By Scott Whitmore | Our story and journey to become National Champions
Preface by Janx.....
Video: Highlights from the South Australia Men's team at U20 National Championships.
“Soo pumped!!! Our whole coaching staff stayed up to watch. Competitive. Tough. Fiery. Not perfect. All that matters though is winning”. One of the many texts I received after the performance of these boys. This one was from a Div 1 NCAA program which is a household name.
This past month our U20 Men made history winning the National Championships, the first time SA Men have won it since 1993. The team featured 6 featured athletes from www.highperformancehoopsnetwork.com.
I headed over to see the final days of the championship and had to see these guys become national champions, could not have missed this end to such an amazing journey they have all had. Just 4 yrs ago in U16s the corresponding age group (albeit a differing playing lineup) they finished 11th (Metro) and 9th (Country) spots in Adelaide. 4 years later they emerged to be arguably the best male team and players that have come out of the state in decades. The fact that they have come from nowhere to emerge as our nation’s top players and team just adds to their story. Their families, ALL coaches involved in their development, their support networks and most of all themselves have reason to be very, very proud indeed.
The culture of this group of men is phenomenal and I feel this mindset and culture that emerged was key to their development. It was fitting that Jacob Rigoni and Isaac White were Captain and Vice-Captain of this team as they have emerged as generational leaders in the state of South Australia and I hope their work ethic, dedication, competitiveness and toughness will be followed in this state for generations to come. It is infectious and guys like Alex Mudronja, Ben Carter and Harry Reemst (these 3 are from the same club as Alex and Jacob - Sturt Sabres) and others have been swept up in this culture where coachability, extreme work ethic and trying your hardest is valued and rewarded by your peers. It is cool to be a ”Try Hard”.
Pictured: The team included a coach and 5 players from the Sturt Sabres in South Australia. All these men have impacted each other's development and culture significantly through their journey. All 5 men are going have an impact for their teams in the United States in terms of their winning culture and toughness.
That Whitmore and his coaching team were able to select guys like Mike Harris, Owen Hulland, Brent Hank, Ray Harding and Harry Mills all guys that added value throughout in terms of their talents and skillsets but also culture were a credit to the selection decisions and insights on what it takes to win.
Pictured: Whitmore and team planning their next kill.
The coaches are phenomenal men. I have worked with them over long period of time in various roles all so can comment with some great insights into them.
Whitmore. Having personally invested vast time and effort into the majority of the group of men in the U20s both at state and club level you always worry who their “next coach” will be. With Scott that was never the case, I always knew he would add some great value to their development, lives and careers.
I worked with Scott at Centrals, in my role of Coaching Director, during his success in the men's program out there where he took them to multiple finals series, won coach of the year in the most successful window the men’s program ever had. We worked so well together, we would meet regularly to discuss strategies, insights on players, things we were both doing. His assistance with me in my Director of Coaching role and brief stint as Premier League Women’s coach at the club was immense. He worked so hard in a club sometimes starved of support to organise things like imports, singlet presentations, player news, recruiting and much more.
What striked me most though at Centrals was the environment he created for his players. The enthusiasm they trained with, the "love" they had for each other was why he was able to build such as successful program. They played for him and each other and I was lucky as the Director of Coaching at that time to have such a great program to feed kids into, and also for younger players to watch. It is ironic and almost like it was meant to be that this story and pattern has continued with his involvement in the U20 program. We have met a few times over lunch, like old times, and talk about players and strategies on the group and I always enjoy talking Hoops with Scott. What is great about this working relationship is that it is not contrived, not formal, BSA would not even be aware this goes on, it is based around mutual respect and friendship.
I personally cannot thank Scott enough for the impact his work has had on me over the years but much more importantly the young men I also coached along the way. I am disappointed to hear Scott may not continue in the role, if that is going to be the case I am going to miss him greatly, but hope to find a way to work closely with him again in the future.
Pictured: Former University of North Dakota and U20 State player, Chris Clausen.
Chris Clausen. I first met Chris when we were team mates at Centrals and we were great mates during that time, regularly keeping in touch and working together from time to time. I always say I saw the evolution of Chris Clausen as a player playing State League hoops with him and training against him before he went to play University of North Dakota. He led the program at UND, one of the rare Aussies to captain a Div 1 NCAA school. His demeanor is one that everyone likes and loves, he is always happy, easy going but when it comes to competing he gets behind his players and has an unbridled passion for seeing them succeed. "You don't win with X's and O's. What you win with is people". I am sure Chris has some x's and o's up his sleeve but it is his ability with people which is why he is so successful.
