Friday, January 27, 2017

Guest TigerBlog - Enter Marshon, By Howard Levy

It's been a big week for TigerBlog in terms of people who have told him they knew someone else with whom they shared a name.

Some were even fictional.

For instance, men's soccer coach Jim Barlow said that there was a bad guy on an episode of "Law & Order" named Jim Barlow. Only he wasn't sure if it was "Law & Order." 

Whether it was that show or a different one, it's really hard to imagine a less-fitting name for a bad guy on a drama than "Jim Barlow." It would be like having a Hallmark movie where the really nice guy who finally gets his true love is named "Charles Manson."

Among other people who checked in, there was ticket manager Stephanie Sutton, who said that a friend of her daughter Mary's from high school and a friend of Mary's from college shared the same name, though one was male and one was female. David Rosenfeld, the head of the Baltimore bureau for the Office of Athletic Communications, sent along the bio from an office at Johns Hopkins of someone who shares TB's name.

Then there's Howard Levy. This whole thing started when TigerBlog met another person named Howard Levy while having cheesesteaks for breakfast earlier this week with his college roommate Charlie. The real Howard Levy, you know, the one who played basketball at Princeton, then told TB that he had met two other Howard Levys in his life, bringing to four the number of Howard Levys TB heard about this week.

TigerBlog hasn't heard of anyone else named Guy Gadowsky, who was the men's hockey coach at Princeton before heading off to essentially start the program at Penn State. The Tigers will take on Gadowsky and the Nittany Lions tomorrow night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia (it's where the Flyers and Sixers play).

And where is Penn State ranked? Well, the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 1 last week before a loss dropped them to No. 4. Yeah, Gadowsky can coach. TigerBlog can attest to his competitive nature first hand. All he needed to do was play squash against him a few years ago.

Meanwhile, back at Howard Levy, it's been a challenging season for the Mercer County Community College Vikings. Howard, the head coach, reports in:

It’s been a trying season for the Mercer Vikings. It started with a lot of hope with what we thought was a well vetted, talented enough recruiting class to go along with a couple of returners. When 18 people showed up for an organizational meeting in August prior to the start of classes, we were flying high. That had never happened before. Preseason went well, again with good attendance and enthusiasm.

Maybe we should have been concerned that the numbers were down to 11 or 12 when the first practice rolled around on October 1, but I was happy that I didn’t have to cut anybody.
Initial practices were OK, but a few guys got injured early, so from the beginning we struggled to have 10 guys at practice, which made building a team difficult as we moved forward. We began to see a group of talented guys that were difficult to coach, showed up late, did not communicate, and unfortunately this included one of the returners that I had made a captain. There were some good guys with good attitudes, but unfortunately, most of our coaching time was spend trying to bring the other guys in line, which caused lots of frustration, which unfortunately I did not do a very good job of hiding. (Lesson learned for next year.)

Ultimately, the losses started coming and the frustration grew. We changed some things in our offense, basically to take the ball out of the hands of the guys who were not running the offense, and that led to some positive developments and personnel changes. A REVELATION—play the guys that listen and don’t play the guys that don’t! (This also gave me some new insights as to how to better teach our offense to get quicker “buy in”—again a good lesson for next year). We started playing better; we won a game and were in all of the others until the end, and for the most part the team resembled a Howard Levy-coached team. I was off the ledge, and I knew what we needed to work on (competitiveness, conditioning) for the team to take the next step.

Then, the semester ended. As usual, we lost a couple of guys for grades, and had a couple taking mid-semester classes to regain their eligibility (I note that at the junior college level, students cannot maintain their eligibility if they fail a single class, unlike the Ivy League.) As a result, we knew that we would be shorthanded for a couple of weeks in January. One guy, a sophomore, quit the team (at least I think he quit since he hasn’t showed up for anything since December 17), and he was the daily ride for another guy, so I figured I lost him as well. But I was expecting seven or eight guys for practice on Jan. 3. Then, my two guys from NYC withdrew from classes—one of them called me to tell me that the living situation was too difficult and thanked me for the opportunity; he is the one we miss.

