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Minnesota Basketball: What should we be looking for in the next Gopher Basketball coach?

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Mark Coyle is looking for a new hoops coach, what (not who) should he be looking for?

Minnesota v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The decision has been made, the coaching search is underway. Mark Coyle decided to part ways with Richard Pitino after 8 seasons as the Gopher’s head basketball coach. Many lists have already been published, with more to come, suggesting “who” the Gophers will hire next. Who is interested? Who are we interested in? Can Mark Coyle hit a home run like he did with PJ Fleck?

I’m here to tell you that for basketball it all begins with “WHAT” not “who.” Too bad Eric Musselman just took the Arkansas job last year. Do we think John Beilien would like to coach again? Maybe Brian Dutcher wants to return to Minnesota? Should we go after a Power 5 assistant coach?

Not the right questions to ask in this process.

College basketball is a place where people can win anywhere. Football is different and unless you are a traditionally successful program, it is really difficult to be consistently successful. But basketball? Mid-majors and programs with traditional hurdles can win. It takes the right coach, not the right name.

There are three key areas to focus on, in order.

1 - Have a system

There is no right system, but have one. Have a clear focus of what you are trying to do on both ends of the floor. Does talent matter Absolutely. But teams who have a very specific plan and execute it well are the ones that consistently play above their talent level.

Tony Bennett has a very specific system at Virginia. The Pack Line defense with an offense predicated on efficient shots without turning the ball over is what he has done since being an assistant for his father at Wisconsin.

Speaking of Wisconsin, can you think of a better example of a program that consistently plays above their talent level?

Those systems are dramatically different than what Roy Williams does in North Carolina. In Chapel Hill they value multiple possessions and running a fast-paced offense that is reactive to the prior pass or decision. Pass the ball up the right wing on the break and that conveys to everyone else what comes next. Pass it to the middle and everyone knows what to do next, not set plays, but reacting to what is happening. It isn’t just an up and down system that relies on having better players. It has specific rules, it is taught well and executed.

Jon Beilein had a very specific system at Michigan that was incredibly successful without having to recruit 5-star athletes to execute it. Spacing and passing were hallmarks that were taught with precision.

Tom Izzo has a system that demands rebounding and executing set plays on offense with precision. More on Beilein and Izzo in a minute. The spacing of your feet and exactly where you are setting picks, matters...a lot.

You get the point, all of these guys have very different systems and all have been incredibly successful over time. Some systems focus on swarming defense that causes turnovers, some value threes, etc.

The key is that if you execute your system well, it is the motion/spacing/timing of your offense that actually helps you create offense. It forces the defense to have to make a decision and you teach your offense to take advantage of that decision.

A system that relies on your player making more plays than the guy defending him is reliant on players making plays. That is much easier to stop, especially if you aren’t consistently more talented than your opponent.

On the one hand it is important to be able to adapt to the talent you have on your roster, but it is my belief that in college basketball those adaptions should be micro, not macro. Ultimately this may have been a significant contributor to the demise of Richard Pitino at Minnesota. There was no clear system. Oversimplifying a little, the system was really one that relied on players making plays. He certainly adapted to the skill set on his roster, but not with enough success. Which leads me to my second point.

2 - Recruit to your system

Pitino, in year 7 and year 8, had to completely alter what his team was trying to do on offense. The two seasons his teams made the NCAA Tournament, they were really good at getting to the free throw line. This was a strategy due to the fact that they didn’t have great shooters but they had players who could get into paint, drawing fouls. In 2018-19 they ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in threes attempted, 2019-20 they shot a LOT of threes. They just couldn’t make them. 2020-21 they shot more and they shot them at a lower percentage.

Year 8, he was a major adjustment away from an NBA caliber center who was the focus of the offense.

He was adapting to his roster. But by the time he was in year 8of his program, he absolutely should be recruiting to HIS system. Not just finding the right guys but building relationships and navigating the tricky waters of pursuing multiple kids for a few open spots. But ultimately he struggled to build depth and construct his roster to fit what he was trying to do.

Beilein, while at Michigan for 12 seasons, is perhaps the best example I can think of for recruiting to your system. Spike Albrecht, Caris Lavert and Nik Stauskus were key players for their run to the National Championship game in Beilein’s 6th year and an Elite 8 run the following year. Stauskus was a 4-star recruit but ranked outside of the top 100 while Albrecht and Lavert were 3-stars. But they fit perfectly into what Beilein wanted to do and from there he taught them his system.

On the flip side, a guy like Isaiah Washington was never a good fit for Richard Pitino. If the goal is to acquire as talented of a kid as possible, without regard to how he’ll fit into what you are doing; then it was the right move. But from day 1 it was pretty clear that Washington wasn’t going to fit. Recruiting the right kind of player to fit what you want to do is imperative. Then you get the most talented ones possible.

3 - Teach that system to perfection

Finally, you absolutely have to teach your system. Here is where I look at Tom Izzo as a fantastic example of teaching your system. I thoroughly enjoy watching Michigan State play and studying how they execute. Their offense is precision, based so much on very specific placement of the littlest details. Spacing, footwork and timing are so important to that program. And then they have the discipline to box out on defense, limiting teams to 1 possession. Over an 8-year stretch a Michigan State team never finished below 35th nationally in defensive rebounding %. That is incredible and in that stretch there were 3 Final Fours and 1 Elite Eight appearance. They had a recent stretch of 8 out of 9 seasons where their offensive efficiency was in the top 30 nationally.

Fair to note that the last 3 seasons have been a little different in East Lansing.

Roy Williams is an excellent teacher as well but his system that he teaches is much more predicated on making the right decisions on the fly. As action is happening you have a very specific reaction, and you have to know it. I was at a coaching clinic several years ago where I got to see how he teaches these things and it was truly impressive. A weekend of elite D1 coaches and he stood out, particularly his ability to teach.

But it takes more than just being a teacher, you have to get talent to support it. Fran McCaffery has a good system and teaches it well, but until this season he struggled to get enough talent accumulated to put together a great season.

A guy to watch going forward is Brad Underwood at Illinois. He was very good at Stephen F Austin with his system. He has adapted his system a little since arriving in the Big Ten, but he teaches his system well and it is paying off for the Illini.

So what does this mean going forward?

A quick look back, I think that Pitino was right down the middle in all three of these areas. He wasn’t terrible at recruiting, he certainly had an idea of what he wanted to accomplish with each season’s team and I think he was above average as a coach.

But to really succeed and to sustain things long-term, I firmly believe you have to establish your system. Make it yours. Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan (under Beilein), Michigan State, Virginia, Texas Tech (for a recent successful team)...they all have very specific systems. They are all very different and have been successful. There is no magic formula or one system that works.

But find a coach who has one and let him build his program around it. Give me a coach who wins with a system that has the right players who have been taught very well how to execute it and I’ll take my chances over the guy who has won because he has had better athletes than the other mid-major schools he has been coaching against. That tends to fade when you get to the higher levels and it not going to happen for this program. I do not have great faith that we are going to bring in a coach who will out-recruit the majority of the Big Ten and win with more talent than the rest of the league.

Give me a teacher who knows what his teams are trying to accomplish. Who that is exactly? That list will be for another day. But for now, I’m looking for guys with a system.