The View From Courtside: "We Talkin' 'Bout (Syracuse) Practice"

Syracuse forwards and centers participate in practice drills. - Jeremy Ryan, NunesMagician.com

The Syracuse Orange are 8-0, ranked 4th in the nation, and about to deliver Coach Jim Boeheim his 900th career victory. So how does a team this young get this good this quickly? To quote an old Georgetown nemesis: “We talkin’ ‘bout… practice.”

I was able to sit in on SU’s practice Tuesday afternoon at the Carmelo Anthony Center as they started preparing for Saturday’s game vs. Canisius and Monday’s potential 900th win celebration vs. Detroit. Here’s a running diary of how the team took care of business during a busy final exam week.

Practice started at 4:00 p.m. sharp after some light stretching and warm-ups. The first thing I noticed is that everything about practice is meticulously structured, right down to the minute. NCAA regulations allow coaches only 20 hours per week with their players, so it must all be used wisely. SU’s coaching staff definitely does not squander any precious time on the practice court.

For the first half hour or so, Boeheim rode a stationary bike on the sideline as his assistants worked out the players. He was like a Civil War general sitting on his horse while his lieutenants put the infantry through their paces. The first 20 minutes were devoted to positional drills, broken up into the guards (Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams, Trevor Cooney, and others), forwards (C.J. Fair, James Southerland, Jerami Grant) and centers (Rakeem Christmas, DaJuan Coleman, Baye Keita) – each on their own section of the two-court gym. Boeheim hardly said a word as the other coaches led the drills. Gerry McNamara coached the guards, Adrian Autry the forwards, and graduate assistant Nick Resavy the centers. Mike Hopkins typically handles the big men, but he was not in attendance.

The drills are pretty straightforward. The coach would typically explain or demonstrate what he wanted done, and the players would dutifully execute. They generally concentrated on ballhandling, footwork, and shooting – all in a controlled environment designed to maximize opportunities in a limited time frame. It’s almost like a subconscious shot clock is in everyone’s heads as each new set of drills begins. Team managers served as defenders, or chased down errant shots and passes. These men and women work hard, too. Head manager Kevin Belby (a self-professed TNIAAM reader) and his crew busted their asses out on the court, and put in just as many hours as the players helping the team with whatever they need.

One thing that was notable was that every player - scholarship or walk-on - performed the same set of drills and logged the same amount of floor time. SU Director of Athletic Communications Pete Moore told me that Boeheim wants his walk-ons to fully participate in practice, which is not common at every school. The reasoning is that a college basketball season is long and tiring, and walk-ons need to be sharp and ready to contribute in practice and possibly games as much as their more famous teammates.

A notable series of drills involved a 4-on-2 situation with the forwards that impressed upon me why Boeheim’s 2-3 zone can be so effective. Southerland and Grant, perhaps the two best athletes on the team, played defense against four offensive players who passed around the 3-point line and forced the defenders to scramble to cover the ball. To see two 6’8” wings fly back and forth from sideline to sideline like maniacs was impressive, and must look downright scary when you’re an opposing player trying to get a shot off over them.

The next ten minutes consisted of a series of conditioning drills. Layup lines led to a three man weave, then a three on two, two on one full court drill, then full court five on zero, then some five on zero half court sets. All done with maximum efficiency and little wasted time.

Then, the team scrimmaged for the next 20 minutes. This is when Boeheim started pacing the sidelines and getting more vocal about the action. He didn't yell much, but when he does you can be sure everyone stops to listen. The players broke up into groups of five, with the starters wearing blue and the reserves (including Michael Gbinije) wearing orange. As the players ran through the offensive sets, the coaches consistently reminded them about defense, hustle, and pushing the ball up the floor on offense. You can tell that the fast break is a major part of their collective identity, and the results have been evident the past few seasons.

Practice wrapped up with ten minutes of free throw shooting, including a drill where each player stepped to the line for two shots – alone – with the rest of the team watching along the baseline. If the player missed a shot, everyone would run a lap the length of the court for each miss. If he made his shot, no running. For what it’s worth, I only recall seeing two or three misses from the entire team. I guess the thought of making your teammates run for your mistakes is more incentive than 20,000 fans and a TV audience watching.

And that was it. About 1:15 from start to finish, give or take a couple of minutes. Moore says Boeheim doesn’t believe in long practices, especially in-season. He expects the players to come prepared to put the work in, and from what I saw they certainly do.

NOTES:

- The Melo Center is a really nice facility. I was a student at SU in the 90s and watched many a practice at Manley Field House, and the difference is striking. If you haven’t been there, the athletics department has essentially a mini hall of fame outside the main gym with photos and memorabilia commemorating significant events and players, including a continuous loop of the 2003 national championship broadcast near the big crystal trophy.

- In case you were wondering, EVERY player was present at practice on Tuesday. No exceptions.

- I spotted former Orange forward Donte Greene working out in the weight room during practice. Greene played with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings last season, and was reported to be close to signing with the Brooklyn Nets this fall when he broke his foot and required surgery.

- This is probably no surprise, but Southerland is by far the best dunker on the team. If he gets a running start he tries to cram anything within ten feet of the rim. Other notable dunkers include Grant, MCW, Keita, Christmas, and Cooney, some with more success than others.

- One funny moment came in one of the five on five drills. Keita took a baseline jumper, which missed, and Autry yelled out "That's what we want!" Unfortunately for Baye, coach was talking about the defense. That cracked me up for some reason.

- I think Gbinije, a redshirt transfer from Duke, is going to be a major contributor next season. Post-Standard writer Donna Ditota pointed out that he has been serving as the second team’s de facto point guard in practice, which can only help his ballhandling and passing skills when he moves back to his natural shooting guard slot. Gbinije is a good athlete and defender, and there aren’t too many guys who can say they played for the two winningest coaches in the history of men’s college hoops.

Jeremy Ryan is a writer/editor at CNYcentral.com in Syracuse. You can follow him on Twitter at JeremyRyan44.

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