We are now allowed by the NCAA to play other D1 schools in “closed” scrimmages, and a lot of programs choose to do it (This year the NCAA allowed a 3rd exhibition game that could be played against a D1 opponent with the money going to charities for hurricane relief). I have no idea why the NCAA doesn’t allow us to play D1 teams in exhibition games anyway. Why are we playing D2, D3 or Canadian schools? Not sure. You can allow us to play other D1s, and just limit travel and say that no one is allowed to miss class. Seems easy enough, but for some reason we can only play lower level schools so a lot of programs choose to play secret scrimmages to face better competition.
I’ve alway preferred to play exhibition games because I think it tells you more about your team. The first time the lights are on, there are fans in the seats, and you play someone else you’ll learn a lot about your guys and how they react. A lot of coaches like the scrimmages because they can control the action, but I like the exhibition games for the lack of control. We can’t stop play to make a teaching point, it’s a regular game flow – so you can find out who comfortable and confident under the lights.
Yesterday was our first exhibition game this year against Husson University, and it was an important day for us. With 8 new guys on our roster, I wanted to see how everyone reacted. Guys like Isaiah White and Trae Bryant, two newcomers who started for us, showed us they were comfortable in the spotlight and were very productive. Aaron Calixte and Ilker Er both came back off of season-ending injuries last year, and both looked like the injuries were a thing of the past. Although Aaron turned the ball over 5 times and Ilker was only 3-11, they both looked 100% healthy. That’s another important element of exhibition games – you get a feel for how much your returning guys have stepped up their game. A guy like Dennis Ashley showed me that the work he put in this summer is legit and he can help us this year.
Really what the exhibition games do for us is show us who has a confidence, a presence, and a comfort level in a game situation. No matter how hard you practice and how good you look, a game situation is just different. The anxiety, the pressure, the game day preparation is on a different level – yes, even for an exhibition game. Our guys came out a little anxious on Saturday and you could see it in their legs and their wind early. After about 3 minutes, our starting 5 all looked pretty tired. Most of that is just handling the anxiety of game day and getting your feet wet, but it tells me a little bit that maybe we need to go up and down in practice a little bit more. You may have to play 4 or 5 straight possessions in a game without a whistle, and how often does that happen in practice?
Exhibition games also give your players a lot of different stuff to handle. It’s the first time they may have to sit on the bench for an extended period of time (in front of a crowd no less) and watch the game. They may have to sit for 8 minutes before getting a chance to play 4, and that doesn’t happen much in practice either. They’ll have to handle the rotation that you use – guys going into the game ahead of them, guys coming in for them, playing with different line-ups. And they’ll have to deal with the reality of playing time. Somebody who plays 14 minutes a game is sitting for 13 minutes per half. Something they have to both mentally and physically get used to.
We have 16 guys on our active roster, and everyone gets a lot of reps in practice. No matter how much we tell guys during practice that they are fighting for playing time, I think they all show up to the first exhibition game thinking they are going to play more than they will. The first exhibition game is reality. How do they handle it during the game? How do they handle it after the game? Most importantly, how do they handle it at the next practice? We played 12 guys yesterday, and with 2 guys out injured that means 3 guys didn’t play at all. Some played limited minutes. But for us to be good, we need those guys ready to compete as hard as they always do at Monday’s practice. Exhibition games provide the clearest picture you’ll get in the pre-season. This is where I stand, this is where I fit in right now. It’s much different than after a closed scrimmage or a week of practices. It is reality.
We learned that some of our new guys are comfortable and ready to step up. We also learned that we have to handle the anxiety and tension of game day a little bit better, as I thought we played very out of character from the team we have been in practice. We weren’t sharp on offense at all, and we never really got comfortable on that end of the floor. We made it hard for Husson to score, and that is ultimately really important, but we also learned that if we don’t block out we’ll really struggle on the glass. We’ve got to get tougher in 50/50 situations and find a way to dig the ball out. If we aren’t scrappy and tough – especially with two of our big guys hurt – we will struggle to win games.
We also learned that it feels good to win – something that we can’t take for granted with our program. We haven’t had a lot of success recently and for us to control a game from start to finish helps our mentality. Only a game situation can give that to us. I’ve never really concerned myself with results in exhibition games. Last year, in our 2nd exhibition game we started a different line-up with our younger guys and played a different rotation, and we ended up losing the game. But a week later, we beat Longwood on the road by 20 with the freshmen who had played a lot in that exhibition game having key roles. That exhibition game helped us beat Longwood, because it gave those kids game experience. But this year we made winning a priority – and I probably played less guys and stuck with our main rotation longer because of it. Our guys need the confidence that comes with success. These games can help provide it.
The bottom line is exhibition games give you a lot of answers – some you like, some you don’t. But I’d rather have the answers now, after an exhibition game, with 2 weeks left to prepare for our regular season opener. We’ll play another one next weekend against St. Joe’s, and that will give us more answers, more reality. Good or bad, the answers we get from the exhibition games are going to make us better in ways I don’t think a scrimmage can.