New Orleans Pelicans Head Coach Tournament: Sean Miller vs. Tony Bennett

Published: May 16, 2015

The Case for Sean Miller

By: Michael McNamara

All of the coaches in this tournament bring something great to the table, and it’s just a matter of figuring out which things you would like to add to the pieces already in place. In my opinion, two of the areas where I want to see improvement moving forward is guard play and free throw attempts. Miller is a former college point guard who sees the game through the eyes of a floor general, and has fantastic principles on both ends. He also is a guy who emphasizes attacking the rim and as a result, his Arizona team was #1 in the nation last season in free throw attempts.

Miller is a hard-nosed coach that comes from a coaching family. His father was a coach who groomed him from the get go, and Miller was the Head Coach of Xavier by the time he was 35. After exceeding all expectations there, he moved on to Arizona, where he has been one of the top coaches in the nation over the past five years. He is a fantastic recruiter who can relate to new-age players (was recently named Head Coach of the U19 Team USA squad) and gets them to play hard and smart. He starts his focus on the defensive end, but much of what he does is to set up the offense. He is not an old school, “Play defense and squeeze the life out of the ball on the other end.” Instead, he pressures teams on the defensive end so he can create early offense on the other side.

Arizona was third this past season in adjusted defensive rating, behind only Kentucky and Virginia (two all-time elite defenses), but still finished 7th in adjusted offensive rating. Arizona turned teams over quite a bit (7.2 steals per game, 18th in the nation) and swallowed up the boards (2nd in the nation in defensive rebound rate). Teams shot just 39.8% against them from the field, and couldn’t get quality shots off from deep (just over 5 makes per game on 33%). Basically, they forced turnovers or bad shots, and then got out in transition. The result was them leading the NCAA in both shots in the restricted area and FT attempts. Imagine the Grizzlies on defense combined with the Clippers/Rockets on offense. That was Arizona this year.

And it wasn’t a fluke. Arizona was #1 in 2014 in adjusted defensive rating, where they again were top 3 in the nation in defensive rebound percentage. He’s done all this with really only three high level NBA prospects (Aaron Gordon, who played just one year, Stanley Johnson, and Derrick Williams). He’s competed with the Kentucky’s and Duke’s of the world with just a portion of the raw, NBA level talent and has put together teams that were every bit as impressive.

In the half court, Miller has run some interesting stuff, as he emphasizes a motion offense that focuses on high-low action where bigs set back screens in an effort to force teams to switch – which creates mismatches all over the court. He also loves a dominant big in the post who forces a team to pick their poison, either double or get eaten alive two points at a time. In our offense, this big could be Anthony Davis, or it could be a guy like Greg Monroe or Brook Lopez if Dell gets aggressive in free agency.

What Miller will bring more than anything is a physicality to New Orleans, and that is sorely needed. They have the skill, but they shied away from contact when attacking the hole last season, they couldn’t protect the paint, and in the most important game of their season they couldn’t grab a defensive rebound. That stops with Sean Miller. The Pelicans will get to the line. They will protect the paint, and they will control the glass. Add that to what they did this past season, and you have a team that will be very hard to beat.

The Case for Tony Bennett

by: Mason Ginsberg

Take a look back at or for college basketball class recruiting rankings, or any other source of recruiting rankings. One school name you won’t find anywhere near the top of those lists from the past three years is the University of Virginia. “What? Why is Mason telling me that Tony Bennett is a weak recruiter?” Nope, that’s not at all what I’m doing. I’m setting the stage for one of the most impressive coaching performances at a major program in recent memory. We all know what a great recruiter can do for a program (see: Calipari, John) or simply a school with a strong basketball reputation (Arizona routinely scores top 10 recruiting classes, including top-5 in 2013 and 2014). But what about when recruiting and top talent aren’t key drivers of a team’s success? Then coaches have to actually, you know, coach! Enter Tony Bennett’s past two seasons at Virginia.

There are also plenty of coaches out there who can play the “do more with less” card; it’s a non-trivial piece of how Brad Stevens landed the Celtics gig and Shaka Smart just got a massive deal from Texas, as it is a key indicator of a coach’s ability to coach rather than just let great players play. Not to take away from the accomplishments of those two great basketball minds (both have also performed admirably in the NCAA Tourney), but those coaches don’t have to face the kind of grueling conference schedule that UVA routinely goes up against in one of the best college basketball conferences in the country, the ACC. Now we’re starting to put the pieces together – Tony Bennett, after a few years of weak recruiting classes, was somehow able to lead the Cavaliers to two consecutive regular season ACC titles via back-to-back 16-2 conference records. If you’re keeping track at home, that is better than recruiting powerhouses like Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville, North Carolina, and Syracuse (among others). How?

The most succinct answer is an elite defensive scheme. In the 2014-15 season, Bennett’s Cavaliers boasted the second best defensive rating in all of college basketball, allowing just 87.2 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, teams ranked 3-5 in that regard were San Diego State, North Carolina Central, and Sam Houston State; no offense to any of those programs, but the level of competition they were facing don’t come close to what UVA dealt with on a regular basis. When adjusted for opponent, Virginia climbs to #1 overall, ahead of even Kentucky.

With a defense as tenacious as theirs, it is difficult to point to just one thing that made the team so successful, but one part that should translate magnificently to the NBA is the discipline that Bennett instills in his players. Over the past two seasons, UVA was among the best teams in the country at not just keeping opponents off of the foul line, but keeping good shooters off of the free throw line. Virginia opponents have averaged about one made free throw for every five field goal attempts in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons – .215 in 2013-14, .185 in 2014-15. While opponents’ free throw rate measures how often a team allows free throws, FT/FGA goes a step further and measures whether or not a team is allowing the right people to the free throw line. Virginia defenders are routinely some of the smartest in college basketball, and that is a testament to the team’s coach just as much as it is to their individual player basketball IQs.

It should also be noted that Virginia did not just win games with their defense. The Cavs finished with one of the top 20 offensive ratings in the country among the major college conferences; again, nothing against Eastern Washington and Northern Colorado, but it’s safe to say that those programs didn’t face the kind of defenses that Virginia ran up against. Again, the fact that this team was able to perform at such a high level in a dominant conference despite relatively weak recruiting classes speaks to the kind of coaching Tony Bennett provides.

In future rounds, I’ll dive into other specific aspects of Bennett’s coaching that makes him an obvious choice for the Pelicans. For now, his accomplishments are clear – he knows how to game plan for tough competition, he instills a rare level of discipline in his players, and he knows how to win in ways that coaches spoiled by elite talent simply cannot learn. Imagine what he could do if actually given some of that elite talent – for example, a two-way basketball machine like Anthony Davis? Sign me up.


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