One little thing can make a big difference in a basketball game.
One ball screen. One unforced turnover. One poor box out and rebound lost.
Sometimes when a coach attempts to impress that on his players, it comes off as lip service or “coach speak.”
In Pat Miller’s case, all he needs to do is point to his UW-Whitewater team’s results during Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play this season.
His men’s basketball team is just 2-8 in league play, but eight of the 10 games have been decided by seven points or less. And five of the last six have been decided by three or less.
“It definitely makes it more apparent (to players),” Miller said Monday as his team prepares for a home game at 7 p.m. Wednesday against UW-Platteville. “You can look at specific things. It’s not like you’re losing by 12 and they’re thinking, ‘Well, that play didn’t matter.’
“It’s literally one-possession games.”
Miller attempts to break the little things down into math lessons.
For example, he said, if a player is defending a ball screen, if he defends it well 10 out of 10 times, that is considered great. Eight out of 10 is considered very good. And six out of 10 would qualify as average.
“It’s not enough to block out six out of 10 times and give up two offensive rebounds,” Miller said. “You have to have a higher percentage than that. So sometimes, it’s things we do well, we just don’t do it at a high enough percentage, and that’s what has to change.
“We gave up a big play on a ball screen coverage situation late in the game Saturday—just didn’t help on the screen,” said Miller, who will finish with his first losing season in 19 that he has been head coach at Whitewater. “They got a lane, got to the basket, got a foul. As a team, those are the situations we have to handle a higher percentage of the time.”
Injuries have not helped when it comes to finding some consistency.
Miller said UW-W has mostly avoided the catastrophic injuries that cost a player a whole season but have been plagued by nagging issues for a variety of players.
“For this team, practice is extremely important,” he said. “We’re still trying to get better at the things we want to do more than what our opponents are trying to do to us. So any time we have guys out … it definitely slows the process.”
And thus the inconsistencies have continued and the close games have piled up.
The result Saturday was a 63-60 loss at UW-River Falls. Last Wednesday, the Warhawks lost 74-72 at home to UW-Stevens Point. Before that, it was a 65-63 victory over UW-La Crosse and a 73-71 loss to UW-Oshkosh.
If there is a silver lining, Miller said, to the Warhawks’ 7-14 record, it is that it has not been due to a lack of effort. The team’s effort has kept them in games when their statistics indicate they should have been farther behind.
“It’s good news and bad news,” Miller said. “If you look at us statistically, we don’t shoot well from the perimeter, don’t defensive rebound, there’s nothing about us statistically that jumps out as a positive.
“But to counter-balance that, we’ve competed hard. And our pressure has helped us, allowed us to play more guys and been disruptive to teams.”
Miller said that effort level has made the rebuilding season more palatable for everyone as the Warhawks continue to preach patience and build toward the future.
“Despite our record and the losses, I like our group, our younger guys and how hard they’ve played,” said Miller, who has a 393-137 career record going into the final four games of the season. “I like that we’ve come back in games we’ve been down and put ourselves in position to win.
“I think all these things will help us. We’re just trying to stay patient, teach and get them better every day.”
That response will help put this blip on the Warhawks’ men’s basketball radar behind them.
“It’d be easy, especially in a program where we’ve had the success we’ve had, to shut it down or have games we don’t show up,” Miller said. “That just hasn’t been the case. That’s a positive sign moving forward.”