Xavier’s pack-line defense and coaching continuinty

In the March issue of Cincinnati Magazine, I’ve got a long profile of Xavier head coach Chris Mack. On this blog, I’ve already tried to substantiate my claim that Xavier’s brawl had been “a long time coming.” Now, I’d like to write about Xavier’s defensive identity — and about the way such identities can owe as much to previous coaches as to the current one. I think this dynamic is one of the most interesting (and overlooked) things about college basketball, a sport where everyone is always on the move. When I interviewed Sean Miller, he talked about how an assistant, once he assumes a program’s top spot, needs to maintain continuity while also making it his own. Of Mack, his former assistant, Miller said: “Chris has done a great job, from my vantage point, of doing both.”

Mack also had nice things to say about his former boss. (“He’s one-hundred percent basketball,” Mack said. “He doesn’t have any other interests. I feel bad for him.”) One place where Mack’s emphasized continuity is Xavier’s defense, which continues to deploy a man-to-man scheme known as “the pack-line defense.”

In Miller’s first season as head coach (and Mack’s first as his top assistant), Xavier ran a number of different defenses, depending on match-ups, in-game strategy, and so on. But this meant Xavier didn’t develop much of a defensive identity, and for that reason Miller spent most of his first offseason watching film of — and making phone calls to — the sport’s best defensive coaches. Eventually, Miller decided Xavier would become a pack-line team, emphasizing the scheme’s principles and philosophy at every opportunity. He brought in a new assistant, James Whitford, to help with the transition. Whitford had played for Wisconsin’s Dick Bennett and coached for Miami’s Charlie Coles, both of whom favored sticky, lane-clogging defenses. In other words, Whitford also offers an example of coaching continuity, and he’s now Miller’s top assistant at Arizona.

So, what is the pack-line defense? I asked Mack for a layman’s definition, and this is what he said:

It’s a defense that stresses keeping the ball out of the lane, being a team that doesn’t get spread out defensively, that isn’t denying in the passing lanes, that isn’t taking chances and trying to make the game chaotic, that’s more worried about keeping the ball in front of them. We want to have a little more organization to us on the defensive end. We want to make sure every shot you take is outside of the lane and is contested.

If you read my profile, you’ll see why this scheme appeals to the hyper-organized Mack. The pack-line defense still demands intense individual defense — “We’re going to pressure the ball really hard,” Mack says — but it forces the other players to think about their positioning. “I came to believe in the pack-line defense because it gave answers,”  Mack says. The players knew what they needed to do, the coaches knew what they needed to teach, and the team knew how it could get better. In fact, Basketball Prospectus has demonstrated that Xavier’s defense got better every single year under Miller. Mack remembers Miller’s final 2009 Xavier team that made the Sweet 16: “We were so doggone good on defense. We weren’t the most talented team, but we had kids who’d been in the system three or four years, who knew how to defend.”

You can see, then, why Mack wanted to keep the pack-line defense — and why that continuity between Coach Miller and Coach Mack mattered. “I was teaching a system, as an assistant, that I completely bought into,” Mack told me.

One final point: this is not to say that all coaches are the same, or even similar. In fact, Mack and Miller couldn’t be more different in terms of personality, if not intensity. All the info in this post came from my interview with Mack. I asked Miller the exact same questions, and here’s what I got: “The pack-line defense was my contribution.” That’s it. Even when I asked about Mack’s role in defensive gameplans, Miller stayed terse: “He contributed, in my mind, to every aspect in the development of our program.”

So while coaches may share strategy and tactics, they remain different people, and those differences surely inform their strengths and weaknesses. In fact, I’d planned to ask Thad Matta about the relationship between him and Miller at Xavier, but, in an outcome that will surprise very few Xavier fans, he ignored my multiple requests. Matta, it seems, had completely moved on.

A profile of Xavier’s Chris Mack

[Cincinnati Magazine]

In the March issue of Cincinnati Magazine, I’ve got a long profile of Xavier head coach Chris Mack. It centers on the lead up to the Xavier-Gonzaga game on New Year’s Eve, and while we continued to tweak the story as Xavier’s season progressed, that lead time makes it feel a little . . . strange, especially since this week Xavier pretty much ended its NCAA hopes by losing to St. Louis. I hope the access and the reporting help compensate for this lag. One thing that definitely helps is Mack himself. He was the most honest and upfront interview I’ve encountered in the sports world, and I’ll try to do a couple follow up posts with stuff we couldn’t fit into the profile — especially his discussion of the theory and praxis behind Xavier’s pack-line defense.

