When the Big Picture Gets Smaller, Doc Goes to Work

By NU Athletic Communications
Doc Sadler and the Husker men's basketball team officially open practice today at the Devaney Center.
Doc Sadler and the Husker men's basketball team officially open practice today at the Devaney Center.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

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Quit worrying that Doc Sadler may not have a big man this season. Nebraska’s head basketball coach has moved on, so you might as well move on, too.

While you’re at it, buy your tickets now because the 2008-09 Huskers are the best conditioned basketball team Doc’s ever coached, and he thinks they could be as fun to watch as they are to coach.

Big man or little men – it doesn’t matter. When the big picture gets smaller, Doc does what he does best. He goes to work.

Instead of thinking about what he doesn’t have, Sadler thinks about what he does have and right now, he has a small army of perimeter players competing for spots in the starting lineup. No doubt about it. Doc and his staff will feature more guards this season than the opening episode of “Prison Break”.

“College basketball is really only going to be as good as your guards are anyway,” Sadler said this week after a lengthy conditioning workout that kept three full squads of players moving up and down the court with nothing but an imaginary basketball and the imagination of a coach who can’t wait to put a real basketball in their hands.

The Huskers begin their season Friday with a 3 p.m. practice, open to anyone who might enjoy seeing buckets of sweat evenly distributed among first-, second- and third-team players.

Good luck figuring out who’s on first. Doc can’t get inside his own mind on that one. He’s too busy drawing up offensive and defensive plays that can showcase the same tenacious players (and some talented new ones) who gave eventual national champion KU fits in the Big 12 Championship last March in Kansas City.

Kansas Coach Bill Self said later that the good Doc, who happens to be a good friend, did KU a favor by throwing a relentless, trapping defense at the ultra-talented Jayhawks.

And therein is Nebraska’s biggest challenge this season – defending great teams with a small lineup.

Offense Isn’t the Problem . . . Defending the Post Is

“Offensively, I’m not concerned at all,” Sadler said. “It’s going to be fun coming up with stuff for a predominantly guard lineup. We’re going to be a driving basketball team, and we’re going to score points. The toughest job – and the biggest issue – is how we’re going to defend the post, and how that will affect our ability to get rebounds.”

Sadler says a well-conditioned and highly unselfish lineup will need to pull together and swarm the opposing offense like a bunch of Blackshirts in their glory days. Where’s Bo Pelini when you need him? “He was a great basketball player in high school,” Sadler said of Nebraska’s head football coach. “I may see what he can do to help me out on this.”

Truth be told, Doc and his staff have been scheming and scrutinizing for months. “A lot of international basketball is played with smaller lineups on an open floor,” he said. “We’ve been studying that, and we’ll see what happens.”

Expect the Huskers, who played as well as any Big 12 team except Kansas and Texas in the last two-thirds of the conference last season, to dare to be different this season.

When you’re picked to finish ninth in the preseason Big 12 poll and have no returning letterwinner over 6-8, “you do what you have to do,” Sadler said. “It’s not like it’s something that’s never been done.”

Remember “Rupp’s Runts”? Sadler does. They were the 1965-66 Kentucky team whose tallest player was a 6-5 guard. Legendary Coach Adolph Rupp said that, man-for-man, he honestly felt his ’66 team would be better than his 1958 national championship team. The Runts, however, finished 27-2, losing to Texas Western, 72-65, in the NCAA finals.

Texas Western, of course, became UTEP, where Doc first became a Division I head coach, but he has his own favorite example of a small team playing as big as possible. In 2001, Sadler’s University of Arkansas-Ft. Smith junior college team went 30-5 and finished fifth nationally. “My post guy on that team was 6-1,” he pointed out. “This year, our post might be 6-5.”

Big 12 Teams and Star Players are Smaller this Season

Sadler has been analyzing the Big 12 and believes a lot of teams will be toying with smaller lineups that might feature freelance motion that can trigger unpredictable, yet potentially explosive offensive production.

