The older I get, the more I appreciate the opportunity to watch college basketball practice. What makes it even better in these parts is the fact that so many schools play different styles, you get to see something different at each venue.
I can’t wait for the chance (hint, hint) to see how Oliver Purnell and his staff are installing the high-octane Clemson stuff at DePaul, but they’ll have to go a ways to meet the sweaty standard set Tuesday at UIC.
New coach Howard Moore is teaching the swing offense and the rigorous man-to-man defense that were staples at Wisconsin-- and we had the chance to see some samples of the work-in-progress at the swank Flames Athletic Center -- but the drill I enjoyed the most has to be explained to understand.
Assistant coach Al Biancalana (formerly of Downers Grove North and York fame) divided the guys into three teams of four players: The blue, black and white.
The white team started at one free-throw line with assistant Mike Mennenga, the blue team started at the other with assistant Donnie Kirksey and the black team started at midcourt. The goals of the drill? Rebound, rebound, rebound…and instill some mental and physical toughness.
Here’s how the drill worked. For two minutes straight, two teams at a time had to battle all over the gym for rebounds. For starters, the black team began by racing toward the blue team’s rim to chase down a Kirksey shot. The Blue team had to make contact and box out the black team in hopes of getting the rebound and earning 1 point. If the Black team grabbed the offensive board, it earned 2 points.
Whichever team wound up with the rebound, it had to outlet the ball to the coaches and then sprint down to the other end of the court to engage in the same rebounding battle with the white team. No shooting. No scoring. No rules. No fouls. No mercy. No stopping. Just savagery.
Guys threw each other to the floor to get the ball. They nearly smashed each other into the concrete wall on the east side of the practice gym. They flung their bodies out of bounds, into the basketball standard and anywhere else to claim possession.
At one point, sophomore Anthony Kelley and senior Brad Birton engaged in a fight to the death for a ball. One guy grabbed the other’s jersey and brought him to the floor. The other grabbed the first guy’s leg and tripped him to the floor. Then there was another takedown and a push before they settled matters. Did I mention they were five feet out of bounds?
Another time, beefy 6-foot-11 Kyle Robbins had both hands on a rebound and owned it. Or so he thought. Minnesota transfer Paul Carter hacked his wrist, knocked the ball free and claimed the rebound for his team -- leaving Robbins with an incredulous look on his face.
Because the winning rebounding team had to run three-quarters of the court to instigate the next battle, they had the chance to build up quite a head of steam and deliver a blow to the guy trying to block out. For example, chiseled freshman forward Eddie Denard essentially is a 6-foot-7 Martez Wilson. When he initiated contact as the offensive rebounder, he knocked his guy several steps closer to the hoop.
What was Coach Moore's take on his players’ efforts? “Beating the (mess) out of each other! I’m loving it!”
In other UIC news:
--The Flames have seven new scholarship players on the roster, which makes it much easier for Moore to start everyone with a clean slate. Denard (6-7, 222), juco center Darrin Williams (6-9, 282) and juco power forward Dorian Tyler (6-9, 191) are competing with Robbins inside. Juco power forward Paris Carter (6-7, 230) is rehabbing a hamstring and might be a couple weeks away.
--Paul Carter, who had to play power forward at Minnesota, gets the chance to showcase his small-forward skill set at UIC. Moore said he’s putting the pressure on him to be a “defensive nightmare,” and I can see that happening with his length and his experience in Minnesota’s defense-first system.
--Anthony Kelley, the sophomore from Aurora Central, goes against Carter every day in practice. Fortunately for Kelley, he has added 25 pounds since arriving at UIC and now checks in at 195 pounds.
--Juco guard Daniel Barnes just returned to the practice floor recently and wore a brace to protect his right knee, but he’s sooner or later going to be in the backcourt rotation with incumbents Robo Kreps and Zavion Neely. Kreps earned second-team all-Horizon preseason recognition.
--The Flames have four seniors on scholarship…and they already have five committed recruits to fill those spots next year. Kirksey’s presence helped UIC seal the deal with three Public League recruits.
--Moore has given Biancalana a lot of responsibility in practice. Biancalana taught the Princeton offense at York and now he’s teaching the swing. Of course, he’s also teaching a lot of defense and was all over the big men’s footwork and fundamentals during drills.
If you need to remember one Biancalana lesson from Tuesday’s practice, it came as he was teaching the proper defensive positioning when the opposing team has to inbound from underneath the basket at which it’s shooting:
“BUTT TO THE BASELINE!”
As high school and youth teams kick their seasons into high gear, let this be a rallying cry throughout the land. I think the slogan should go viral on T-shirts…if not shorts.
I’ll waive my share of the royalties in exchange for the right to watch practice whenever I want.