OK, so six guys, we’ve done it before. It’s a great coaching challenge to figure out how to practice effectively with six. We lost our first three games back, but played very well, taking the 12th ranked team in the country (Niagara County CC) to the last couple of possessions and giving Monroe College, a perennial D1 juco power, a game in the first half before running out of gas. By the way, who is the idiot that keeps scheduling these great teams?

The Monroe game was on Thursday Jan. 12, with the next games a weekend trip to Rhode Island to play two more good teams. On Friday, we learned that one of our guys sprained his ankle, and another player had a death in the family, and needed to stay home with his seven year old sister. So we were down to four guys, and what are we going to do?

Enter Marshon. Marshon is a great kid from Willingboro, NJ, good student, was the soccer manager, did not play high school basketball. When my athletic director saw the personnel issues we were having, he asked if Marshon would come out for the team. So on Friday, I met Marshon, and was told we are going to Rhode Island in a big bus to play the games. After an initial period of shock and depression, I started thinking practically—how are we going to play two games with 5 players, one of whom is not a basketball player and has no idea of how we do things.

OK, how do you run a Princeton Offense where one player doesn’t ever get the ball and doesn’t get in the way? What spot would he play? Well I came to the conclusion that the center spot, which has often been called the most important position in the offense, is also the least essential to its function. OK Marshon, if it is a man to man defense, your job is to stand in the middle of the foul line and pretend that you want the ball. If it is a zone, stand on the baseline and go from side to side depending on where the ball is. On defense, stand in the middle of the 2-3 zone and do the best you can, and by the way, everyone, PLAY SLOW.

Game one starts, and IT’S WORKING! We are in the game, the other team is changing defenses, pressing, you name it, throwing the kitchen sink at us. We are getting open shot after open shot. The other coach is using his time outs (as I am for rest) and screaming at his team. It’s amazing. We make it to the second half. Marshon is hanging in there but is obviously exhausted and having a tough time getting up and down the court. I asked the official if I could sub him out and play with 4 while he got a rest. The ref looked at me as if I had two heads and said “let me check on that.” Before he got back to me with the answer, there was a play down the other end of the court and Marshon is on the ground, writhing in pain with cramps, so we took him out and played with four guys for three or four minutes while he recovered.

(By the way, the rule is that I could have subbed him out only by taking a time out, but then he could sub back in at any time.) Anyway, we went on a 10-0 run with 4 guys, the other coach called a time out to berate his team, they changed defenses twice, including putting on a full court press (which pissed me off a bit). In any case we hung in there until the last two or three minutes and lost by 10 or 12. I don’t know if I have ever been more proud of a team than I was after that game.

I complimented them, including and especially Marshon, and told them that their reward was that they get to do it again tomorrow against a better team, Genesee CCC (NY). We had played Genesee the last two years in this event and beaten them both times. Their coach, a really nice guy from NYC, thinks I am a total sandbagger because two years ago when our team was terrific (24-4), I told him we were “OK”, and last year when we stunk, I told him we stunk, and he thought I was lying and we beat them. So this year I told him we were great and that if we win, you should be fired.

It was a game much like the first, where we hung in there, caused a lot of frustration, but ran out of gas and lost another close one. I felt good and proud however, proud of the small group of guys who have withstood so much adversity to hang in there without too much positive reinforcement, proud of Marshon, who stepped into a crazy unexpected situation and did great, and also proud of myself and my assistant coaches (Stan Tuchez and Rich Brennan, former Princeton player and current American head coach Mike’s brother) for holding it and ourselves together during a difficult year, and now we know how to play Princeton basketball with four guys.

How many coaches have even had to think of stuff like that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

amazing story about Howard Levy's team