Before getting to that, though, I want to highlight (and substantiate) what I suspect will be the most controversial part in the profile. It deals, to no one’s surprise, with the Xavier-U.C. brawl at the end of this year’s Crosstown Shootout. Near the end, I write:

But there’s a bigger problem here, and it gets at Xavier’s dirty little secret: The brawl has been a long time coming.

From the beginning, Mack’s been up front about wanting a nasty team. That’s why he practices the way he practices. (Mack pushed his players so hard in a January practice that he blew out his knee again while attempting a motivational dunk.) That’s why he recruits the way he recruits. You can find evidence of this from former players and coaches, from on-court incidents, and from opponents. But here’s a particularly telling example: In October, before the season even started, Jeff Goodman of CBS Sports stopped by a Xavier practice and noted how the team relied on a potentially combustible edginess. “We’re straight tough,” guard Mark Lyons told him.

The profile makes lot of the comparison between Skip Prosser and Chris Mack, and I should say that Prosser also ran a tough team. In Michael Perry’s excellent book Xavier Tales, he quotes the following Prosser pep talk: “You’ve got to hit them first; don’t give up a step.” Perry also quotes former Xavier player (and later, assistant coach) Pat Kelsey on Prosser’s practices: “It was three hours of just up-and-down the floor, bodies flying around; it was almost like you needed helmets and shoulder pads.”

Still, I think Mack (and, as we’ll see, Sean Miller before him) took this nastiness to a new and more intentional level. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I believe it created a tension with the Prosserian classiness most people associate with Xavier — and certainly, it made the fall out of the brawl that much worse.

So, what’s the evidence I alluded to above?

  • Former players: Before his first Crosstown Shootout, Mack showed his team a five-minute montage of previous Shootouts — the fights, the shoving, the dirty plays — to motivate them. After the game (and I’m drawing all this from Scott Gaede’s book NeXt in Line), Jordan Crawford said that U.C. “tried to come in and be the bullies, and we wanted to be the bullies, too. We ain’t going to back down from nobody.” Later that year, in the Butler game that ended with a bizarre game-clock error, Tu Holloway had to be restrained from charging into the crowd. Afterward, a Xavier player allegedly tore a water fountain off the wall of Hinkle Fieldhouse. I mentioned this to one of Xavier’s media guys, and he maintained that the player meant to slam a table but hit the fountain instead; the age of Hinkle Fieldhouse did the rest. That may be true, but as far as defenses of militant behavior go, it seems a little lacking.
  • Former coaches: This seems like the most telling evidence, to me. When an Arizona reporter asked Sean Miller about the brawl, he said this of his former team: “They’re deep, they’re tough, they don’t back down. If Cincinnati tries to do what they did today, they’re going to get a fight. That’s what happened. So I’m proud of those guys.” The reporter followed up with Miller after he’d seen the tape: “Happens every game,” Miller reaffirmed. “I’m proud of those guys, I really am. I would fully expect there to be a fight.” Miller tried to walk these statements back the next day, but I think they reveal how central this nastiness was to his team’s culture and to his coaching identity. Remember that in one of Miller’s Crosstown Shootouts, Derrick Brown started a small fight and was ejected. It seems clear that Miller expected the Musketeers to react this way because he (and later, his former assistant Mack) stressed these qualities on a regular basis.
  • Opponents: On his radio show, to take one instance, Matt Painter said of Xavier that “right away from watching film, they talk! And they talk a lot. So that was one of the first things we talked in a scouting report was that, ‘Don’t get caught up in that.'”

I asked Mack about the Painter example. “That’s Matt’s opinion,” he said. “That’s not who we are nor who want to be. It has nothing to do with the talking on the floor, the false bravado. It has everything to do with being the first person to dive on a loose ball.” Again, this may be true, but I think it also creates a tension with Xavier’s broader image. That tension was really the only thing Mack was less than candid abut.

Let’s end with a great example of what I’m talking about — and an example that suggests this tension bothers Xavier’s administration, as well. Almost a month after the brawl, a university dean announced mandatory “reflection sessions”  for the student section based on their behavior at the game. Xavier cancelled the sessions, after they were widely mocked, but what’s truly interesting is that the university decided to react to the student section only post-brawl. After all, Matt Howard of Butler, who was surely one of college basketball’s most widely traveled players, called the Cintas Center and Xavier’s student section the most hostile he’d ever experienced. That’s the way Xavier has grown used to doing things, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, it does seem odd to freak out, but only after being caught.

Josh McRoberts, by way of The Jefferson Bible

[Los Angeles Times]

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I’ve got an op ed on the Jefferson Bible — back in the news, thanks to a new edition from the Smithsonian, and more relevant than ever, thanks to the Republican presidential primary. I could say a lot more about the history of the Jefferson Bible, and somewhere down the line I will. For now, though, I’ll write about something else — another recent story in the Times, this near-crazy column about Lakers reserve Josh McRoberts.

