Of all the factors affecting the outcomes of basketball games, one repeatedly comes up in coaches’ conversations, even as the rest of us get distracted by ephemera like grudges and jockeying for NCAA seeds.
Talent, tradition, scheduling, squad cohesion, and coaching acumen all play roles in separating winners from losers.
But the key, notwithstanding Kentucky’s recent idiosyncratic, revolving-door success under John Calipari, is experience, individually and collectively.
Veteran teams and players are more apt to weather the inevitable bumps along a nearly-six month journey from the start of practice to the conclusion of postseason play. Unlike freshmen, most of whom must learn to deal with the ebb and flow of production and emotion, seasoned players learn to take the game’s challenges in stride.
That’s a big reason Miami, N.C. State, and Duke (when healthy) have been the teams to beat in the ACC this season.
“I think the biggest thing is confidence,” Seth Curry, Duke’s fifth-year senior, said of experience. “You know who you are. If you have bad games, like I had at Miami, I know who I am. I don’t get too down on myself. I know what I can bring to the table.
“I’m not going to have a string of games where I have bad games. It’s kind of a contrast to a guy like Rasheed (Suliamon, a freshman teammate). If he has a bad game he’ll get down on himself and it will carry over. The longer he goes on, he’s going to know who he is, get more confidence, and get out of bad streaks.”
Coaches prefer consistency, and having players who know how to bring that sense of urgency we hear so much about. Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton recently lamented the need to incorporate seven newcomers into his lineup, wondering when anyone else in the ACC had been similarly challenged. Last season, he was reminded, when Steve Dohahue was even more reliant on youth at Boston College. That’s still true for the Eagles in 2013. Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik, heavily dependent on freshmen, can’t help but remind listeners his is “one of the youngest teams in the country, bar none.”
Excuses, perhaps. But explanations, too.
Tap your personal collection of aphorisms and bromides, and you’ll quickly recall being told experience is the best teacher and that there’s no substitute for experience.
“I see us now being a team of guys who’ve been around for a long time,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said in the sleep-deprived aftermath of crushing Duke 90-63 last week.
The only undefeated team in ACC play, the 15-3 Hurricanes start four seniors. Reggie Johnson, newly returned from injury, is yet another senior. The man who replaced him in the low post, Julian Gamble, has been in the league since 2008-09, longer than all but three ACC head coaches.
With Johnson or Gamble inside, and 6-11 Kenny Kadji frequently operating on the perimeter, Miami has one of the league’s most formidable frontcourts.
Larranaga described guard Durand Scott, another senior, as “a great competitor” who can better attack defensively now that Miami’s big men are attuned to blocking shots. Scott, a New Yorker given to wearing luminous shoes, also is the team’s leading scorer. He had 25 points in the Duke win.
And most every coach in the league raves about quick sophomore playmaker Shane Larkin, who leads the ACC in steals per game and minutes played this year.
“They’re very, very good,” an admiring Mike Krzyzewski said of the Hurricanes after suffering one of the most decisive losses of his 33-year tenure at Duke. “They’re old. They’re old and together. There’s not one young guy, because Larkin plays older. And he’s one of the best guards in the country, I think.”
Larranaga’s early Miami tenure was plagued by player injuries and the fallout from inherited NCAA difficulties. He spent last season and part of this one installing principles that brought him success at American International, Bowling Green and George Mason before he came to Coral Gables in April 2011.
The 2012 squad probably came within a game of securing an NCAA bid – it lost by four points at N.C. State on the last day of February and wound up in a three-way tie with the Wolfpack and Virginia for fourth in the ACC. The other fourth-place finishers went to the NCAAs.
Along the way Larranaga -- a towering, balding, professorial presence on the sideline with suit jacket carefully buttoned and arms often crossed -- had to establish who was boss on his bench. Several times during the 2012 ACC Tournament he was heard yelling at his players to quit calling out strategic suggestions to teammates.
“Let me do the coaching!” he shouted at one point, a lesson that continued at length and at high volume in the locker room following a quarterfinal loss to Florida State.
Playing hard enough to suit Larranaga has come gradually too. Earlier this year there was a listless home exhibition loss to St. Leo, a Division III club, and a defeat at Florida Gulf Coast in the season’s second game.
“We were going through a transformation,” Larranaga said of his team’s sputters. “Back last year I was trying to get the guys to understand how important playing hard is, and running faster and making things difficult for an opponent’s offense.”
Larranaga’s message has taken hold – after easily handling FSU on Sunday the Hurricanes are off to a 6-0 ACC start, easily their best in a decade as league members.
A stats maven, Larranaga considers 3-point field goal defense a telling measure of his teams’ defensive prowess. Through games of Jan. 26, Miami led in that category in conference play.
Duke, then top-ranked, was 4-23 from 3-point range in its loss at BankUnited Center. Curry, an isolated long-range threat without Ryan Kelly in the lineup, missed all five 3-pointers he tried.
“I would say it’s the biggest win I’ve had during the regular season,” said Larranaga, a 29-year coaching veteran who took George Mason to the 2006 Final Four.
Miami’s overall stats for this season were a bit skewed by early difficulties meeting Larranaga’s requirements. In the Canes three losses, all in calendar year 2012, they also were missing either Scott or Johnson.
Since the start of league play, when the competitive level is presumably more consistently tough, they’ve improved in most offensive and defensive categories, both individually and collectively.
Last week Miami was ranked nationally for the first time in three years.
Asked if experience makes a difference, Larranaga said, “For us it does.”