Too bad they all don't play this way
Tampa, Fla. – They've all weighed in. Geno Auriemma. Jay Bilas. Seth Davis. All the "analytics" people, who believe their pronouncements come from a higher order. The conclusion, whether succinct or verbose: College basketball has become more tractor pull than ballet.
Humble solution here. Or at least Step One: Tune in to the women's national championship game tonight at Amalie Arena. Notre Dame vs. Connecticut. Brilliantly conceived offense vs. brilliantly conceived offense. Dr. Naismith might weep tears of joy. Coach Wooden might nod appreciatively.
Notre Dame vs. Connecticut: Five players moving. Different reads. Share the ball. Screen to get a teammate open. Perpetual movement. Pass and screen. Pass and cut. Never pass and freeze. Back cuts, back doors. Princeton.
Oh, if they all played this way.
And the reason they play this way: the maestros, Muffet McGraw and Geno Auriemma. We know in Connecticut better than anyone else of Auriemma's brilliance. McGraw, despite not owning as much hardware, could teach counterparts of either gender a thing or two. Whether they're lovey dovey is irrelevant. They share a passion for hardwood ballet.
"Our offense is still evolving," McGraw said Monday morning, before preparing the Irish for tonight's national championship game. "We run the Princeton offense which Pete Carril started at Princeton and one of my former players, Liz Feeley, was the women's coach there at the time. So she did a lot of the work for me.
"We went out to a lot of different people," McGraw said. "We went up to Northwestern and Bill Carmody was an assistant with Pete Carril, so we watched his practice and talked to him a lot. UC Davis runs it. I sent my assistants out to different places. Went out to Air Force and Coach (Joe) Scott (a Princeton grad) was out there. We've been to a lot of places to see people, and it constantly evolves because we have different players."
High school coaches take note, too: This doesn't just happen. Clearly, McGraw put some thought into this. Too many high school coaches run what they run because they're too stubborn to accommodate changing players and changing circumstances. It's bad coaching. Period. You run what your talent allows.
"This year we're still evolving," McGraw said. "I don't think we've run it nearly as well as we have in the past. Natalie Achonwa (who graduated after last season) was really special in that. We put our own wrinkles in to fit our team. That's what I like the most about offenses, tinkering with it and changing it up to see what fits us.
And watch the Irish play. Why wouldn't everyone try to do this?
"We have to try various things to make Notre Dame uncomfortable. They're a great offensive team," Auriemma said. "And trying to stop one person or trying to take them out leaves you vulnerable to so many other things. So they're having the same discussions at their staff meetings that we have. So I don't think there's any stopping to be honest with you."
Connecticut's offense is a product of Auriemma's mind, associate head coach Chris Dailey said. Geno's mind, sharper than good cheddar, isn't necessarily fixated on the next one-liner. He loves offense.
"Geno has a vision for how the game is supposed to be played. I can't believe I'm going to be quoted saying this, but he has a great offensive mind," Dailey said. "We call him the Rain Man. It's constant, to the point where sometimes you have to say, 'OK, let's just run what we know.' He has a vision and he sees it in his mind. He's not satisfied until he sees it on the court. At our best, the vision in his mind is what you see."
Auriemma's inspiration didn't necessarily come from basketball. It came from hockey. The old Edmonton Oilers. Gretzky. Kurri. Messier. Coffey. Constant movement. Attack.
"I think in any sport, people are kind of drawn to players who make things look easy, five players who pass the ball to each other, cut, help each other get open, get an open shot, knock it in," Auriemma said. "That draws people like, wow, how did they do that? In any sport. Doesn't matter what the sport is.
"I grew up in Philadelphia. So I saw one version of hockey back in those days (with the Broad St. Bullies): We touch the puck. We throw into that corner. Five guys are going to run after it. Three guys are not going to come out of that corner; they're going to the hospital. And then we're going to score and we're going to win. So that's one version of the hockey that I grew up with. Then there's the Edmonton Oilers version of hockey."
The easy guess: Not enough men's basketball coaches or fans think enough of the women's game to take notes tonight. Yet what Notre Dame and UConn run is similar to Bo Ryan's scheme at Wisconsin. Bottom line: No coach has ever won a blessed thing without talented players. But there's something to be said for talent manifested through skill, not necessarily athleticism.
"So there's a lot of ways to win but some ways I think are just more appealing," Auriemma said. "And you don't have to necessarily have the best players. Look at Dayton again, because it's more recent, a perfect example of a team that figured out this is what we have, how do we make these guys into a good offensive team."
Dailey: "The whole approach is share the ball, help your teammates get open, five people playing together as opposed to one. That's the biggest thing. Both teams (tonight) play like that. It's not just all about 1 on 1. You learn this from the Wisconsin men, too. It doesn't take away from what your great players can do. It adds, I think, and allows them to do more."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.