“There aren’t but about five things you can do, and everybody’s done those long ago.”
– a Kentucky high school basketball coach, dismissing the idea of innovative coaching genius
ARLINGTON, Texas — Well, the wise people of the world do include high school basketball coaches in Kentucky, so get this:
On this Sunday afternoon in 2013, they’ll play a regional final in a futuristic football stadium with a gigantic video screen possibly visible from other planets and enough TV sets through the concourse that you might accidentally go into a trance. A nation will watch in HD. Every screen, every grimace, every punch in the groin, will be visible. One coach will make more than $3 million this year, the other more than $2 million. A dazzling star, Michigan’s Trey Burke, will remind us how humanity always locates fresh dimensions of talent.
Yet the key to Florida vs. Michigan?
“If we do a great job on the pick-and-roll . . .,” the 6-foot-9 Florida defender Patric Young said.
Yep, the stuffy old pick-and-roll.
Here we’ve evolved all the way into 2013, and still we’ve got the pick-and-roll, the Sam Jones-Bill Russell pick-and-roll, the John Stockton-Karl Malone pick-and-roll, the NBA-frequenting pick-and-roll, and the pick-and-roll that dates back to at least the New York Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. We’ve soared all the way from a culture where the Renaissance, the barnstorming group of black men who won John Wooden’s admiration for their teamwork but often took post-game meals on the bus because dining establishments wouldn’t serve them (hat tip: the excellent John Smallwood), to twice electing a half-Kenyan president . . .
And we’re still talking pick-and-roll.
You’d almost think basketball is sort of confined.
Saturday question, paraphrased: What’s the key, Patric?
Young, unusually specific for such a pre-game answer: “Controlling Trey Burke.”
Follow question: “How do you do that?”
Young: “Don’t let him split the pick-and-roll.”
Also: “He does a great job splitting pick-and-rolls.”
So, if you watch carefully, you might be able to discern whether Burke is able to split the pick-and-roll. You also might refrain entirely from noticing whether Burke is able to split the pick-and-roll, while still enjoying the game. You also might move to another seat or another room if in the company of somebody capable of detecting a well-split pick-and-roll, and that would be your choice.
But Young was unusually blunt on the centrality of the pick-and-roll to this match. Michigan has an excellent offensive team (75.2 points per game), Florida an excellent defensive team (53.8 points per game permitted), and here we are, 21st-century guys running around with mobile phones and 200 congratulatory texts after a great shot (Burke, against Kansas), still doing — and defending — the pick-and-roll.
“The key is just reading the defense, really,” Burke said. “I think a lot of people, when they’re in the pick-and-roll, they think it’s your read, the guy with the ball, but it’s all about the defense, it’s whatever the defense does.”
He said, “It’s about having your own pace; you can’t allow the defense to speed you up. Allow the big man to set his feet.”
He said, “It’s kind of hard to talk about it. It’s easier to watch on film, then talk about it.”
Watch on film he has, including all through the summer, he said, with Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan analyzing the pick-and-roll in our video-heavy way just as the Renaissance players did in theirs. Jordan provided criticism; Burke learned to handle it and say, “He’s basically taken my game to another level.”
Said Burke, “The slower I am, the more I am using my brain out there, not just playing,” and then he reeled off a few examples of what would be “just playing.” He said, “The slower that I am, the more I can see my options, the better we are.”
Players seldom share strategies, but Young out and said, “The strategy is to take care of Trey Burke because everything runs through him. Take care of Trey Burke on the pick-and-roll and it limits” what all five players can do. “If we do a great job on the pick-and-roll, on Trey Burke, we’ll limit their whole team.”
When a different point guard ran across Florida Friday night, Brett Comer of Florida Gulf Coast brought along his 12-assists-per-game flourish in the first two storybook NCAA tournament games. Florida does not do storybooks. Florida happens to have quashed maybe the two great storybooks of recent times, George Mason and Florida Gulf Coast. Florida head coach Billy Donovan stands a wow-wow-wow 31-10 in the NCAA tournament. So Comer did have seven assists, but nine turnovers, and wound up saying, “They did a great job on not making me use the ball screen. They made me turn it down. They hedged it really hard. I didn’t make the right play out of it like I should have, and it affected us.”
From 78 points against Georgetown to 81 against San Diego State with “Dunk City” on T-shirts, Florida Gulf Coast came down to 50 against Florida.
Then again, Young said, “We have to do an even better job than we’ve been doing because Trey Burke is an extraordinary player,” citing the need for “our best job all year on Trey Burke and the pick-and-roll.”
And then again, Young said, “I consider myself one of the top pick-and-roll defenders in the country,” a noble skill in an ancient American art in a sport in which there aren’t but about five things you can do.