From the Sidelines: Observations by an Aussie coach in the NCAA

The focus is almost always on the players, they are after all the ones who are on court and playing to win. While the number of Australian's choosing the NCAA collegiate development pathway continues to rise, so too are the number of talented coaches packing their bags and heading across the Pacific to join them. In fact many of these coaches are helping entice some of Australia's finest young players to make the journey across with them.

After a storied tenure in guiding Australia's junior national teams and short stint as a Head Coach in the National Basketball League (NBL), Marty Clarke joined fellow Australian Adam Caporn as an Assistant Coach at Saint Mary's. John Rillie starred in the NBL as a player and is now entrenched as an Assistant Coach at Boise State. Then there is also Chris Harriman at Nebraska and David Patrick at Louisiana State, both also Assistant Coaches. And those are the coaches that I can quickly name from memory without even searching; there are likely many more across all divisions of the NCAA.

One of those also trying to make their mark as a coach in the NCAA is Western Australian Michael Clarke. Clarke has kindly provided his own insights into Division I college hoops exclusively for The Pick and Roll after completing his first year with Virginia Commonwealth men's basketball program. This is his take.

Journey to the Home of Hoops

As the dust settles on my first year in the US college system, I think it is a good time to reflect as an Australian coach on what sets it apart from other leagues. But first, some background on me. Previously I was coaching in the elite junior and senior competitions in my home state of Western Australia. To become a better coach, I decided to drop everything and in July 2013 I headed to the home of basketball to learn best practice from the experts. Since then I have just completed the on-campus requirements for a Masters from the Center for Sport Leadership at Division I school Virginia Commonwealth University.

Michael Clarke: video intern for Virginia Commonwealth - Courtesy Michael Clarke

During my studies, I was fortunate to work as the video intern for the men’s basketball program and the Atlantic 10 Conference. That role saw me attend all practices and games (including away games, our conference tournament, and the national tournament), such that I was able to obtain a great insight into life at the NCAA Division I level. Following are some of my main observations of US college basketball so far that I thought would be great to share with those back home in Australia.

The Atmosphere at Games

This has to be experienced in person to be believed. I would go so far to say that you have not been to a basketball game until you have been to a college game in the US. I have come to regard it as “basketball on steroids”. The main points of difference are the student sections, the pep bands and the cheerleaders. It all adds up to some rocking arenas that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Styles of Play

This is one of my favorite features of US college basketball and what makes it the quintessential form of the game, in my opinion. It is truly about basketball and teams rather than entertainment and individuals (as the NBA has become). It provides freedom and acceptance for coaches to pursue any style of play within the broad spectrum of ideas that are out there if you dare to look and experiment. For every naysayer who insists that you cannot play a certain way (fast, full-court, zone, etc.), there is a college team or teams proving them wrong. Furthermore, if those styles of play work at the elite college level, they can surely work in other leagues if coaches are willing to cut against the grain.

It's About Recruiting

If I had a dollar for every time a US college coach has told me; “it’s about the Jim's and the Joes'of styles and strategy, they concede that it would essentially be in vain without some athletic stud players to impose their will on the court. As such, the focus on recruiting is paramount and constant. There is a minefield of regulations to navigate during the process of luring the best players. Coaches must be aware of the rules and must be able to recruit impactful players if they want to be valuable and set themselves apart from the multitude of aspiring colleagues. Australia has benefitted from the quest for talent and now finds herself the most represented foreign nation amongst male players in the US college basketball system.

Academics is Just as Important

College sport is inextricably tied to academics in the US. Players (student-athletes) must be able to “talk the talk” in the classroom if they want to “walk the walk” on the basketball court. The system does not cater well for jocks whose God-given talents are all athletic and non-academic. Whilst there are arguments both for and against linking sport to school, I do wonder why Australia makes relatively little effort towards university athletics. I believe there are opportunities for Australian tertiary institutions (and public high schools, for that matter) to facilitate more intense and enduring sporting competitions.

Opportunities for Australia

And so, those are a few things that have struck me as different from what I was used to in Perth. I get the feeling that I have barely scratched the surface in the home of basketball and I look forward to more opportunities to learn. In the meantime I suggest that some features of the US college basketball system could be implemented in Australia for the benefit of the sport. For example, bands at games, courageous coaches implementing non-traditional styles of play, and university leagues played over several months, are all food for thought, don’t you think?

What is your take on Clarke's observations? Share your thoughts by posting a comment.

If you would like to get in touch with Michael Clarke, please contact The Pick and Roll team directly.