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November 24, 2008

MT basketball: Inside a game preparation

Attention to detail.

It's one of the hallmarks of a Kermit Davis coached basketball team.

Today in Nashville, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders went through a gameday practice to put the final touches on their preparation for tonight's game against Vanderbilt.

But what goes on as the MT staff puts the team through those final preparations?

GoMiddle.com had behind the scenes access to Friday's walk-thru as well as the coaching staff's final instructions in the locker room before the Blue Raiders took the floor to take on Tennessee.

The attention to detail was overwhelming, right down to the fine print in the scouting report handed to each player and the white board full of notes at the front of the locker room.

The end result was a 76-66 loss to the Volunteers, but a near record crowd of 11,802 fans saw the fruits of MT's labor as the Blue Raiders played toe-to-toe with the SEC favorite.

Come along for the ride as we go behind the scenes of the gameday preparation process.

Special situations

The Blue Raiders start their workout with a partner shooting drill, where each player hoists several shots they are likely to take during the game.

Desmond Yates makes what must have been a dozen consecutive mid-range jump shots from 15-17 feet working on a variety of moves off one or two dribbles moving into his shot.

But the real value of the workout starts about five minutes into the hour long practice as Davis begins going over what the Blue Raider staff calls special situations.

Inbounds plays from under the basket and on the sideline are reviewed to the most minute detail.

Though not moving full speed, Davis expects execution to be flawless.

The Blue Raiders put a lot of time into scouting opposing defenses in those areas, mindful they may be able to get a couple of cheap baskets with a quality set play.

Davis emphasizes which screens he expects Tennessee will switch and which ones the Vols will try to fight through. If one of his players is out of position by even just a foot or two, he points it out to make clear the importance of spacing if the set is to be effective.

He spends several seconds explaining to Montarrio Haddock how to position his body on a roll to the basket to be able to catch and score most efficiently while nearly simultaneously going over exactly how and where a ball screen is to be set.

This is the attention to detail the Blue Raiders apply to every practice and opponent, but it's especially critical against a group of athletes like Tennessee's.

Keeping it positive

Behind the X's and O's and review of personnel is a calm confidence that both the coaching staff and the players know they have what it takes to be able to knock off the Vols.

Even in the midst of warnings about Tennessee's quick strike capability (Davis warns that Vol slashers will drive the lane and dunk the ball in a heartbeat if the defense is out of position), the overwhelming theme is positive.

For example, while reviewing Middle Tennessee's halfcourt offensive strategy, Davis emphasizes for what must have been the 100th time of the week what his sideline hand signals will be for certain adjustments.

Why are the hand signals important?

"You guys aren't going to be able to hear me or hear each other when we get going on a run and (Murphy Center) is loud and rocking," Davis tells his team.

He wants to make sure his players know he is fully expecting the Blue Raiders to be able to knock the Vols back on their heels.

He makes sure Kevin Kanaskie and Nigel Johnson can correctly signal each of the adjustments, even simulating the action by having the team go through several plays with no verbal instructions.

Simulating the opponent

By the end of the workout, the Blue Raiders have reviewed every set they will run against Tennessee, including strategies for breaking the Volunteer press and generating easy baskets in the open floor.

Davis has Blue Raider junior post Josh Jones simulate Tennessee's on the ball defender when the ball is inbounded after a basket. Assistant coach Artie Pepelea emphasizes the importance of communication to the Blue Raider guards. While grabbing a quick breather, Kanaskie and Calvin O'Neil talk off the floor about the intricacies of the game plan.

Defensively, Davis has assistant coach Al Pinkins review every Tennessee offensive set the Vols used in their two exhibition games and first two regular season games.

Pinkins breaks down the different lineup combinations Tennessee is expected to use, which players defenders can afford to help off of and which ones demand attention beyond the 3-point line.

The attention to detail goes beyond just the first four games the Vols have played this season.

Pinkins points out to Davis and the team an inbounds set that Tennessee has not run yet this season but did run plenty of times last year. He thinks there is a good chance the Vols will use it in the game.

After the hour practice has concluded, it's easy to conclude the Blue Raiders know everything necessary to pull off the upset.

As Davis huddles his team for final words before leaving the practice floor, he offers one more positive message that is arguably much more important than any set play diagram.

"I think you expect to win," Davis said to his team, "and that's the best thing I've seen out of you all this week."

Calm before the storm

It's about 50 minutes before tipoff and players are filing into the locker room for one last set of pregame instructions.

While waiting on the coaching staff, the mood is quiet, but calm and relaxed.

Kanaskie and Johnson are reviewing together the hand signals they had gone over in the afternoon walk through. Others are exchanging hand shakes and offering words of encouragement with teammates.

When Davis enters the room, he sends Pinkins to the forefront to go through Tennessee's personnel and strategies for defending each Volunteer player. Players nod at each instruction; it's certainly not the first time or even the second time they've been filled in on the game plan's details.

When Pinkins finishes, Davis takes center stage for his final words before the Raiders take the floor.

The overriding themes: Toughness and confidence.

He reminds the Blue Raiders to be the aggressors, to carry the fight to the Vols right from the opening tip and send a message that this will be a night when Middle Tennessee will never back down.

He emphasizes grabbing every rebound with two hands and playing tough defense while remaining disciplined enough to not foul.

Attention to detail, right down to the final second.


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