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Coaches offer different approaches, opinions on September start

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

A new rule means Midnight Madness will be spread out across the country. (USATSI)
A new rule to start the season means Midnight Madness will be spread out across the country. (USATSI)

Yes, we talking about practice.

By the end of this week it will be the start of the college basketball season. Your mind and calendar read correctly: it's still September. Football still feels new, and here comes college hoops, well before we're expecting it. A new rule passed this past May allows college programs to begin practicing 42 days before their first game of the season. So for all the teams scheduling regular season -- or even exhibition -- games on Nov. 8, that means Friday (Sept. 27) is the first day of their 2013-14 campaigns. Teams that play for the first time on Nov. 9 can go Sept. 28, and so on.

But earlier basketball doesn't mean a lot more basketball (UPDATE: unless, in some cases, it does, as John Infante points out here). Although squads are easing into a September start, they won't be getting any more practice time than before. Used to be that college hoops began on Oct. 15 and coaches had to cram their content leading up to the start of the season. In recent seasons, with the college hoops crusade encroaching closer and closer to the start of November, it became a real squeeze. So now teams get 30 days of practice, 12 days off, and coaches get to decide when and how they'll implement their prep.

And although we like to frame most coaches as micromanaging powerfreaks, not everybody's for the rule. I spoke with a handful of coaches in the past week about the impending start to the season, and about half of them were not in favor of an earlier start. Mississippi State coach Rick Ray explained his concern: "The biggest reason being, our season is long enough as it is. It's the only sport that covers two semesters. I think we get so far behind, as far as our skill development, that we need more time dedicated to that rather than running this set play or getting our team defense."

Ray believes college basketball's collective skill level is in the toilet, and so with this new timeline for the start of practices, most coaches will push getting to plays and schemes and let fundamentals again fall to the wayside. He even copped to falling prey to that great chase.

"You feel like you're falling behind," said Ray, who went 10-22 last season (his first) as a head coach. "I think guys don't know how to play and we sacrifice doing individual instruction because we're putting on how to run a 30-second set play."

VCU coach Shaka Smart, who runs one of the most intense styles in the country (his HAVOC scheme), is all about the early start. He likes the flexibility, the ability to ease into the season and not have "crush the guys physically."

"I always felt like most teams I've been a part of have gone Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, those four days, and at least muliptle times a day on [the weekends], and it just seems like by the end of that stretch, less than a week into a practice, there's always [an injury]," Smart said. "Physically, you go from having two hours a week on the court, to that four-day stretch, you're talking about practicing potentially 16 hours. Now, we can go a couple of days on, a day off. Maybe even multiple days off. It actually gives us more of a flexibility to rest our guys. I think for us, for our style of play, we do conditioning and stuff in the preseason, but the only way our guys can get into the shape we want them in is to play the way we play. But, again, now we don't have to kill them six days a week."

Ray sees it the same way. He won't be using practices that go longer than two hours, and he won't go more than three straight days of practices. In fact, Ray won't even be using the full allotment of 30 practices because he refuses to let his players get overrun with so much basketball before the fun part of the sport actually begins.

"There's a fine line between getting your guys prepared for the season but then also still being fresh and having excitement about playing in March," Ray said. Others have countered with: If the program is healthy and excited about playing, an extra two weeks of spread out practices shouldn't affect morale come mid-February and beyond.

There's also the health aspect, which is among the biggest concerns -- or maybe the biggest -- for college coaches. They want to make it through the preseason and to their first game with nary an injury that will bench any other their players. This new calendar could help that.

Rick Byrd, who's been to six NCAA tournaments with Belmont, is a veteran voice who's extremely respected in the profession. He embraces the new rule. Loves the time off his players will have amid the October frenzy.

"The only least bit negative thing is it makes the official season longer, and it's pretty long already," said Byrd, whose first practice is Friday. "But the trade-off is better than the three and a half weeks. We all reach a point where you get into a little bit of a grind, and that's likely to happen now that you've got longer between the first practice and the first game."

The varying approaches to the new schedule is intriguing. Some coaches embrace it and some reluctantly jump head first into the new schedule. Then, there are purists, like Duquesne coach Jim Ferry, who told me he really liked the Oct. 15 start date. He said there was something sort of sacred about gearing up for the middle of that month and launching into the season, full bore. But he'll abide by the new timeline, as will all coaches.

"I also worry about pigeon-holing guys too early," Ferry said. "You can lose some players [that way]. ... But I also know, even though I don't like the new start, it can benefit some programs -- like ours."

Ferry runs an offense geared to get more than 70 possessions per game. He also said he's talked to some coaches who aren't going to necessarily start at the very first possible second, and Ferry made sure to seek out advice from a couple of women's coaches about their deployment, because women's basketball has had this rule in place for a few years.

Different coaches bring different styles and will prepare in very different ways in this new lead-up to the season. On a board in Smart's VCU office, he said there are 12 different things mapped out for October. Inevitably, some of those things are privy to change based on development, injury or other unpredictable preseason bumps in the road.

At least now coaches have more time to plan out their prep -- and yet have more time management responsibility than ever before. College basketball's preseason has never been so tedious.

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