Alex Wright. A committed and focussed Sabre who has done the real hard yards in the coaching ranks to work with this state group. He coached the age group with Tony Casella and I when Isaac White, Rigoni were bottomaged 18s so knows these men and their games well. His teams always seem to overachieve and he is always showing his flexibility coaching all age groups from U12 Div 1 through to youth league. His basketball IQ and work ethic comes from years of involvement and dedication not just by himself but also throughout his family, with his farther John been a former state coach and his brother too been a 36er squad member and US college player.
I am have asked Coach Whitmore to blog on this group’s toughness, togetherness and work ethic but also to give us coaches some insights on the prep leading up to and during the week, and hope this story can inspire players and coaches alike but also give college coaches and other interested people some insight into these National Champions as individuals.
Pictured: 3 great coaches in an embrace immediately after winning gold.
Over to Coach Whitmore
Well it has been a few weeks now since the Gold game and we have all dropped back into club land and focusing on the next project. This blog gives me the opportunity to reflect and spend sometime going back over the journey from October 2016 until now.
2016 was my first state gig as head coach, I made reserve as and under 18 (43 now) and always wanted to wear the state colours so once Paul Rigoni got me involved I was hooked.
The bronze last year was fantastic, 7 bottom age players and the chance to go again and have a crack at gold was too good an opportunity to pass up. We knew we were going to have 4 internationally talented players return and a group of quality bottom age guys to pick from.
We picked the group over the October long weekend, 4 sessions and we had it from 30 ish to 16, one more session and the 10 and 6 reserves were picked.
We needed a balanced group and I have always found that 20s is the year that players develop late, and guys that have never played state, may warrant selection for the first time, or selection for the first time in a few years. It is also the first time the country and metro tag gets dropped and we all become one team.
It was very hard to tell a few guys that this year was the first time as a player you were not going to make the 10, we had a squad that had players that had played state both years of 16s all the way through but as a coaching group you need to feel comfortable with the 10. State coaching is an opinion game, this is not to say that other coaches would have picked the 10 we did, I know they certainly wouldn’t have, it's not that cut and dry and some guys that missed out probably felt harshly treated. At the end of the day it is our opinions as head coaches that count and you need to wear the decisions and move forward.
Team make up
I'm a little old school so I was looking for positions 1-5 and back ups for those positions, I don’t buy into body types and speed or athletic ability, if you understand the game, have a great work ethic and you fit the culture of the group you are a chance to be picked. Team balance on these trips is vital, right down to who should room with whom. State trips are about facing adversity as a group or individual and reacting to that adversity. The player needs to have the ability to recognise their role, accept their role and execute the tole to best of their ability, this changes daily at a national tournament, some find this very hard to do. Happy to say I had 10 guys who bought into this 100%.
We are so lucky to have the core of our group at the AIS or playing in our premier league, they are in great systems and have the exposure to many top level coaches and philosophies, most of our guys went through Aus selection and this certainly played a part in the offences we put in place.
Pictured: at NBA Asia Basketball Without Borders, on left , Alex Mudronja (6'5'' Point Guard, Class of 2018 Prospect), on right is Owen Hulland (6'11' Stretch 4, Class of 2018 prospect). Both currently based at Centre of Excellence @ Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, around 1000 kms from the rest of the team.
I’m reluctant to single players out because without all of them buying into the values and trademark that they set as a group we don’t get the result we did.
Pictured: Brent Hank (6'10'' Power Forward, Class of 2017 U of Albany Commit) doing interviews. Always tough, physical and intimidating, plays role to a treat.
The prep was good, we picked the team in October and shut it down until December, we had to take the following into account, year 12, USA trips, Under 19s Emu, High School nationals and Schoolies, even a family overseas trip got thrown in. Owen had 2 sessions with group, we wrote the sets on the white board for him and he took out his phone and locked them in. We juggled the work load with Alex due to his foot and also brought in a player not even in the 16 as a back up to Alex once a selected reserve decided to step out of the squad. We crammed as much into weekends as possible playing 6 trial games with as many of the main group as possible.
