The Times West Virginian

January 22, 2014

Falcons box out the competition with an emphasis on hitting the boards

By Mike DeFabo
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Fairmont State basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun takes two dribbles and lets a shot fly.

As the basketball spins through the air, 12 eyes carefully follow its trajectory. The ball clangs against the back rim and begins its 10-foot descent toward the ground where six players — three offense, three defense— eagerly wait, battling for position.

The fight for the loose rebound is on.

The Falcons throw their tall, muscular frames into one another, as well as onto the ground. Arms flail. Elbows are thrown.

When the dust settles, Redshirt freshman Thomas Wimbush emerges from the pile of bodies, ball in hand.

“Two for the defense,” says assistant coach Paul Molinari, acting as the scorekeeper for a drill that more closely resembles a rugby scrum than a basketball practice.

The drill is aptly named “Rebounding War” and was created by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. Through 18 full seasons, his Spartans have led the Big Ten 13 times and ranked in the top 10 nationally 11 times in rebounding margin.

Izzo has even been known to introduce football pads to increase the contact. While Calhoun has stopped shy of asking football coach Jason Woodman for helmets and shoulder pads, the Falcons’ practices are no less physical.

“It gets pretty nasty,” Calhoun said. “There are some altercations. Guys push one another, because they know if they lose they’ve got to run. It makes them compete.”

The rules of the drill are simple:

“Get the ball,” said Wimbush, who leads the Falcons with 92 boards. “In bounds or out of bounds, it doesn't matter. Just get the ball, that's all (coach Calhoun) cares about.”

“Even if it goes through the rim, you've got to get the rebound,” adds sophomore guard Stevie Browning, who ranks second on the team with 84 rebounds.

Bumps and bruises, skinned knees and sore elbows are the immediate results from the drill. But come game time, the physical toll the bodies pay seems a bit more worth it.  

Thanks in part to the drill — and probably in larger part to the team’s conscious effort to hit the boards — the Falcons (10-5, 5-4 MEC) rank at the top of the Mountain East Conference in rebounding, pulling down an average of 8.5 more boards than their opponents.

“That’s because the coaches emphasize rebounding every day,” said Browning. “We take an enormous amount of pride in rebounding.”

Calhoun began placing an increased emphasis on rebounding all the way at the beginning of the season. The rationale behind his decision was simple.

“Historically if you look at teams who play in March, they lead their conference in rebounding,” he said. “That was one of our goals that we set out to accomplish at the start of the season.

“Some nights we won’t have good shooting. Sometimes we'll turn the ball over and make mental mistakes. But the one thing that you can control is your effort, your determination and your hustle.”

With starters Brendan Cooper, Caleb Davis and Ke’Chaun Lewis missing considerable time due to injuries, the need for scrappy play has only increased. Look no further than last weekend for evidence that the team has embraced the hard-nosed, physical persona.

During a battle for one rebound, Uva-Wise 7-foot center Pape Sale grabbed the ball over FSU freshman guard Shammgod Wells, who is generously listed at 5-foot-9. The height difference was rather comical, but Wells wasn’t intimidated.

He waited until Sale pulled the ball to his chest where he could reach it. Then, he pounced.

Jumping, he grabbed the ball and refused to let go until he had wrestled the 7-footer to the ground.

“Rebounding is a mindset,” said Wimbush. “It is the key to winning basketball games. If we get it in our mind to rebound, then we can go very far.”

Email Mike DeFabo at mdefabo@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.