SECOND VERSE, BETTER THAN THE FIRST
Some teams still do it the old fashioned way, which often makes them better teams to watch in the second half of the college basketball season. The classic example of doing it the old fashioned way was Bobby Knight, when he coached at Indiana in the pre Big Ten Tournament days. While many of the highest profile coaches in the nation, in the most powerful leagues, made a practice of scheduling enough early season wins for making their NCAA tournament arguments regardless of conference record, which in many cases was a losing one, Knight’s philosophy was tournament entry was earned with league play. To get his team ready to go after the Big Ten title he annually compiled a killer pre conference slate. Knight didn’t care if the Hoosiers were 0-8 in December, once the conference schedule tipped off he was determined they’d be the toughest out in the league. It was with that philosophy that Knight coached the last undefeated men’s national champion at Indiana.
Most leagues, all the power leagues included, now have conference tournaments and automatic bids, but, with the power leagues eating up so many of the at-large bids, most mid majors get just one entre, their league tournament championship, which requires a team to be ready to play for seeding in league regular season games and playing it’s best at the end. Sometimes University of Hartford coach John Gallagher sounds like a cockeyed optimist when he turns the first of the year, talking about how his team is right where he wants it to be with a 4-10 or 5-9 record going into America East play but, in reality, he has it figured out.
Absorbing a few blows in the pre conference slate, even a humiliation or two, can make a team better as the competition level balances out. This year Gallagher took his Hawks on the road to face the number one team in the nation before making a cross country trek to Washington and a trip into the jaws of the “Philly Five”, at LaSalle. With injuries and various rates of player development it took Gallagher a while to settle on a starting lineup but with the return of junior forward Nate Sikma from an eight game injury absence and the development of sophomore guard Evan Cooper, he has his front five in place, anchored by league player of the year favorite Mark Nwakamma.
“I think we’re in motion here”, Gallagher said after last night’s home win over Maine that squared the league record at 1-1 for the 7-10 Hawks. “For us”, he said, “That third guy or fourth guy has got to be different every night. Tonight it was Oren Faulk (the senior forward who scored a career high fourteen points). We know who the first guy is but you have to mix and match the second, third and fourth guy.”
That’s where the pre conference slate works best for Gallagher, learning who those guys are and the circumstances that make them the best mix, “Some nights one guy might get 28 minutes, the next night he might get 16.”
In recent games sophomore Taylor Dyson, junior Jamie Schneck, Cooper and Faulk have been worked in and out of that mix to successful results. It’s a philosophy that has taken the Hawks to an America East championship game appearance and their first ever division one post season game in the last two seasons, a philosophy that annually leaves Hartford fans with a New Year’s anticipation that the best is yet to come.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.