April 30, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Dan D’Antoni wants his basketball team to play fast. He’s really getting accustomed to that pace in his first few days on the job at Marshall.
“It’s not a job at this point,” D’Antoni said, smiling, early Wednesday morning in his Henderson Center office in his first interview since his introduction as coach last Friday. “It’s more of a sprint right now, getting here early, staying late. Hopefully, at some point we’ll shorten it; maybe make it into a mile run.”
Life isn’t going to slow down anytime soon for D’Antoni, the MU alumnus and former star guard who has been arriving at his office as early as 6:30 a.m. and staying most nights until at least 8 or 8:30. He’s met with returning players and interviewed “10 to a dozen” assistant coaching candidates, he said.
On Thursday, he leaves for North Carolina and two stops on his first Big Green Coaches’ Tour. He’s scheduled to fly from Wilmington, N.C., back to Huntington on Saturday, then fly home to Los Angeles for a few days before traveling back across country to Destin, Fla., for Conference USA meetings on May 11-12.
Then, it’s back to Huntington, where the Mullens, W.Va., native “will have my clothes and golf clubs shipped UPS here,” D’Antoni said. “By then, I’ll hopefully have two (assistant) coaches hired and we’ll be ready to get going.” He also will have a bunch more of those Big Green stops to make before mid-June, too.
He said his wife, Vanessa, and daughter, Morgan, will remain in southern California. “My daughter will be heading into her senior year of high school (in 2014-15), and I want her to finish out there,” D’Antoni said. “She plays the piano, violin, and she goes to Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, which is one of the best schools in the country for music.
“It will be a hard year without them here, but I told them maybe we’ll have four great years after that. Our daughter will pick a college; maybe she’ll pick Marshall. Don’t know. It’s up to her.”
When he was announced as the 28th Herd coach last week, D’Antoni called it his “dream job.” Right now, he’s trying to stay as organized as possible. He just needs more hours in a day.
“I really can’t say what’s been most interesting to this point,” D’Antoni said. “It’s just mostly matter-of-fact, meeting a lot of people … putting names with faces, getting a handle on the type of kids we have here already, trying to get new coaches.
“We’ll have a scholarship or two (available), and I’m trying to figure out where we’re going. I don’t think it’s imperative we use the scholarships. Sometimes people panic and say you’ve got 13 scholarships, you’ve got to use them all. But you can only put five on the floor and you usually rotate eight or maybe nine.
“If we really need to get in and get a good player, we can. But it’s not a panic mode. It’s not imperative is what I’m saying, but if we can get a good one, you go do it.”
D’Antoni said he views DeVince Boykins, a swingman in his first two years in a Herd uniform, at point guard. He also sees Tamron Manning getting time at the lead guard, too.
“It’s not imperative we (sign a point guard), but if we can get a good one, you go do it,” D’Antoni said. “DeVince will be a point guard, Tamron will be there, so we’re not just signing someone to be signing someone. It’s not like nobody can play.
“But I don’t know how good DeVince can be and don’t know how good Tamron can be. The little bit I saw on tape or in team games, the potential is there. I’ve just got to see them in my system and see how hard they work. We’re going to judge players on the style we play, and we’ll get the talent to fit that style.”
At Friday’s introductory press conference, D’Antoni said Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall uses “our stuff,” referring to the attack employed by D’Antoni’s older brother, Mike, at his three NBA head coaching stops.
“I will not have a 6-(foot-)9 guy, just because he’s 6-9, turn his back to the basket and shoot 50,000 jump hooks,” D’Antoni said Friday. “I will expect him to dribble, pass, shoot, play, defend. He’ll defend big guys, little guys, I don’t care. When that happens, then you have a good basketball player, and they start fulfilling their dreams.”
D’Antoni pointed out that although most basketball cognoscenti refer to the D’Antoni stuff as “guard-oriented” because of the use of smaller players, it usually was a big man to lead those teams in scoring.
“Spread the floor,” D’Antoni replied when asked to expound on “our stuff” to a greater extent. “Spacing is very important with our offense, pace is extremely important.
“A lot of people don’t understand what you mean by ‘pace.’ San Antonio, the Spurs are not the fastest fastbreak team, but they have a fast pace because the ball moves and it makes the defense move. A good pace is when the defense has to really move to stay up with what’s going on.
“That doesn’t mean we’re not going to take layups when we’ve got them, or get up and down the floor, get out, that’s fine. But if not, pace is really what I’m talking about with quick ball movement, making the defense adjust to what you’re doing. If we can do that, then that’s the kind of style I’m going to play.”
At the other end of the floor, D’Antoni said his Herd has another reason for spending the offseason running and lifting.
“On defense, pressure -- what’s a good word for it?” D’Antoni said. “I’m a ‘man’ guy. My high school teams (Socastee, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.) were all defensive-oriented. And we were all very conscious of the defense that we played, and we played the whole floor. And we threatened everything.
