- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

Practice is long since over. So is any extracurricular shooting once the coaches have left the court. Dinner and studying are long since finished.

So what does it leave a college basketball player to do on any random night?

How about watching more basketball?

Maybe the Wizards are on, or the Mavericks or the Suns or the Spurs. Perhaps there’s a chance to see a college team still looming on the schedule, or — thanks to a mixture of confidence, optimism and hope — a potential opponent when the NCAA tournament arrives.

“I’m switching channels every night,” Maryland forward James Gist says. “I wish we had more than just Comcast so I could have NBA League Pass or something like that so I could just watch all types of games.”

Some option is almost always present. The proliferation of televised games in the last 15 years has made the game’s presence so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember when chances were a major conference game wasn’t on TV and the chances of seeing a Missouri Valley or Horizon League game outside of the arena were infinitesimal.

Today’s game between Maryland (21-7, 7-6 ACC) and No. 5 North Carolina (24-4, 10-3) at Comcast Center is part of the ACC’s Sunday night package with Fox Sports Net. It has long enjoyed a relationship with ESPN, so much so that one of network’s presentations is dubbed “ACC Wednesday.”

But there’s more to this than a blossoming of the sport or a chance to plop in front of the TV and unwind after a hectic day. The extra time around the game provides an opportunity to pick up on nuances, both to tuck away for future use and to burnish their individual games.

“If you’re a fan of the game, you have to watch it, you have to study it,” Maryland guard D.J. Strawberry says. “You have to know what other teams do. You never know who you’re going to play against.”

In tune

Boston College forward Jared Dudley says he watches seven or eights hours of basketball in his spare time each week — sometimes more. Strawberry isn’t too far behind, noting guard-heavy Villanova of a season ago and this year’s steady group at Wisconsin as teams he has learned a lot from.

He can’t see everything, though. During an off weekend in January, he watched a chunk of a Georgia Tech-Clemson game before the Yellow Jackets built a healthy lead and he decided to go out.

“I’m in the mall and coach [Gary] Williams calls me and he’s like ‘Did you see that, did you see that?’ ” Strawberry says. “I’m like, ‘I didn’t see it.’ He’s like ‘Oh man, [Clemson’s] James Mays went coast to coast and laid it in and they won. They’re undefeated.’ He was going crazy. I thought we were playing.”

Williams says phone calls about an ongoing game have been reserved for “a couple, not many” players over the years. And it’s little surprise the player who called Williams the most was Juan Dixon, Maryland’s all-time leading scorer.

Dixon was known to spend extra time in Cole Field House honing his shot deep into the evening. But he would have to go home eventually, and when he did chances were he would turn on a game.

“I’d be half-asleep, the phone would ring and it’d be Juan and he’d say ‘You see that move? I think I can do that,’ ” Williams recalls. “Somebody had that step back jump shot he picked up on. For a guy who might be a little small, Juan developed that move where you go hard, you step back and the guy is going back and you get a free shot. You have to be really strong and a great shooter because you’re kind of off balance when you’re shooting.”

Of course, coaches vary in their approaches. George Mason’s Jim Larranaga says he would usually call only his sons to dissect games in progress. Vermont coach Mike Lonergan, taking a high-tech approach, will text message a player, as he did with guard Mike Trimboli while watching a defense-minded guard in a Missouri State game last week.

If there is an obvious downside to hoops saturation, it is the inundation of the shots replayed deep into the night. Rarely do those highlights feature the crisply set picks or a set of six passes that yield an easy layup.

“In today’s world of tremendous television exposure, we see a lot of highlights on TV and ESPN highlights,” Larranaga says. “I think there’s a tendency to think that’s normal rather than the highlight. Everybody works on their dunks and 3-pointers and sometimes the fundamentals get missed.”

For a studious player, though, that isn’t a concern. Observing a full game or even a half — rather than a 20-second snippet — ensures a chance to analyze the mundane as well as the spectacular, as well as an opportunity to process how a player or coach approaches his work over the course of a night.

“I look at everything. Since I’ve been here at Maryland, I’ve started to analyze the game more,” Gist says. “Before I used to watch a basketball game and whoever scored the most, ‘Well, oh, he’s good.’ Now I’m analyzing everything and I’m seeing why teams are doing what they’re doing, seeing why teams are so good.”

The big picture

There were no shortage of explanations for why George Mason made its run to the Final Four last season — veteran players together for years, a nationwide diffusion of talent, cerebral play, superb coaching — and all of them possessed validity.

But more importantly, the Patriots had seen every team they encountered. They played Michigan State a year earlier, North Carolina is a television fixture and Mason was only a few weeks removed from a made-for-TV bracketbuster game at Wichita State. After trumping all three, the Patriots edged Connecticut in the regional final.

“The University of Connecticut is a team like North Carolina and Duke that you see on TV all the time,” Larranaga says. “Will Thomas had faced their great forward Rudy Gay. Will’s high school team had defeated Rudy Gay’s team seven straight times. There was a familiarity on our part.”

More than exposure and anything else the cascade of televised games has wrought, the dissipation of any fear factor of any national power might be the most significant. Any sense of awe is gone, stripped away first by the experience of playing in summer camps and AAU tournaments and then by the ability to deconstruct even the best teams on a nightly basis.

“When we played Boston College, we’d seen them on [cable station] NESN. We’d seen their weakness as well as their strengths,” Lonergan says of his team’s 77-63 win over the Eagles in November. “We knew one of the players at BC, so we didn’t guard him from the outside. If it was 10 or 15 years ago, you’d have to read Blue Ribbon to get a scouting report, but you wouldn’t be as familiar.”

It’s a trend already seeping into the world of the mid-majors. Lonergan says he would prefer not to face Nevada if the America East-leading Catamounts reach the NCAA tournament simply because the teams met the last two seasons and an element of surprise that might exist against a big-name school would be gone.

It’s an in-season phenomenon, too. George Mason is easily recognized after its deep run last season, and the Patriots have received more exposure than ever, including a role as early-season TV darlings that had at least one unexpected effect.

“When we got ready for Kent State and we called them and asked if they wanted to exchange tape, they said no,” Larranaga says. “I asked ‘Why not?’ They said ‘We have tapes of you from 10 games already.’ ”

Larranaga cautions against placing too much stock in an incessant diet of basketball on TV in favor of actually playing and working through shooting drills during free time — the sign of a true hoops junkie.

Williams, a big believer of the process of watching, then visualizing and then doing, encourages his players to choose a pro player (preferably at their position) and then observe what they do to be great and then incorporate those facets into their own performance.

“If you want to become the best player you can be, I think you have to watch other players play because you can get a better understanding of the game,” Williams says. “I’ve been coaching forever, but I can watch a game and pick up something that helps me as a coach. Basketball is a great game because it’s never completely learned. You can never learn everything about the game of basketball.”


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