SALT LAKE CITY — At the end of many Kansas practices, a team staffer sets the clock to 2:00 and pushes start. The aim is to create a late-game scenario, such as Kansas ball, down six points, or opponent ball, Kansas up three. The Jayhawks play five-on-five, full-court basketball, simulating whatever scenario is thrown their way. Coach Bill Self watches from the sideline and doesn’t say much.
Afterward, Self will often let his players discuss the choices they made and how they executed (or failed to execute) in each situation. Then he asks why they chose to make the plays they did.
“We say, ‘Hey, you have to get a stop, figure out a way to win,’ ” Kurtis Townsend, Self’s assistant for 15 seasons, said. “We put them in those situations every single day, so when it comes the game, they’ve been there.”
Self’s sixth-seeded Jayhawks, Mark Few’s No. 1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs and Jim Boeheim’s eighth-seeded Syracuse Orange are here this week for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. Each of them thrives coaching in tight games.
Since 2002, Boeheim and Self have each won more than 100 games decided by five points or fewer, according to KenPom.com. Few trails just behind. All three enjoy winning percentages in close games of nearly 75 percent. For perspective, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, the all-time winningest coach in Division I, wins just more than 50 percent of the time in tight contests. North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo have fared slightly better.
“I don’t know. Luck,” Self said Wednesday when asked about his success. “Having a player that can go get his own shot at the end of a clock. You know, that’s a lot of it right there. Late-game situations, also, having guys that can switch five, that certainly comes into play.”
For all three coaches, comfort comes from experience and having good players who make good decisions. They focus on their own players rather than on opponents. Guard play, especially, is crucial down the stretch, they said, because they need to handle the ball without turning it over.
Managing the clock, the foul situation and substitutions are skills not exclusive to the end of the game. But that’s when the decisions are amplified and the mistakes made are more memorable. Players and coaches for Kansas, Gonzaga and Syracuse all agreed that the edge their respective coaches possess late in games is not so much the ability to draw up plays but the capacity to stay cool as the stress rises.
“It’s not any one thing, but he is very calm,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said of Few. “That rubs off on the players pretty quickly.”
While Kansas practices late-game scenarios regularly, Gonzaga talks about the possible situations a few times per week. Until Wednesday, Few wasn’t aware of his high winning percentage in tight games. He smiled. “You put the ball in the best guy’s hand or the matchup to score, and then just somehow get a stop,” Few said. Kansas and Few’s Bulldogs also practice how to foul. Syracuse does not.
Orange players and coaches said it’s a multitude of factors that make Boeheim so effective when the games are close and the arenas are loud. One thing stands out, however: He has an “encyclopedic” memory of past sequences and games. He’ll then tweak the two-three zone or draw up plays to free up space for his best player, accordingly.
“Players playing good games,” Boeheim said when asked about his success in close games. “That is how you win those games.”
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