A look inside Alex Gym during last Thursday’s practice revealed a loose and energetic men’s basketball team. Coming off a 72-63 loss to rival Ripon College the previous night, it was clear the Vikings conveyed an ‘on to the next one’ mentality.
Head coach Joel DePagter preached three keys in practice: activity, energy and communication. He spoke with confidence in his team’s ability to defeat Knox College (4-12, 2-9 MWC) if they could strive in each facet.
Communication was the first order of business. The Vikings began the drill portion of practice with a half-court screen-setting drill, orchestrating their offense and freeing teammates for open layups. The goal was to use slip screens [a form of pick and roll] along with back cuts to find open looks at the basket.
“He [coach DePagter] just wants us to play ball and focus on the little things like setting screens,” said junior guard Troy Miller following practice. This would be one of the best ways to defeat Knox’s zone defense—making the simple screen, completing the simple pass, leading to a simple layup or kick out three-pointer.
You can never be too patient against a zone and the Vikings searched for easy ways to attack it early in practice.
DePagter and his team also knew Knox’s defense had more holes than Swiss cheese, and Lawrence was prepared to go full-Romano on the weakness. They expanded the drill into the full-court in an attempt to practice their transition offense and defense.
This is where the Vikings needed energy, as executing the transition drill would prevent the defense from getting set to begin with. The 5-on-5 drill saw the offense racing to find a weakness, and the defensive players fighting on every possession.
Lawrence made more mistakes in this full-court drill, but several second unit players—including freshman Jeremy Stephani—impressed by finding ways to score in the middle.
Lawrence continued to work on the inside and middle-out game, where the post player would kick to the corner for an open three.
Senior Andrew Borresen and junior Jamie Nikitas were energetic during the entire drill, providing a spark for the rest of the team. Despite the fact that Lawrence missed several of the open jumpers, the movement and energy was encouraging throughout.
The final 5-on-5 drill emphasizing transition is where activity was crucial. Every player needed to pull their weight by talking, moving and getting dirty for rebounds. Despite the inevitable fatigue to end practice, the Vikings improved on defense over the course of the drill, making it difficult for the offensive unit to find open shots.
By the end, Lawrence appeared destined to translate this success to Saturday’s contest at Knox.
The result was everything the Vikings practiced coming to fruition. Lawrence exhibited excellent teamwork in a 76-54 victory. 20 of the Vikings’ 27 made baskets were assisted, and Lawrence knocked down 10 three-pointers.
Knox shot a lot of deep balls as well but without much success, finishing a mere 5-for-21. The Prairie Fire struggled to find easy shots the entire game and could never cut into the Vikings’ double-digit lead.
Sophomore forward Mitch Willer was the beneficiary of the easy looks Lawrence practiced on Thursday. He finished 5-for-5 from the field.
Moving forward, the Vikings are not only looking for energy, activity and communication. It boils down to impact.
Coach DePagter announced that the coaching staff will be utilizing a plus/minus system to figure out what lineups to use. If Lawrence is +14 (outscoring the opponent by 14) with a specific player on the court, he will be deserving of more time. On the other hand, those in the minus category could be in danger of losing minutes.
This +/- system has been used by NBA teams for years and also has gained popularity at the college level. Senior forward Shane Cullian believes in its potential benefits. “I would say it makes everyone on the team more clairvoyant as to how much they are contributing,” says Cullian.
“I’m a math major, so I like it,” adds Miller with a laugh. “You want the right combination. We’ll see if it helps.”
The Vikings (6-10, 4-7 MWC) hosted Lake Forest College (8-8, 7-5 MWC) on Tuesday, Jan. 27. They play in front of the home crowd again on Saturday, Jan. 31 at 3 p.m. against the Prairie Fire, where Lawrence hopes to extinguish their opponent for the second time in three games.