When the first #TMM9 challenge of the season was issued, after checking to see if it connected strongly for any of my teammates, I thought about who I knew that would have thoughts about the beginning of the basketball season that someone else might want to read. After a little thought, and a quick phone call, I found myself interviewing, and having breakfast served by, long-time New Mexico State University head basketball coach Lou Henson. Although Coach spent nineteen years above the Red Line coaching at Illinois, he also spent many years below the Line at Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, Texas, when it belonged to the University Division (now D-I), and in two distinct stints at New Mexico State; he is in the athletic hall of fame at each school. Aggie basketball and volleyball is played on Lou Henson Court, and Lou and Mary are an important part of the Las Cruces and NMSU communities. I last wrote for midmajority.com about Coach Henson on the occasion of his eightieth birthday and last year's Lou Henson Classic.
Coach Lou Henson has had the opportunity to look forward to the upcoming basketball season just over sixty times, as a high school, junior college, and college player; as a high school freshman coach, prep varsity coach and, three times, as the leader of the defending New Mexico high school state champions; and as a college coach at two teams independent after the demise of the Border Conference and of a member of the Missouri Valley, the Big Ten, the Big West and the Sunbelt, twice taking teams to the Final Four and winning well over 700 college games. (Some of these are not still counted in his record because of the actions of a coaching staff that preceded his return to NMSU.) We talked for quite some time about how, from the coach's perspective, the start of the season culminates several years of concentrated effort in building a team, and a program.
We talked about recruiting providing the lifeblood of any program: players with the characteristics necessary to combine their talents into a team that will have an opportunity to win basketball games. Henson believes that the top coaches are all very good, and that the difference in the end will come from the quality of their recruiting. To build a program (not just a single team), there is a need to balance experience with inexperienced talent at each of the five positions. Henson believes that, to create the necessary chemistry among the players, generally eight, or sometimes nine, players should be in the rotation to get regular playing time; therefore, the others on the roster need to be players who are preparing to take those roles later in their careers.
Unlike current coaches, who use numbers to describe the positions on a team, he uses more traditional terminology: "point guard; off guard; small forward, who plays much like the off guard; big forward, who plays inside; and the pivot." His formula for successful recruiting: To find players that fit into a program, begin by finding players with the appropriate talents through various sources, such as contacts around the high school game, and by scouting teams and players. Check on their academic standing. Find out about their attitude: watch them, talk to people other than their coaches. See how they shoot free throws in the last few minutes of a game to see if they can handle pressure. Look into their family background, and determine who is the key person influencing the potential recruit; might be mom, dad, a sibling. Based on that, spend time where it counts most.
Other important personnel choices are the assistant coaches, who do much of the work of running the program. He noted that some coaches are great recruiters, and others are devout "students of the game." The best assistants are both. Building a group adept at both is important to success. Early in the fall semester, the coaching staff spends two or three weeks discussing the talents, skills, and skill deficits, of the team personnel, then planning fifty or sixty drills to build the skills of each player and bring the team together to run the team's systems of offense and defense. Practices are designed to ensure that each drill is conducted as often as needed to achieve the desired result.
Henson believes that it is important to have a system and stick with it. Doing that facilitates recruiting players with the appropriate skills and characteristics to succeed in the system, and given the limited practice time available, allows the staff to have the returning players, who know what is expected, help in developing the team and teaching the system to newer players. Only after the basics are mastered, the staff can consider "adding to the system" to make the team less predictable. The elements of the system are tailored to the expected talent level of the team.
Henson noted that in his early years of coaching, he had a very structured system, with offensive set plays and a focus on defense creating rebounds and turnovers to generate transition offense. His first NMSU team, the "Miracle Midgets," in the fall of 1966 had talented guards (Rob Evans, later coach at Mississippi and Arizona State was one of them), but little inside talent. This was Henson's first NMSU team, and the prior year Aggie record was 4-22. Using a heavily structured system of offense and man-to man defense, the team opened the season with a 22-point upset of Abe Lemons' Oklahoma City team, followed by a thirteen point defeat of the defending national champion Texas Western College (now UTEP) team in El Paso; the Miners returned four starters from the team that beat Kentucky in the prior national final (only Bobby Joe Hill had exhausted eligibility), and the Aggies later defeated them in Las Cruces as well. The success of that season laid the foundation for a strong series of post-season teams in Las Cruces, including the 1970 Final Four team.
In the eighties, there were two major changes to the rules that revolutionized the sport. The shot clock made most coaches adopt systems that were less structured and more of a "free-lance passing" game; it also helped insure that the teams with the most size and talent generally came out on top, by taking away the possibility of teams with good ball handlers drastically reducing the number of possessions for each team by holding the ball offensively. The three-point shot was also a major change, de-emphasizing dominant pivot play by giving a greater reward for long-distance shooting. Each of these changes has had a large influence on recruiting, and on changes to the strategies of both offensive and defensive schemes. As an aside, Henson thought both of these changes made the college game better, and lauded as another advance the arc under the basket within which charging fouls should not be called; he noted that the college game is sometimes too slow to adopt rules innovations made by the NBA that improve the game.
Another important preparation for the season is scheduling. For most teams, the season divides into three parts: the non-conference season in November and December, the conference regular season in January and February, and the tournaments in March and April. Coaches have little choice in the latter two-thirds of the season, but in the non-conference it is important to challenge the team with some tough opponents, while not destroying their confidence by losing too many. "The worst thing you can do is over-schedule, and the next worst is to under-schedule. (Scheduling) too many weak teams will leave the team unprepared." Henson noted Tom Izzo as a coach who he believes challenges his team appropriately, and that this has brought Michigan State several Final Four appearances.
When Henson started coaching, the conventional wisdom was not to use weight training as it was feared that players would become muscle-bound and lack the flexibility needed for basketball. Research and current experience now shows that weight training to build strength in the offseason improves strength and stamina during the season. Continuing to train with weights for at least fifteen minutes two or three times a week during the season will maintain strength.
Until very recently, coaches, other than a conditioning coach, were allowed very minimal contact with the players from the beginning of school until the October 15 start of practice. Henson believed it was important to place the responsibility on the players to play as much 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 basketball during this period, to build both endurance and team chemistry. To ensure everyone would be working hard, he would have the team choose the starters for the first two or three weeks of the season based on performance before organized practices began.
I closed our discussion asking about the difference in preparation for a mid-major program versus a high major one. Coach Henson believes there is not much difference even between high school and high major preparation (except the lack of recruiting and the need to tailor the system to the available talent). One key difference is the skill level of the players: generally mid-major players will need more time spent on developing individual skills. After all the staffing, recruiting, conditioning, scheduling, planning, and practicing comes the fun part for us, the fans! I am looking forward to watching another season of Aggie basketball from my seat across the aisle from the Hensons, and doing my best to bring the readers of midmajority.com along for the ride.