Sometimes you have to go against the grain a little bit as a coach, and maybe throw the book out the window. You have your core of what you believe in and you want to be consistent with those principles, but you also have to be flexible. A large part of coaching is the feel you have for your team and your players, and doing what is right at that time for that team to be successful. That feel is really important and difficult to navigate, especially if it’s telling you to go against the grain a little bit. But I maintain there are times you have to think outside of your core beliefs to give your team what they need and get the most out of them.
Going into the 2008-09 season at Rhode Island College we returned everyone from our LEC Championship team the year before that had gone to the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. Our seniors that year had been key players as sophomores on our Elite 8 team from 2007, and we added some very talented newcomers. That team had 5 players on it who would be 1st team all-league in their career, and 7 players who would earn all-league honors at some level. We were loaded.
We got off to an inconsistent start given the talent and experience that we had, and I was especially struggling with my bigs. We had a really talented 4 and 5 – Kaseem Johnson and Wil Lyons – who we expected to start and had the ability to be all-league players. Kaseem was a senior who had played a lot since his freshmen year, and Wil was a junior college transfer who had division I scholarship offers. But early on that season, they simply weren’t competing the way we expected them to, and they had some minor issues off the court with being on time and handling their business properly. They just weren’t guys we felt we could count on as a team. So I took them out of the starting line-up. Both of them played, but they played as back ups, when everyone knew they really should be starting if they were doing the right thing.
Fortunately I had some talent to take their place – Darius Debnam was a sophomore workhorse who would go on to start as a junior and senior, and captain back-to-back Sweet 16 teams. And Mason Choice was a freshman combo forward who was talented and productive, and would go on to be a 3-time first team all-league selection in his career. We felt like these two guys would be great guys to have coming off the bench with our more experienced guys in front of them, but given the inconsistency of Kaseem and Wil they were in the starting line up.
We were inconsistent but talented enough to win through the first semester, dropping a couple of games to good teams, but never really playing the way we were capable of. We were 5-3 at the break, having lost to our league rival Keene State at home right before Christmas. When we came back, we won 4 in a row but we beat two teams we felt we were better than in OT and struggled against some lower-half teams in our league at home. We still weren’t really clicking, and our bigs still hadn’t earned their way into the starting line up. They were productive enough when they played, but they still weren’t competing they way we wanted them to. We were 9-3 but still didn’t feel good about the way we were playing.
We went up to Colby in Maine for a midweek game and took a loss, taking the long ride back at 9-4. We faced a tough stretch of league games coming up, starting with a road game that weekend at Eastern Connecticut who had just started to establish themselves as a league contender and a challenger for us at the top. It was a huge game and I still didn’t have a great grasp on the team. What we were doing just didn’t feel right, and I knew I wasn’t getting the most out of my team.
We practiced for a couple of days getting ready for Eastern, but I’m not really sure anything clicked. We were good, and we were confident, but we weren’t the team we knew we could be. I remember sitting in an Applebee’s near Eastern Connecticut after we had dropped the women off to play, talking with my staff, and asking them “What do we need to do to be a championship team?” A lot of the talk centered around Wil and Kaseem, and getting more out of them.
So I decided at that point to talk to Wil and Kaseem and put them in the starting line up. I just told them right before we went out for warm-ups, that we needed them to step up and be starters and all-league level players for us to be great, and it was time to cut the nonsense. They hadn’t been delivering for their teammates, and that had to end now. Even though they really hadn’t earned their way back into the starting line up, I felt by putting pressure on them to step up for the team would get the most out of them. They had kind of gotten comfortable coming off the bench and not having a huge amount of responsibility with the team, and I wanted to change that.
I spoke with Mason Choice and Darius Debnam to explain the decision as well. I told them this team needed Wil and Kaseem to step up and I was putting the pressure on them to do so. I had to let Mason and Darius know that they had not done anything wrong, and that Wil and Kaseem really hadn’t earned their way back into the line up.
It went against one of the core values of our program, which was that the way you compete in practice will determine how much you play in the games. They really hadn’t earned their way back, but I needed to find a way to get the most out of them, and what we were doing wasn’t working. Darius and Mason understood, and even though it went against something we always preached, it seemed like it made sense to the rest of the team. They weren’t thinking about core values at that point, they just knew that we needed Wil and Kaseem to be really good, and everyone expected them to be in the starting line up. It was rare for me to do something like that in that way, because I really couldn’t justify it based on what they were doing every day. But it felt like what the team needed, and what those two guys needed, to get going.
We beat Eastern Connecticut that day and went on a run to win 14 straight games and take the Little East regular season title at 13-1. Now obviously that wasn’t only because of that one decision, but it was interesting. By putting those guys in the starting line up, it looked like our team felt like “This is who we are supposed to be.” We started to click. Wil and Kaseem were good, and Darius and Mason continued to play well off the bench.
I took me a while to figure out, but that is what that team needed. Maybe it was because we were a veteran team that was used to winning and we had guys who could handle it. Maybe it was the personalities involved, with Wil and Kaseem accepting whatever responsibility that was put on them, and Darius and Mason being unselfish and team-first guys. That I don’t really know. But I went against our normal operating procedure with regards to practice and playing time to try and get more out of those guys, and it seemed to work.
Sometimes you have to be willing to think differently and go with what you feel.