Nebraska’s hard-working head basketball coach thinks the preseason All-Big 12 team is an interesting cast of marquee players – Kansas’ 5-11 Sherron Collins, Texas’ 5-11 A.J. Abrams, Baylor’s 6-1 Curtis Jerrells, Texas’ 6-7 Damion James and Oklahoma’s 6-10 Blake Griffin. Collins, Abrams and Jerrells are all guards. James plays both guard and forward.  Griffin, the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, is a forward, and he was smothered by a Nebraska defense in a 63-45 Husker win last February in Lincoln.

You may have noticed there isn’t a center or true post player in that all-star lineup. “First of all, there aren’t that many big guys around,” Sadler said. “If you have one, that’s a real benefit. If you don’t, you adjust.”

Now is the time for Doc to resort to his Ft. Smith days, a fun and rewarding experience born of innovative necessity. “A lot of assistant coaches would love to tinker with what we have and sell it to the head coach. My problem is, now I’m the head coach,” Sadler joked.

It’s an easy sell, though, for Sadler because he and his staff have done everything possible to break down this team, physically and mentally, during fall conditioning. Doc took on multiple roles of agitated taskmaster, mad scientist and overbearing head coach. “I wanted them to rally together and hate me,” he said. “I’ve never stressed a basketball team like I stressed this one. We were trying to kill ‘em off, and they wouldn’t die.”

The Huskers had to band together and lift up a collapsed teammate or two during Overtime Week – an unremitting agenda of physical challenges. Together, though, they’re ready to take the next hill.

This Team is Competitive, Cohesive and Has Character

When Doc looks into the eyes of his team and sees a “What’s next?” look, he knows they’re a special group, and he quits worrying about what they don’t have.

He looks at Ade Dagunduro, Steve Harley and Paul Velander and sees leadership. He looks at Nick Krenk, a walk-on guard who worked his way from student manager into the fourth senior spot, and Doc sees perhaps the most determined player he’s ever coached. “I think I know where that comes from,” he said of Krenk, son of former Nebraska walk-on tight end and current N-Club President Mitch Krenk.

“We have a very competitive and extremely hard-working group of guys who like each other and have unbelievable character,” Sadler said. “They’re not big. They’re not overpowering, and they’re not a bunch of superstars. But they will come at you with everything they have in them, and that’s all any coach can ask.”

The Huskers will follow Friday’s opening practice with four consecutive two-a-day practices, drills which could be a fitting sequel to Overtime Week.

“We could have had a great year last year, but we didn’t get it done,” Doc said. “We won our share of close games, but we lost a lot of close games, too. To address that, as coaches this fall, we tried to push guys beyond any pain they’ve ever experienced. And, as players, they responded.”

They responded without complaint, an attitude that must continue through next spring.

“When people run their first marathon, they never run more than 20 miles when they’re preparing for it,” Doc said. “We decided we want this team to know what those last six miles are going to feel like now.”

The Huskers need to start faster and finish stronger, and Doc says the extra conditioning is designed to get them – and to keep them – in the race.

Implementing the Right Strategy and Having the Right Spirit

“That’s the idea,” Sadler said. “When you’re competitive in the Big 12, you can compete nationally. I’ve said all along there’s no reason we can’t compete nationally. We have all the things we need. We just need to get after it and do everything we can to win.”

Don’t be surprised if Sadler tries to mix in some of the concepts Don Nelson used coaching the Golden State Warriors, the Dallas Mavericks and the Milwaukee Bucks. Doc figures if small teams can win in the NBA, they have a chance to win in the NCAA, too.

He does not in any way underestimate the enormity of the challenge which requires him to accentuate his strengths, camouflage his weaknesses and control the tempo of every game his team plays, whether it’s Chadron State in November or KU in March.

No wonder Doc predicts that starting Friday, he will average at least one hour of sleep per night less than he’s been getting. “I’m sure the next six months are going to be a lot different than the last six,” he said. “But I’m excited about this team, and I’m looking forward to this season. It’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to be fun.”




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