The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

June 18, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Spurs help sell concept of teamwork

MORGANTOWN — Over the years the NBA has been what amounts to almost a destructive force upon college basketball and its coaches.

It has pirated away the college game’s best players after they have played only a season, so much so that it was an utter shock last year when Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart actually came back for a second season.

It has also done little to promote basketball the way it is played at the college level, with kids across America worshipping the league’s top stars like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant, et al, they have seen players going one-on-one.

It has been a league that was built upon individualism and creativeness, with the lone-wolf mania being fed by a free-agent system that took away any pretense of dedication to team or continuity.

Then along came the San Antonio Spurs to destroy what most believed to be a far-more-talented Miami Heat team in the NBA Finals, a decisive victory for team play and proof positive that it isn’t the best players who win, but the players who play the best together who win.

It is a lesson not lost on the college coaches, at least those in the Big 12, who gathered Tuesday morning for their annual summer media conference call.

It began with Kansas coach Bill Self, who annually feels the power of the NBA magnet drawing away his top players, this year expectations being that the Jayhawks’ freshman forward Andrew Wiggins and freshman center Joel Embiid could go Nos. 1 and 2, heaping praise upon what he had watched during the NBA Finals.

“They played at a level that I don’t think we’ve seen many NBA teams play at,” Self said. “To see three Hall of Fame players and how excited they were when Kawhi Leonard won the MVP.”

That is exactly the type of attitude a college coach spends his life trying to build on his team, knowing the strength is not so much in the talent but in the way a team interacts.

“I don’t know that (the Spurs) were the most talented, but they played better,” Self said. “When you have been together for 10 or 13 years you are going to play better together. It was fun to watch because the ball did move.”

Move?

The NBA Finals was a clinic in passing and making the extra pass to get the open shot.

So it was that the question became whether this could seep down into the college game and help the college coach get his points across.

“I think what (coach Gregg Popovich) and the Spurs have done will make it much easier for college coaches to coach,” Self said, thinking back to the conversations during timeouts that were broadcast. “Listen to the timeouts, ‘The ball can’t stick; the ball can’t stick.’ I can tell you, those are words coaches across America and we have used ... daily. Ball movement, body movement.”

That is the mantra of the college game almost everywhere.

“There are times we have been great at making the extra pass, times not as good. This will help re-emphasize what we have been telling them,” Self said.

Self’s words were echoed by other Big 12 coaches.

“You’d like to think what the Spurs did would help us with our coaching,” WVU’s Bob Huggins allowed. “Whether it does or not, who knows. That’s the hope of all of us, that we could get back to play the game the right way.”

And to Huggins, the right way goes far beyond just sharing the ball. It is everything the Spurs displayed in the Finals.

“It’s more than just pass and share the ball. It’s overall team attitude,” Huggins said. “There was a point where Pop substituted for (Manu) Ginobili and whoever it was that went in made a shot. Popovich called for Ginobili to go back in and there was no pouting, nothing.”

You couldn’t always say that in NBA play, especially if you are taking out a Hall of Fame player, but somehow Popovich had created the atmosphere that created a winner.

“We continue to foster an attitude where it is team first,” Huggins said. “We’ve all had teams where that was the case and teams where it wasn’t. It’s a whole lot more fun to watch when they play the right way.”

Baylor coach Scott Drew also was riding aboard that train.

“Everyone in basketball appreciated the way they shared ball, made the extra pass and simplified game,” he said. “For younger players, for freshmen, they can learn quicker when they see things done right in the NBA. We are always trying to emphasize the help-side defense and moving the ball when they get two on you.”

Seeing NBA players do it in the Finals is a better teaching tool than any college coach could ever come up with.

“When you have selfless players like Tim Duncan, a superstar who is egoless when it comes to winning and individual awards, you’ll get that type of play,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said. “I see it in camp right now. We teach passing game, ball movement. ... I’ve seen a big difference in young kids, so it will help us in the future.”

“We’ve always used the Spurs as an example,” added Rick Barnes, whose Texas team isn’t located far from San Antonio. “You like to think the players watched the game and saw how beautifully the game can be played and the importance of everyone. They proved everyone is important. Every man on the roster had an impact on the roster.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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