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THE THIN RED LINE
By Bruiser Flint

There is such a fine line between winning and losing. And there is a thin red line that divides many teams into two groups, one that gets invited to the postseason and one that doesn’t crack the .500 mark.

Ultimately, being a part of March Madness or just being plain mad comes down to a handful of possessions.

College basketball is not all that different from the National Football League, in regards to the talent level. Every team has talented players. Of course there are always one or two teams that may have a little more talent then the rest of the conference, but more often than not there is not a tremendous difference in the level of talent.

Take a look at the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. Last season they finished with the worst record in football. Sports Illustrated ranked them dead last in the entire NFL, heading into this season. Now the Chargers are headed to the playoffs. So how could a team go from being so bad to being so good in one year?

San Diego head coach Brad Holland, who is a longtime fan, will tell you that last year’s team was very competitive. They played well through the first three quarters, but failed to execute in the fourth quarter.

Of course it helps that Antonio Gates has emerged as a premier tight end and the defense has had more success with the 3-4 scheme, but the biggest difference has been their play in the final quarter.

If you follow the NFL very closely you will know that there isn’t much difference between the 2004 San Diego Chargers and the 2004 Cleveland Browns. Both have talent, but one team has played a much better brand of football in the fourth quarter.

There are other factors involved, but if you ask Brad Holland he will tell you that a play here or a play there and the Chargers might have been eliminated from the playoff hunt weeks ago. Instead, they are AFC West Champions.

That same thing exists in the world of College Basketball.

Whether you are playing your basketball in the ACC or the CAA the fact of the matter is that it’s just a handful of possessions that ultimately determines whether you win 20 games or fail to win 15. At every level it’s a thin line, but at the mid-major level it’s walking on thin ice.

Unlike the power conferences, which get multiple teams into postseason, mid-major conference only get two or three -- if they are lucky -- into the NCAA and NIT. To say that margin of error is even less at the mid-major level is an understatement. That handful of possessions determine a coach’s longevity.

If you look around the country you are sure to find a number of teams that are doing much better than they have in recent history. Now ask the coach what the biggest difference is?

The answers may vary slightly, but the message will be the same -- “We are making plays in crunch time.”

In most cases the personnel hasn’t changed dramatically from a season ago, but what has changed is how that personnel is performing when it matters most.

Recently, Rutgers head coach Gary Waters wrote -- on his website -- about how a team has to learn how to win. At first glance a lot of people might think that is just nonsense, but it’s so true.

Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg addressed the same issue on his website. He wrote that he and his staff are trying to educate their players on what it takes to win.

And Rider coach Donny Harnum just wrote -- on his website -- about how his team is 4-4, but could easily be 6-2, had they made plays down the stretch.

It’s not a coincidence that three coaches are addressing the same topic. It’s a fact of life in the world of College Basketball. Gary, Seth and Donny will all tell you that talent alone will win you a game, but knowing “how to win” will produce wins on a more frequent basis.

And Arizona head coach Lute Olson took it a step further, when he touched on the subject on his website. As he pointed out, the talking heads point to the play in the final moments, but in a one or two-possession game it’s often a missed opportunity in the first half that decides the outcome.

Fans constantly hear all of us say, “We need to play hard and play smart for forty minutes.” And you often hear, “One possession at a time.” That’s not simply coach-speak. It’s gospel.

Throughout the course of any season you are going to have games that are simply total disasters. Some nights you can’t hit the broad side of a barn and some nights the effort, for a variety of reasons, just isn’t there. That’s a fact that every coach in America understands all too well.

Likewise, you will have nights when the opposition runs into the same problems and you win going away. Let’s assume that you play in about eight of these games a year. Now you are 4-4 with about 20 closely contested games left. Splitting these games will leave you short of 15 wins, which will not get you into the postseason. You can’t afford to be .500. You have to win 14 or 15 of these contests. If you do, you’ll find your team hovering near the 20-win plateau with a shot at postseason.

One shot here, one defensive stop there. That’s the difference. It might seem like a big thing, but any coach will tell you that it truly is a thin red line.
 

