As a former college basketball head coach who roamed the sideline for more than two decades, I’ve seen just about every kind of league postseason result. Top seeds cruising to a conference tournament title. Lower-ranked teams pulling a series of upsets and earning the league's only NCAA postseason bid. Major favorites losing in the first round.
I’ve had three teams reach the NCAA tournament, each of which achieved their bids in different manners. With conference tournaments now under way, let’s take a look at the approach coaches need to have in the league tournament, in all different types of situations.
Sell the players on the special team moment
It’s all about pride. It’s all about having a moment that you can share with your team for the rest of your life. When you walk in the arena years from now with those players, part of the group is hanging in the rafters. That’s the challenge that you have for those guys. You’re playing for a lifetime moment, which I think is important. That’s the automatic bid, the tournament champion. There’s something to be said for that. The league passes out the ring for the conference tournament champion, not the regular-season champion.
In the conference tournament, you’re more familiar with your opponents’ system and personnel. But this time of year, everything's principle-driven anyway. How are we going to guard the ball screen? How are we going to guard the post? What sets are we going to run? We might attack certain matchups, but if you’re reinventing yourself and overcoaching in the conference tournament, quite honestly you’re not a very good team.
In the conference tournament, playing back-to-back games, it’s all about being who you are, defending off of principle, defending off of personnel and then figuring out what you want to attack. What matchups do you like? Then you run sets and plays as you’ve done all season. You play to those sets and matchups -- your players know the personnel.
Make sure players know their role...
You want to win and lose with your best players in the conference tournament. You shorten your bench a little bit. Make sure your best players are going to be in decision-making positions to win the game for you, and you really spend time with your guys to define their expectations and roles. If they champion their roles, then we are playing for the good of the group. It’s really important to embrace your role. If everyone does what they do well, collectively we’ll be the best “we” we can be.
...but don't let one guy feel overburdened
One year at Virginia Tech we lost to Miami (Fla.).