Pictured: A large contingent of SA talent have represented Australia. Jacob Rigoni (6'6'' Small Forward, Class of 2017 prospect), Isaac White (6'1'' Point Guard, Class of 2017 Stanford Commit), Ben Carter (6'10'' Power Forward, Class of 2018 prospect) all had Australian National commitments during the U20 South Australia team's prep, along with Lat Mayen (6'8'' Wing, Class of 2017 TCU Commit) who withdrew from the U20s SA team.
Time to build the team
WE preached “together” from day one, we didn’t break the huddle with SA once, my constant reminder to the group was that if we were going to achieve the ultimate goal it was to be done as a team, and together. Even when the group was 30 players we broke the huddle with the words "together".
I like the under 20 group because you can treat them like adults, they drive, the vote , they pay taxes, so why not let them have a say in the way we run the program, not everything, but I trusted them with little things at first, names for sets, options out of the flow, number of trial games we needed, how many sets we needed, I wanted them to be part of some of the decision making. They needed to feel they had a say and their voice counted for something, it was clear who was in charge but they are or have been part of great programs and they all have very strong basketball knowledge so learning from them was always going to be part of the deal.
The captains fell into to place and then the players set their values and trademarks, once this happens the group dynamic changes; they then have the benchmark to hold each other accountable. Even the non captains in title made this happen.
Pictured: Captains; Jacob Rigoni (6'6'' Small Forward, Class of 2017 prospect), Isaac White (6'1'' Point Guard, Class of 2017 Stanford Commit) are tough competitors, who win at all levels and teams and have doneso for many years.
My clear goal to them was simple, be in every game with 5 min to go and play for a medal on the last day of the tournament, happy to say we achieved this, all but the Victoria game, they had us with 5 minutes to go.
Pictured: Left to Right: Neville Maslin, Alex Wright, Ray Harding, Scott Whitmore, Brent Hank, Alex Mudronja, Owen Hulland, Ben Carter, Jacob Rigoni, Chris Clausen, Isaac White, Mike Harris, Harry Reemst, Harry Mills, Ty Corey. Goal achieved. These men were "all in" all the way to winning the gold.
X's and O's
The plan even with the limited time was to put in the following,
6 x man sets that balanced into flow as a motion,
Each with variations and counters we could use in the semi or final
4 variations of the 3 sided flow action,
A motion offence similar to the Melbourne tigers shuffle
a two for one play we could run with 40 or so seconds on the game clock,
an offensive action we could run with 8 seconds on the shot clock,
post automatics and movement
for scouting purposes we used number calls for the round games and changed them to name calls during the finals, eg we used the number 4 during the rounds for a certain offence and called it “pops’ during the finals.
Players would call both during the prep and ensure we echoed the call during the practices so players were used to both,
This was just a small tactic that I thought may give us a slight edge over the coaches that scouted hard during the week,
Zone entry with high/low motion
2 x man baseline plays
2 x zone baseline plays
2 x man side line plays with counter options
1 x zone side line play
We had multiple end game scenario plays that we showed the players the week before left and during the week while away. These with other plays were laminated and in my coaching bag at all times ready.
Fast break option from opposition foul shots.
We zone every baseline and side ball play
(Keeps things simple and helps with scouting)
2 variations of full court trap
1 x half court trap
4 variations of on ball defence
2 x zones with double team options and triggers
We also chose to tag certain players during games, almost like an AFL game, they would have no help responsibilities and were instructed to limit touches and fully deny the ball at all times. This worked really well in the first NSW game.
I was very impressed with the group’s ability to process all of this and execute it well, they had a very high basketball IQ, the options for the 3 sided flow action I let the players decide, they needed to be comfortable with the actions and I was pretty happy with what ever they decided, it was important with all of the sets they had to remember that they got to have feedback and input, they also had input to the off ball action in some sets.
With all this being said I am a big believer that culture will out trump strategy.
If you get the right group and the culture right the strategy will take care of itself.
A few challenges
We never really knew until the last minute if Alex was going to get cleared, so glad he did and it worked out great especially after being underdone for 18s last year, in the end with guys being away even with the limited sessions he did it was still more than some.
Of course we had Lat pull out 3 or so weeks before the tournament, you can not replace a guy like Lat with a like for like, he is so unique that this was never going to happen, so we decided to add a defensive minded player to the group in Ray Harding. Ray’s ability to sacrifice his offensive game for ultimate group success is truly a delight to coach, players that take pride in guarding the oppositions best player are hard to come buy, so glad I got to work with him.