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DON'T BE A JERSEY
By Bruiser Flint

Over the past few years I developed a reputation of being a coach that likes to have fun with his coach columns.

I have talked about my teams, but I have spent more time ragging on my fellow coaches and having a lot of fun with the Runway to the Fashionable Four.

The tongue and cheek approach will continue in the future, but this week I wanted to touch on a message that I have always preached to my players.

I have routinely told them -- Don't be a jersey.

This is something that goes back to my days as an assistant under John Calipari.

When you set foot in college athletic arena, you are exposed to a lot of things. For players, coaches and administrators it is important to always be aware of that. But it is most important for players.

For many college basketball players, when college is over so is their hoop career, but that does not mean that their lives are over, by any stretch. Life on the basketball court becomes a big part of their self-esteem and that void can be difficult to fill when the ball stops bouncing.

I have always preached to kids that they should find interest in other things --- Do not let basketball consume you. There are so many other riches to enjoy.

The college experience is something to cherish, but it is also something you want to get the most out of.

That means taking advantage of every opportunity afforded to you. Use the game of basketball as a vehicle to go where you want to go.

Act accordingly. Present yourself well. Meet people. Make contacts and build relationships.

And your appearance is very important.

Use basketball as your car and academics as your gas -- Don't just be another jersey.

The ball will stop bouncing one day, but if you have taken full advantage of those things that you were exposed to, your life after basketball will be very rewarding.

Don't be a jersey.
 

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EVERYBODY'S MENTOR
By Bruiser Flint

Most of the time I submit a column to College Insider it's of the tongue-and-cheek variety. From fashion to having fun with Coach Dave Magarity, I have had a lot of fun keeping my columns on the lighter side of the court.

However, Coach Lute Olson's recent induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame sparked a question. Why is that Coach Olson is always paying homage to others through his columns, but nobody ever salutes him?

Lute has written about guys like Al McGuire and Ralph Miller and he expressed the sentiments of all of us with his column in the aftermath of September 11th.

Every feature he has ever written for College Insider has been just like the man himself -- first class!

Like so many in this business, I have always admired him from afar. His teams have always been fun to watch. They play at a fast pace, but they play with so much discipline.

I don't think fans can appreciate just how difficult that is to do.

In today's game, players are so conscience of their own game and often express their thoughts to the coach -- "coach you're messing with my game."

That is an all-too-familiar phrase to coaches.

Coach Olson has always found a perfect balance, bringing out the talents of the individual for the better of the team.

Ever since he arrived in Tucson, AZ he has had terrific guards and he has always gotten them to play in his system, while not taking away from their abilities.

Back when he was at Iowa, it was the same situation but it was talented big men that he was able to cultivate into his system.

Trust me, that is not an easy thing to do.

What coach Olson has done one the floor speaks for itself, but it's away from gym where he really shines.

Everyone has heard the expression, "in life, not everyone is going to like you." Well, I don't think that applies to Lute.

He personifies class and dignity. The guy is about as good as it gets as a human being.

From time to time I will hear one of my piers make a derogatory remark about another coach and that's just the way it is. But I have never heard anyone say anything but the best about Coach Olson.

Should you ever hear someone say something less than pleasant about Lute, consider the source and give strong consideration to telling them to shut the hell up!

Better yet, you may want to opt for a different term than "hell."

There lies another one of Lute's great traits.

In today's game, the use of four-letter descriptives is unfortunately all too common place. However, I guarantee you that take your children to an Arizona game or practice session without a concern for inappropriate language.

The man is always so cool, calm and collected on the sidelines. That blue blazer never has crease and not a single blade of hair ever moves.

I always kid Coach John Calipari that his hair always looks so neat because of all that junk he pours on his scalp, but Lute keeps his smooth look with his great demeanor.

Coach Olson was inducted into the Hall of Fame because of his numerous basketball accomplishments, but had he never won a single game he would have deserved enshrinement.

Like every guy in this business I have a basketball mentor. Coach Cal is my mentor, but so is Coach Olson.

Lute Olson is everybody's mentor.

 
 



 

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