“I wouldn’t say ‘overplay.’ When you say overplay, it’s overused. We were smart gamblers is how I would put it, and that’s what I want us to be here. I want a smart gambling defense that makes you work for every inch you bring (the ball) up.
“Do we always do that? No. I want to be a good 94-foot team, a team that protects around the basket. I want to be both, and I think you can be. We won’t be a pattern defensive team. We may jump into a little zone. I would never say we’d never go to a zone.
“If it helps us, yes, but I’d say it would be sparse. We’ll practice zone and we’ll have the capability of playing zone. I’m not going to rule out anything because I’m an ideologue and that’s all I do.”
D’Antoni said teaching and learning need to go hand-in-hand for the Herd to be successful.
“Our main strengths are going to be, we’ll pester the ball 94 feet, going to take smart gambles,” the Herd coach said. “And then we’re going to rebound the daggone thing or turn it over to the other end as quick as we can and try to move the defense and get to the first good shot and take it.
“It’s not Einstein’s Theory. The genius will be in our ability to teach it and get kids to perform. That’s the genius in any system. It’s not the system itself, it’s getting the kids comfortable so they can perform, and they make you the genius. We’ve got to get the players well-versed in what we want to do, and they’ve got to be the type of kids that will work hard and play hard, and then I become a genius.”
D’Antoni, 66, grinned when he said that. And while it seems he doesn’t take himself too seriously, his players need to take him seriously – because in his remarks, he leaves little doubt he’s not only ready to run the program in which he once played, but run it in precisely the fashion he desires and expects.
“Here’s where I come from,” he said. “My granddaddy was an immigrant, and he said, ‘Son, the name’s D’Antoni, carry it high. Don’t do things that will tarnish it. That’s my general philosophy in life, my three boys, my daughter, same thing.
“At Marshall (as a student-athlete), I tried not to do anything that would do that. We made mistakes. I’m not saying we didn’t. But generally speaking, we’re going to try to carry this banner high.
“My coaching style is two-pronged. One, I’m convinced that teaching a person to be a good, disciplined, responsible young man in his personal life improves the basketball person. So, I think teaching someone to make a free throw is as important as learning how to greet somebody, carry yourself high, and work hard. You teach that as well.
“And, second, if you teach that, it makes the free throw better, and that might make the person better. Sometimes, you’ve got to develop the person and the basketball player at the same time. These kids we have here now, they’ve got to help me, help me let them develop as a person and as a basketball player -- because they go hand-in-hand.
“I don’t look at these kids as just basketball players. I’ve never looked at it that way. Give them confidence about being a good young man, or a successful young man. Don’t separate the person from the basketball player. And if you do that, then my cousin, and the next-door neighbor, and the guy who graduated from here will be proud of what we have on the floor.
“It’s the whole of the person. Are there going to be mistakes? Sure, but there had better not be too many. No one’s perfect, nobody throws a shutout, me included.”
D’Antoni said his Herd’s goal will always be the same – an NCAA championship. In tandem with that, he will be into the same kind of what might be called “young player development” as he was for his younger brother’s NBA teams, with players like David Lee, Jeremy Lin, Leandro Barbosa and Landry Fields.
“I did all of the developing with the young guys for Mike,” D’Antoni said. “It’s the players who develop themselves, with help from others; it’s with them. That’s how it works. The player has to want to do it.
“I think all of those guys, and others, would tell you I helped. I’d never claim total responsibility because you can’t have that. It’s the same thing with being a coach. Guys out there (on the floor) are the biggest part and you helped. And that’s what I’m going to try to do here.
“It’s not going to be overnight. This will be a process. It’s not going to be a quick fix because I can tell we have to improve the conditioning. It’s not at the speed we need. All these guys, their dream is to play in the NBA. And I’ve seen a lot of NBA guys with their shirts off and I haven’t seen too many of them like that here.
“They’re going to have to improve a lot there, because we’re going to play with pace, at a high intensity, get-after-it game. Now, a lot of people think you’d better have a deep bench to do that, but if I remember correctly, we pressed and ran and jumped and scored 119 points without a 3-point line against Nebraska in the (1967) NIT with our ‘Iron Man 5.’ And I don’t remember coming out. And I didn’t need to come out.”
The Herd should get ready to push it in many ways with a new man in charge, who hopefully will get his own life to slow down after he fits more pieces into this new puzzle.
So, what’s the best part of his “dream job” of six days so far?
“No question, it’s the people here, being back in West Virginia, being back at Marshall University,” D’Antoni said. “I appreciate that and always have. I’ve always thought West Virginians were – OK, it’s like everything else, you don’t always hit a home run – but they really meet the eye test and they pass.
“Generally speaking, they’re genuine people. The best. And that, I enjoy the most. I enjoy being around people the most. Always have. I think it brings the best qualities out in me, and think it brings the best qualities out in them. That’s it.”