Pictured: Lat Mayen (6'8'' Wing, Class of 2017 TCU Commit) playing for South Australia in 2016 in this pic, who withdrew from the U20s SA team, was a big loss.
Pictured: Isaac White (6'1'' Point Guard, Class of 2017 Stanford Commit), Ray Harding (6'5'' Wing, Class of 2017 Northern Iowa Area Community College Commit). Ray Harding, a hard nosed, athletic defender was the ideal replacement for Mayen doing a stellar job throughout in shutting down opposition key scorers. Harding also fits the "All in" culture of any team he plays in.
The week away is when the real fun starts, you learn so much about the players and the coaching group, especially yourself. Of course the first game is all about getting our stuff right and finding a win, hard to scout the first game but you need to make sure you get all of the first day games tagged and cut. I like to sit with my other coaches for all games we film and scout, I will take notes while they film and tag, I get more out of seeing it live then I do later on film, we discuss certain players and strategies as a coaching group while watching it live. Our rule is to get every team twice during the week and before you play them if possible. I won't show film for the sake of it but rather tailor our game plan around the opposition tendencies. We would practice everyday and also do a walk through of the opposition main sets and decide as a group how to guard their actions and main players, I will back this up with film if there is enough to show. Towards the end of the week we tweak our sets and bring in some new ones if needed, trying to be one step ahead is always the challenge. Compiled opposition stats are always import by about the 4th game, tendencies and shooting percentages start to form part of our game plan and match ups.
Each night in consultation with the coaches, manager, physio and captain we would set the schedule for the next day, I don’t think we ever changed it once it was set and this gave the players some clarity as to what was expected, routine was important. I let the players have their phones except for meal times and for two hours on semi final and gold medal day, we wanted to spend time in mental preparation and reflection, no TV and no console games.
It's hard but we try and mingle with our IB men’s team as much as we can, practice cross overs before and after games, they were an amazing support to us and I have gotten to know a few of them well over the three years I have been with the 20s.
The group’s ability to execute a scout and lift their game to another level was evident in the WA semi and the NSW final. Both games saw us face a bit of adversity during the game, to witness team in the semi be that focused and deliberate about what they did was a joy to see, we were outplayed by Victoria the day before so I was keen to see how the group reacted that that.
The players were dialled in, especially the guys on the bench that played a lesser role in this game, once I saw their reactions to certain situations I knew the group was never going to drop the game.
There is relief in knowing you are guaranteed a medal no matter what. Will the group still be hunger for more? Are they satisfied with just making the gold game? These are questions as a coach you may ask yourself. It's time like this I look to the captains, Jacob and Isaac, they are the barometer for he group, if they are making the right noises and their body language and prep mentally and physically is good then the team will fall into place. They were both super focused and knew that this opportunity doesn’t come along often. They would constantly reassure the coaches that we were ready and we are “all in”, a question that Isaac would ask us all daily; "Are you all in?"
Read the final box scores to anyone and they will ask, what did you lose by?
34 extra shots, 24 offensive rebounds and 21 turn overs, you are not supposed to win a game with those numbers against you. We kept it close and kept believing it would turn, we tried Ray on Glover again, this time it didn’t have the same effect but we had to see if the NSW team had made changes and could play though that match up. We did an exceptional job getting to the foul line and converting, especially in the last quarter. We forced the offence early in the game and didn’t let the game come to us. Once we settled back into the team first concept we were always going to keep it close.
Our trap and zone in the second half vs WA was tight and effective, it was unanimous that was the way to go in the last quarter of the final. Take time off the clock, force late shots, we didn’t think they had a great post presence and they were always going to live or die by the three ball.
Our composure and execution in the last 5 minutes was perfect, forcing deep threes and playing off Jacob in the post was the key message.
After the game the boys wanted to sing the song on the court, I over ruled that quickly and we hit the change rooms, sometimes it’s nicer to celebrate and let out all of that emotion in a private space. Boy did we, it too me until the silver medal presentation for the girls to get my mind and body back to earth, the adrenaline was flowing and it never really sinks in, even now weeks later when someone says “well done” enormous pride and satisfaction comes over me.
We went back to the locker room after we got the medals for some personal reflection and words, lots of love and respect for each other was shown. Some truly honest feedback was given to me by one of the players, it meant a lot to me for them to notice certain things about the style I use. I will keep those words private, sorry.
Pictured: The winners, post game, in the rooms.