The column comes from Bill Plaschke, a Fire Joe Morgan favorite who’s made a career out of getting things wrong. In fact, I single this instance out only because it reveals a lot about how the media continues to mythologize “Indiana basketball.”

Plaschke starts with a promising topic — how a prep and college star handles being a role player in the pros. There are some good details, too, like the fact that McRoberts moved to L.A. so quickly that he’s been taking an airport shuttle to games. Where the column goes off the rails, though, is when it addresses McRoberts’s Indiana roots. It doesn’t help that Plaschke relies on one of those lazy, column-by-number structures that FJM loved to hate. McRoberts is Josh McRambis, he’s Josh McFly, and, now, he’s “Josh McHoosier”:

He grew up swallowing wood chips that landed in his mouth from his splintered driveway backboard. His other childhood gym was a goal hammered to the side of his grandmother’s barn. He was the nation’s top-ranked player as a senior at an Indianapolis-area high school where, during the recent NBA lockout, he served as an assistant coach. And, oh yeah, he can’t stand to watch the movie Hoosiers anymore because, basically, he lived it. With his Indiana twang, he even sounds like it. “Where I came from, all I’ve been through, that’s made me who I am,” he says. “Hoosiers is about right.”

This is absolute nonsense. That “Indianapolis-area high school”? It’s Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana, easily the richest city in the richest county in the state. The 4,600-student high school boasts a national reputation for college prep. The city just built a fancy concert hall known as The Palladium. Carmel isn’t famous for its hardscrabble Hoosier-ness. It’s famous for its roundabouts.

Now there’s nothing wrong with this. But McRoberts talking about the goal on his grandmother’s barn — and let’s note that his dad played basketball at Butler and his mom teaches at a Carmel school — makes as much sense as me talking about the rusted-out combine on my grandfather’s farm. Does it exist? Yes. Does it mean I deserve a Walker Evans portrait? Hardly.

It’s interesting that McRoberts can no longer watch Hoosiers. I heard the same thing from several high schoolers in Milan, Indiana, when I did a story on the town’s basketball legacy. In both cases, it seems like the natural, reasonable reaction of people who’ve seen the same lazy story line projected on them way too many times. If it’s basketball and it’s Indiana, then it must be Hoosiers — underdogs, outhouses, twangy accents. Honestly, I don’t even blame McRoberts for mentioning his grandmother’s barn. I’d bet you a pile of wood chips Plaschke was gunning for details of just that sort.

What everyone’s missing about baseball’s new CBA

[Slate]

In Slate today, I’ve got a story about Major League Baseball’s new CBA — and about its changes in how teams can acquire (and compensate) amateur talent. Among baseball pundits, a sturdy consensus has formed: these changes will make it even harder for small-market teams to compete. I try to show how this analysis overlooks a few key ideas, including the lessons of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

The gist of my argument is that spending tons of money on amateur players does give small-market teams an advantage — but that it’s such a big advantage everyone else will catch on and catch up, leaving the draft as stratified as every other element in baseball’s economy. It’s the classic Moneyball narrative: team exploits undervalued asset until it becomes properly (even overly) valued. One of the funny things here  is that Billy Beane and the A’s themselves undervalued draft picks. After all, a big part of Moneyball centers on the 2002 draft in which the A’s had a whopping seven first-round picks (and 35 picks overall). Instead of loading up on high-ceiling, high-cost amateurs — the kind of players you have to pay “over slot” — the A’s looked for players who would sign under slot. Now, as Lewis tells it, the A’s didn’t have much choice since their owner had allocated only $9.4 million for draft bonuses. But that was a terrible move. Bargain-hunting makes sense with big-league players, not with amateurs.

In the last few years, other teams — and, crucially, other owners — have wised up. The Royals provide the best example. But even now you’re starting to see big-market teams invest more and more money in amateur players, players they can keep or trade. The Tigers used two “over slot” prospects to trade for Miguel Cabrera; the Red Sox used two more to get Adrian Gonzalez. And if baseball’s new CBA hadn’t better regulated the draft, this trend would have only increased.

*  *  *

N.B. If you’re a baseball-slash-economics fan, you might enjoy a long feature I wrote this summer on the Cincinnati Reds and their fans. In it, I erroneously predicted that baseball “has too many people making too much money for anything major to change [in the new CBA].” But there’s lots more I did get right about small-market teams and how they can (and can’t) compete. A .pdf of the story is here.