA, but they move the ball well and execute on offense. USA will have to rely on tenacious defense to disrupt Turkey’s offense. In yesterday’s USA-Serbia semi, the United States took away the 3-point line early on and piled on the pressure, forcing turnovers. The defensive pressure that the U.S. put on Lithuania did not allow them to have all the looks from the 3-point line that they got against Argentina.

And once again Team USA will rely on Kevin Durant to lead the charge and put up big numbers. He was unstoppable against Lithuania. A repeat performance could very well enable the U.S. to bring home their first FIBA World Championship Naismith Trophy since 1994.

USA vs. Turkey airs live on Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 2:30 PM ET on ESPN; replay at 7:00 PM ET on ESPN2.

USA Basketball: And Then There Were Four

All four of the teams that finished the prelims at the top of their groups have made their way to the semifinals: USA, Lithuania, Turkey and Serbia. Team USA is looking to reclaim their first World Championship since 1994. On Thursday they had to get past Russia in the quarterfinals.

Russia played smart and hard for three-quarters of the game. But ultimately the United States’ defense wore them down and forced big turnovers, which led to easy baskets.

Kevin Durant continues to step up on offense and was sensational along with Russell Westbrook, who played his best all-around game of the tournament.

Lamar Odom also played one of his best games so far. In a subtle way he was the most important player in the game for the United States. Odom was huge on the glass and made things happen with the basketball.

Today USA faces Lithuania in the semifinals. They had an exhibition game against Lithuania just prior to the tournament and beat them 77-61. But the U.S. struggled during the first half and didn’t take its first lead until they got into the third quarter, so the score is deceiving. USA will need to get off to a quick start in today’s meeting. They don’t want to let Lithuania build confidence or momentum.

Coming off of seven straight wins, the wildcard Lithuanian team is having an incredible run. And judging from Lithuania’s outstanding performance against number one ranked Argentina on Thursday, they will be Team USA’s toughest challenge to date. Though a small country, Lithuania has a big tradition of basketball and they are hungry for this title.

Lithuania pounded Argentina with their great shooting. They relied heavily on 3-pointers, hitting 9 out of their first 11 attempts and finishing with 12 for the game.

Both the United States and Lithuania are very physical and athletic, so USA must be on high alert defensively. Derrick Rose will try to push the tempo on offense.

21-year-old Durant will be heavily counted on for scoring, as he’s been throughout the tournament. And Coach K will also be able to turn to his deep bench for reinforcement.

In the second semifinal match of the day Turkey will meet Serbia. No doubt the prospect of competing in the finals has the entire host country on the edge of its seat. The Sinan Erdem Dome will be packed with passionate fans who are ready to jam and the atmosphere will be unbelievable.

USA vs. Lithuania airs live on Saturday, September 11, 2010 at 12 PM ET on ESPN Classic; replay at 1:30 AM ET on ESPN2. Turkey vs. Serbia airs live at 2:30 PM ET on ESPN Classic. Click here to view the rest of the 2010 FIBA World Championship broadcast schedule.

USA Basketball: USA-Russia Rivalry Never Gets Old

Team USA is only three wins away from gold, but only one loss away from elimination. Today they face Russia in the one-and-done quarterfinals round of the FIBA World Championship. And the rivalry runs deep. In light of the heated exchange between head coaches Krzyzewski and Blatt regarding the Soviet Union’s controversial 51-50 victory over the U.S. for the gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics exactly 38 years ago, I expect today’s game to be very emotional for both teams.

But Team USA can’t afford to let their emotions get the best of them. They must maintain composure and stick to their game plan in order to succeed against this sizable Russian team. USA may have been a little rattled after squeaking past Brazil by only two points, but they proceeded to win handily over Iran, Tunisia and Angola. From the beginning of Sunday’s USA vs. Angola game you could tell that the days off were very good for the United States. They came out with fresh legs and high energy; they made shots and shared the basketball.

Thirty assists for them in the game was a good sign that they were moving the ball and making shots. Led by Chauncey Billups, who drilled five of seven 3-pointers, their total team effort produced a landslide 121-66 victory over Angola, who was without their leading scorer and completely overmatched as far as the talent level on the floor.

When you get down to the final eight teams there are no weak opponents so Team USA is going to have to play at the top of their game from here on out. Today the U.S. will face a different caliber of player in Russia and it will be a much tougher game than Angola. Russia has only dropped one game in the tournament to undefeated Turkey, and they took apart New Zealand, beating them convincingly. They are a tall, physical team anchored by towering centers Timofey Mozgov (7’1″) and Sasha Kaun (6’11”) who are effective under the basket both on offense and defense. Their height on the inside will pose a challenge for this undersized U.S. team.

Angola’s style of play was good for the United States because they tried to shoot quickly and run, which opens up the floor. The teams that have made the United States play poorly have been the ones that have been very patient when running their offense and forced the United States to defend over longer periods of time. So look for the disciplined Russian team to try and slow down the quick, athletic USA to limit points in transition.

Once again the United States is fortunate to have had a few days off between games to rest up and get in some practices to work on their offensive strategies and defensive tenacity, which was excellent for the majority of the game against Angola and will be imperative against Russia.

USA vs. Russia airs live on Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 11 AM ET on ESPN; replay at 1:30 AM ET on ESPN2. Click here to view the rest of the 2010 FIBA World Championship broadcast schedule.