Thursday, April 21, 2016

bronco's beginnings

A couple years ago, after Tony Bennett's rebuilding plan earned its first ACC banners, I wrote a column on how coaches earn the trust of their teams.  If you do X, then Y will happen.  If you set this screen, we'll score an easy basket; if you skip class, you'll sit on the bench; if you work hard and follow my lead long enough, you'll win championships.  Coaches demand X every day; the more Y happens, the more trust they'll earn with their team, and in Tony's case, Y happened every time.  It turned out to be a popular post, by the way.  Possibly the most well-received I've ever written out of 1800+.

So I was especially, irrationally happy to see this quote from Bronco Mendenhall in a Jeff White article:
"I've asked them to do some things that are pretty extreme, with not wearing Virginia gear and no numbers for practice. But it's interesting, because our team simply seems to want to know what standard it will take for us to have success, and they're trusting me that I'm setting that standard for them, and because of that initial level of trust, they're working really hard and matter of factly believing that if they do this, we'll have success."
(Emphasis mine.)

There it is.  If X, then Y.  I could not be a happier camper.

Such is the subtle, ground-up and ground-out way in which a Program is built.  Bronco has been speaking ever since his initial press conference about building an earn-it culture, where everything from the logo to the right to practice is earned via a series of hurdles....which is another way of saying if X then Y.  What is Bronco doing?  He's accelerating the trust-me process.  The bigger the X's and Y's, the more trust.  Bronco isn't waiting for the little ones, like "block this way and we'll get a first down" - he's putting as many big ones in play as he can, as fast as he can.  Better yet, ones he can exercise absolute control over.  All that stuff about earning the right to practice and doing drills over and over til they're done right and starting the up-downs over if they're not in sync - the discipline aspect is easy to see, but it's not just that.  It's planting the seeds of trust, and of a culture.

Culture will happen whether or not you put any effort into building it, of course.  Which makes it all the more imperative that you work on building it.  Quote number two that has me especially and irrationally excited comes from an Andrea Adelson article on ESPN:
"The locker room is spotless. 'If you would have walked into our locker room before, it might look like a little kids’ room, stuff everywhere,' running back Taquan Mizzell said. Smith chimes in: 'We had a pet mouse. Stuart Little was walking around.'"
Does an immaculate locker room have any outward bearing on whether you score enough touchdowns?  No, and it never will unless you had players literally breaking their ankle on things.  But there's obviously a disciplinary sea change in the works.  Is anyone surprised that Mike London had no problem with his players making a trash pile out of their living space?

Indeed, London was the master of failing to deliver Y.  Like when he promised increased focus on special teams discipline yet allowed a player to keep playing right after directly costing his team three points with a boneheaded play.  Yes, that was in large part a failure of the special teams coach - but do you think Bronco Mendenhall's staff would make that oversight?  We haven't seen them in game action yet, but I'm very confident the answer is no.

That Mizzell quote is telling in how it's said as well as what's said.  The teamwide acceptance of Bronco's methods is actually rather astonishing in its extent.  You have to assume some of the usual attrition is in the cards, but there's a general recognition that Bronco's ways are going to pay dividends.  That's not a complaint about how he makes them pick up after themselves, it's a tacit acceptance that the new is better than the old.  And it's almost like now that there's a little momentum and some visible progress (most notably on the scale) nobody wants to be the first to tap out.

Much of that is Bronco's approach - he's a hard-ass, yes, but more than that he's a velvet hammer.  He is many of the things that Mike London is, and much more that London never was.  The head coach at UVA is still a genuine and likable person who insists that his charges go to class, only now he also prioritizes discipline and recruits linemen.  (Counting transfer Jared Cohen and the likely transfer from Arizona State, five of Bronco's first six commitments play positions neglected by London.)

Almost everything we've seen out of Bronco so far is a vast and screamingly obvious contrast to the things London did poorly, and a huge improvement on all of it.  Talent is not lacking on this football team - it won three ACC games even with zero discipline and coaching that in several aspects was stunningly inept.  Now we have a coach that fills those gaps, gushes about the team's willingness to be coached, and furthermore, perfectly understands what (from this armchair) is the foundation of coaching.  X's and O's are vital, but X's and Y's even more so.  This is the start of something good.

Monday, April 4, 2016

lacrosse bracketology

It's baaaaack.  Even though our lacrosse team isn't.  Well, they sort of are, with some much better output of late.  They've dug themselves deep, though.  More later.

