Every game counts the same in the standings, but some games are bigger than others. Whether it’s a rivalry game, a game to decide the league title, or a do-or-die post-season game, you can feel the difference when preparing for a big game. Let’s face it, UConn at Providence is different than when Depaul comes to town, and everyone knows it.
We had a lot of success in March at Rhode Island College and we played in a lot of big games in the regular season. We were won the league six times in nine years, and finished second twice and third once. We were always in contention for the league title, which meant a lot of big games.
The key for us with big games was when things started to feel different, not to do anything different. We had no problem talking about how big the game was – if you play college basketball at an elite program you want to play in big games. You have to recognize it. But the key is not to change what you do. Of course it feels different, and everyone knows what is at stake. That pressure is a good thing. If you acknowledge that pressure it will likely have less of an impact on your approach.
We were picked to win the league every year I coached at Rhode Island College. There was a stretch of six straight years where the winner of our first game against Eastern Connecticut, which for some reason was always played in December as one of the first league games, went on to win the league. Even though it was usually the first or second league game of the year, we always talked about it as a title fight. We knew that the winner of that game usually took control of the league, so we made it a point to recognize that.
What we established at RIC over time, however, that really made a difference in big games was how we practiced every day. We made sure our compete level was elite every day. We didn’t have walk-throughs or go half speed. If our guys needed a break we gave them a day off, or we just went with a shorter practice. But we made it a point to talk about the way we prepared every day. No matter what time of year or who our next opponent was, we were preparing to win big games. We were preparing to win games on the road against great teams. We were preparing to win tough games when two starters were out or we got into foul trouble.
We emphasized the way we prepared every day. We talked about big games, adversity, handling everything that goes into winning in tough environments. Our approach to big games was long-term. When we got to a week where we had a really big game, and everyone could feel the pressure and the hype, we just had to be ourselves. We prepared the way we always did, without doing anything different because of the big game. We didn’t want have to change to win big games, we just had to be ourselves.