Thursday, March 29, 2007

Be Like the Russians

Every now and then, posts morph into blog entries. This is one of those.

We were talking on the Pit about programs and whether or not ND can become a quality one again. I, for one, think it's very possible to ND to re-establish itself as a consistent, quality program. They just need to be like the Russians and not do anything without a plan -- a plan that can make use of what they do well and minimize that which hurts them.

ND's primary advantage as a sports-participating institution has always been its dedication to the academic, intellectual and maturity development of its student athletes. Back in its hoops heyday, such an advantage was important to blue-chip players, as salaries weren't the lottery windfall they are today. At the very least, they would have to spend at least two to three years at the college level, and they would, most likely, have to use that education down the road.

Unfortunately, that natural advantage isn't as important to blue-chip hoopsters today as it was back then. Quality players, both black and white, are looking for the quickest path to the NBA and its riches, deciding (perhaps rightly) the college degree will always be there when their playing careers are over and they have the financial wherewithal from that career to fund it themselves should they be so inclined.

Throw in the lack of overall success -- ND has been to the NCAA tournament four times in the lifetimes of current high school juniors, and has had some pretty damn bad years in that span, although that period is aging out soon -- the lack of attention to physical plant, and the reputation ND has as being firm on discipline both in and out of the classroom, and Notre Dame seems to be behind the eight-ball.

Does that mean they can't have a consistent, quality program? Of course not. They just need to do it in a different way, turning disadvantages into advantages.

I think the Ben Howland model is very useful in these discussions. Howland came on board at Pitt in 1999-2000, and decided to build the program from the bottom up. He brought in players who weren't the top-flight blue-chippers, but were good, quality players who would give him four (or, in some cases, five) years and be excellent players by the time they matured.

His first season, Pitt were 13-15. They improved to 19-14 the next year, then exploded to 29-6 the year after and have stayed consistently good, as Jamie Dixon has continued to operate in that model. The frosh watch while the upperclassmen -- with established playing pedigrees and known to opposing coaches (and officials) as being worthy of respect -- contribute.

He's now doing the same thing at UCLA. His first year, they were 11-17 (and got destroyed by ND at home). Then they were 18-11, and we know where they've gone from there.

When Mike Brey first arrived at ND, he tried to do the Duke thing and recruit the high-performance blue-chippers, and he was successful. However, it blew up in their faces in the post-S16 recruiting effort when they lost the blue-chippers to Duke. I also don't think his personality lends itself to working well with players like that -- right or wrong, he puts a lot of the onus on his players to show leadership and maturity. That lends itself a lot more to the Howland model, which is why, three years ago, they retrenched their recruiting plan. So far, it's worked out pretty well.

Going into next season, there's a lot of proven quality in the junior (KMac, Hillesland) and sophomore (Jackson, Harangody) classes, and projected quality in the frosh (Nash, Scott), along with developing talent in all three groups (Ayers, Zeller, Peoples, Harden, Abromaitis, Proffitt). And all those guys should be around at least next season and the one beyond to get even better and contribute even more.

There are other ways they can turn the frowns upside down. Yes, there was an initial overreaction by ND to the KMac situation, and I talked about it at length. But the end result showed intelligence and compassion on both sides, and gives Mike Brey some ammunition sitting in a kid's living room talking to parents: When ND says we're going to take care of your son and make a man out of him, we're not just running our mouths. We sacrificed what could have been a really special season because rules and discipline come first. Whether he ends up in the league or not, you're going to want your son to be part of that.

It's not a foolproof plan ... no plan is. But it's a good, well-thought-out one. Coupled with the physical plant improvements, it makes for a good foundation -- the kind of foundation programs are built on.

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Anonymous Karl Reichardt said...

Wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments. I just hope Brey feels enough appreciation not to bolt. The Howland model is hopefully our model and will lead to more "dance" appearances and a shot at the final four.


3/29/2007 04:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Hammerken said...

Funny that you wrote this column. My good friend has called me "A Closet Bruin" for my high regard of Ben Howland. Living in Southern CA I get an up front view of two very different ways to bulid a program. On one hand you have Howland, who is looking for character as well as talent and is implementing a system that looks pretty damn solid. I know that UCLA has higher standards for its student athletes thanthe norm. It is also curious how he has been able to attract players while not having the most modern facilities. Pauley is a pedestrian venue. The Flower of early '60's architecture. Granted the weather here is a hell of a lot better than South Bend, however the opportunity to gain entre into the network of Irish Alums would balance that out. On the other side of town you have Tim Floyd ( a damn fine College Hoops coach) who has chosen to fill the seats in the new glistening palace of hoops that he has been given bey going out and finding the biggest bunch of thugs this side of Richard "The Fixer" Perry's Hot Tub. No thanks. I am of the belief that Brey is over his head at ND. Like most of the fruit from the Coach Kryzewski tree it is not as good as it looks. (See Bob Bender, Quinn Snyder, Tommy "NIT" Amaker) I do not know who has the answer honestly, but if they have a Blueprint like Howland then that is a good starting point. I am not proposing a clone, but someone with an idea of where the program has been (AD, Final Four, Streak Smashing, David Rivers etc.), where it is ( A middling Big East squad with some hidden nuggets like Jackson, Harangody, and Zellars) and where it BELONGS (Hanging Banners and Pissing Off Jomokes like Billy Packer.)

3/29/2007 07:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

El Kabong - did you catch thsi story today from NY Times:

3/30/2007 05:40:00 PM  

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