A re-primer on this exercise.  I've done this since 2010, which makes this the seventh year running, and I enjoy it quite a bit.  There's some methodology to it, which is mostly proprietary, but it works.  The NCAA's factors are awfully simplistic: RPI, SOS, top-X RPI wins (top 5, 10, etc.), average RPI of your wins, average RPI of your losses.  Right now, ten conferences get autobids; the ACC is in its last grace period year and will lose its short-lived autobid next year, which is the third season after losing Maryland.  I make some assumptions about those, namely, the team with the best record in each conference.  2-0 is better than 1-0.  Ties are broken using the Laxpower computer rankings, although those don't factor into the seedings.

Here's the initial look for 2016:

This is going to be difficult this year.  Feathers will be ruffled.  Whatever your strongly-held opinion of how a bracket should look, it's almost impossible not to offend it.  Earlier I said that UVA's struggles were reflective of UVA alone, not those of blue-bloods in general.  I'm no longer real convinced of that, not when the Ivy League is dominating the top of the seeding and none of those top teams are Cornell or Princeton.  Or when the A-East has as many teams as the ACC.

On the flip side, you've still got Maryland, Hopkins, and Syracuse, albeit the latter two on the road.  Denver is basically a disguised blue-blood, given who coaches them.  Notre Dame was always kind of a sleeping giant and they're sort of an honorary blue-blood.  But there's plenty of parity this year, and UVA can't get into the tournament just by losing its way through most of an ACC schedule.

Speaking of which, with wins over Hopkins and Penn they're in no way dead meat yet.  But High Point??  That one's going to anchor them down pretty solidly.  Loyola, too.  And RPI doesn't care whether you lose close or big, so narrow losses to Cuse and ND don't help.  The committee may cast a favorable eye on those last two losses, but only as a tiebreaker - it's not going to get them into the conversation if their resume doesn't do it.

From here, I'd say that UVA needs to beat both Carolina and Duke.  Neither are in great shape themselves.  The Hoos could, I suppose, lose them both, then beat Georgetown and pull a Brown miracle out of their ass, but Brown ass miracles are difficult to pull off.  Duke's name doesn't even appear on that whole page, though.  (They're neck and neck with Rutgers, actually.)

Some bullets on the bracket:

-- Right now, a bracketologist has to make some choices between teams with lots of losses but at least one solid win (e.g., Penn) and teams with lots of mostly uninspiring wins (e.g. Stony Brook.)  The committee has made it very clear in the past they prefer the former.

-- Penn is an especially shaky case and I'm not happy about putting them 8th.  But who should I put there instead?  Penn State would be there, but the head-to-head result there is impossible to ignore.  Hopkins?  Stony Brook?  Syracuse?  Maybe Syracuse, but, meh.  This bracket features a lot of similar reactions.

-- The fight for the last spot between Harvard and Hopkins is incredibly close.  No doubt that will shake out later.  But right now, you've got two teams that have piled up losses (mostly to good teams) and also some quality wins.  Both are better resumes than, say, Rutgers, which has piled up wins against awful teams and wouldn't even be on the screen without that Hopkins win.

-- There's good news for teams like UVA and Carolina, though: the likelihood of a bid thief this year is very, very slim.  The Patriot, CAA, MAAC, SoCon, and NEC are all 100% one-bid leagues, no matter who wins them.  (The lack of any threat from the Patriot League is part of the reason why we can say it's too soon to write any requiems for the blue-bloods.  That's normally the league that brings the surprises.)  Navy, Air Force, and Towson are by far the best-positioned teams in their leagues, but if they lose the autobid, they're not getting it back at-large.  Stony Brook is a bit precarious, but they and Albany are light-years ahead of the rest of their league and if one of them were to drop out of the field, they'd be replaced most likely by an ACC team, or Harvard.

Upcoming games that matter:

-- Brown at Penn: Most likely result is to knock Penn out of hosting duties, but not out of the bracket.  I hope Brown really sticks around, though, because there's a lot more bad Brown jokes I haven't written yet.

-- Denver at Villanova: Denver looked invulnerable for a while there, but the Tobacco Road sweep hasn't boosted their resume like it should, and losing to Penn State is a dud.  They need another notch or two, to get their seeding to where it feels like it should be.

-- Ohio State at Johns Hopkins: OSU isn't that scary, but then I wouldn't have said Rutgers is either.  And the Buckeyes did beat Marquette.  Hopkins can't afford another slip-up.

-- Harvard at Cornell: This isn't an elimination game, but the loser - especially if it's Cornell - will be in a very deep hole.

-- Duke at Notre Dame: ACC games always matter.

-- Virginia at North Carolina: Need this one, bad.

-- Maryland at Penn State: This one's for control of the B1G - the winner will have only Hopkins to tangle with.