I read an article recently about the great job Tony Bennett is doing at Virginia this year, and it talked about how to prepare his team he no longer plays exhibition games. He hasn’t played one since 2010, instead preferring the controlled nature of “closed” scrimmages that D1 schools are allowed to play. He likes to have control of the flow, to be able to reset the score if you want so as a coach you don’t worry about the overall result, and how it allows him to play some more guys than he’d probably play if it were an actual game. There is certainly merit to this approach.
The reason I like to play exhibition games is the exact opposite. I actually don’t want control. I think there’s a ton of value in putting your players out there in uniforms, in front of fans, with referees and no ability to blow the whistle and adjust the action. I want to see how they react in a game situation, even if it’s against lower-level competition. I get to control practice as much as I want every day. I think the exhibition games are a great chance to really learn what you’ve got.
When I was a Division 3 coach I used to try and play a D1 team in an exhibition game every year. It forced us to prepare at a really high level, it was exciting for our kids, and I felt like it would expose our weaknesses more clearly and quickly than a D3 scrimmage. I wanted to learn as much as I could about my team in these games, and the game didn’t count. That’s one thing I think we forget that can affect our judgement – the game doesn’t count. We were really good for the D3 level, and it was generally hard to get teams to play us – especially after we beat Holy Cross and Iona in back to back years. I understand you don’t want the embarrassment of losing to a D2 or D3 team, but isn’t being challenged and learning as much as you can about your players what is best for your team? You don’t learn a ton when you win by 60. And again, remember, the game doesn’t count.
At Maine, where we tend to have a lot of new players each year, it makes sense for me to play exhibition games and not have closed scrimmages. I need to see how we react. We play Husson every year, and they are a championship level D3 program that is very well-coached. They are good enough to beat us every year. And understand, I don’t want to lose these games. It can be a little embarrassing for your program if you do, and it can hurt your teams confidence. But it can also teach you a lot about what you need to know, and it can give your players a wake-up call. Aren’t these games ultimately about preparing our team to win when it actually counts? Sometimes a tough game or a loss helps you do that.
After my second year at Maine we lost 4 kids to transfer, 3 of them starters. We had an eligible transfer that had been sitting out, and we brought in 6 new players. We were inexperienced. In our first exhibition game we beat a good Husson team, and beat them pretty good. So as we got ready for Maine-Fort Kent, our second exhibition game, we talked about what we needed to see as a staff. One week later, we opened the season at Virginia Tech, which we knew would be a very tough game to win, and then two days later we played Longwood on the road. I told our staff we had to prepare our team to beat Longwood, so our approach to Maine-Fort Kent was to get us ready to beat Longwood. That was it.
We hadn’t seen a lot out of our new guys, and we knew we needed some of our freshmen and newcomers to help us. So after we talked about it, we decided to start a completely different line-up against Fort Kent. We started 3 freshmen and a walk-on point guard who we thought needed to be a solid back-up for us to have a chance to be good. We threw them in the fire against a tough team that we knew was really going to pressure us and try and make us comfortable. We wanted to see how they would respond.
They didn’t respond well. Fort Kent jumped on us and pressured us and our young guys were uncomfortable. We went to our regulars, but continued to use our new guys throughout the game. Of course I wanted to win the game. There’s really no excuse for losing it. But ultimately I was trying to beat Longwood. I wanted to see what we had in our new guys.
It wasn’t good. We never really recovered or got comfortable, and we lost the game. Not a good sign, not a good day.
But that week in practice we re-centered ourselves. A few of our guys probably thought they were a little better than they were, and they needed to be knocked down a peg or two. As a team we probably settled into a routine in practice, just sort of showing up and getting through it as opposed to competing with the edge we needed. And we certainly learned that if we didn’t show up ready to play we weren’t good enough to beat anyone.
It wasn’t a fun day, and it wasn’t a good feeling. But ultimately it was probably what we needed. We went to Virginia Tech and competed really hard on opening night, but we weren’t good enough to win. Two days later we went to Longwood and won by 20. We played 11 guys against Longwood, including all of our new guys, and they all helped us. Everyone made a solid contribution, and we won the game going away.
Had we not played that exhibition game against Fort Kent, and gotten the experience we did for our guys, I don’t think there’s any way we would have beaten Longwood. Sometimes you lose a battle – one that doesn’t count – and it helps you win the war.