It was kind of cool to turn on the FIBA World Championships and see Tuukka Kotti playing for the Finnish National Team. Tuukka was a key piece on our 2004 NCAA Tournament team at Providence College that was a #5 seed, the highest seed Providence has ever earned. Tuukka never got a ton of credit because he played with Ryan Gomes, but he was a great teammate and a very versatile talent who had a lot to do with our success.
Tuukka and Gomes playing together on that team made me start thinking about the teams you put together in practice and how it relates to the intensity and competitiveness. Gomes was far and away our best player on that team, and he had an ability to score inside and out. The only player on that team who could really guard him was Tuukka who had size and strength but also the foot quickness to handle Gomes on the perimeter. The problem was that both he and Gomes were starters, so Coach Welsh liked to play them together.
When we played the 5 starters together, there really wasn’t anyone else who could guard Gomes in practice. He was such a natural and had so much talent, he could always produce without pushing himself too hard. We had a young Herbert Hill on that team as well who wasn’t strong enough yet to handle someone like Gomes in the post, and Gomes actually felt a little bad for him. He was such a nice kid that he didn’t want to make Herb look bad, so he’d take it easy on him.
The problem was Gomes was really the player our other guys looked to as a leader and a barometer for how we practiced. With no one who could really push him on our second team, he would coast a little bit whether he realized it or not. When Gomes was at his best he could raise the level of everyone else in the gym, but it was hard to keep him at his best when the competition wasn’t there.
That’s the first time I really thought about the teams you put together in practice, and how much they can effect the level of your practice. Common practice is to play your starters together in practice so they can get a lot of reps playing with each other, and I had never really thought about it until coaching that team. The level of our practices was better when Tuukka was guarding Gomes, with the intensity noticeably better.
As a head coach you may have to make a choice between a high level of intensity at practice and your first team getting as much time as possible playing together. Over time I’ve learned that the intensity level of practice is more important to me as a coach. But it’s a choice you have to make when you have a feel for the personality of your team. I’m not sure how important it really is for the first team to get reps together, and I don’t want to sacrifice any intensity in order to get those reps. If there is a significant difference between your first team and your second team it can be hard to create a competitive practice.
If you’ve got a match-up that makes your best player really work, try making sure that match-up happens as much as possible. Even if it forces you to mix up your starters, the competition you create in practice will make your team better.