First, a caveat: I'm definitely old-school in my preference for fundamental team-oriented basketball. I like quick, crisp passes; I like well-run fast breaks; I absolutely drool over a well-run pick-and-roll; I like teams that talk to each other on defense; I hate to see players pass up open shots, regardless of where it is in the shot clock (end-game exceptions excluded); and I hate to see players take "covered" shots when their teammates are open.
With those prejudices in mind, everything that follows is filtered through my wrinkle-colored (I know, it doesn't make sense!) glasses.
I still have no idea exactly what Coach Cal's "tweak" was, but, to me these are the results: more passing, less driving into traffic; more outside and mid-range shots; less histrionics and more encouragement on Cal's part; and a more happy looking team. While those things make an old man smile, they haven't brought me to any really out-of-control belly laughs yet, because there's a long way to go and possibly not enough time to get there to realize this team's full potential. Specifically:
There are still way too many stoppages in the offensive flow. Asking players to break season-long, or, more probably life-long, habits in a week is too much to ask. Sometimes they can do it, but on other occasions, they revert to what they've been doing all year. Unfortunately, the biggest "ball stopper (Cal's words)" is the best player on the team. You can see that he doesn't pass instinctively; he has to think his way through it, and he still does it reluctantly. Most of the rest of the guys are coming along some, but it still isn't natural enough in the offensive flow, in my opinion.
Despite a very welcome increase in outside and mid-range shots (Glenn very accurately pointed out the need for this a couple of weeks ago), and some very nice jumpers off the dribble, it still appears that our players take too long to get off a shot off the pass for a couple of reasons. First, they don't get their feet ready to go up before the ball arrives, and second, many of our passes are too "lobby" and take too long to get to the open man, allowing the defense time to adjust. These are college players; they should be able to catch a harder pass, so let's get it to them! Contributing to these high-arc passes, it seems to me, is our offensive players' reluctance to get close to the defense when passing. The closer you are to a defender, the less time he has to react to your moves. Of course, if you're hesitant against a quick defender, you may occasionally suffer a turnover, but that's a fair tradeoff for keeping the defense honest and helping your teammate have a little more time to get his shot off.
We still don't know how to run a pick-and-roll (back block in Rupp-era terminology). First the picker doesn't position well and often rolls away from the ball. Second, the cutter leaves way too much room between himself and the picker. And finally, somebody else, generally Randle or Young, are always clogging the lane so that a classic PNR bounce (or lob) pass to the "roller" isn't possible.
While movement off the ball has improved somewhat, it's generally only Young and/or Poythress actually moving much, and there's little support for their cuts by either the guards or the middle men. Most of our other players stand around waiting to get the ball before starting to move. Consequently, there's little anticipation on the part of the guards for when the guy moving will be open.
Now, with all that said, the Cats did play three of their better offensive games in the SEC Tournament. Shooting percentages weren't quite as high as I would have liked, but the intent was there except for the flow stoppages noted above. This type of basketball looks more like what many of us learned to love in the Rupp/Hall/Pitino eras: lots of movement up and down the floor, shots taken when open, and genuine delight in success of the teammates. Hopefully, this week will allow some refinement of this process.
Also, on the half-full side, I thought our defensive movement was significantly improved. I saw more head movement, keeping tabs on the position of the ball as well as the guy being defended. The team also seemed, at least against Florida, to be more aware of mismatches and hustled to get our guards off a bigger offensive player when switches produced those mismatches. Good awareness of the whole floor, I thought.
Finally, I thought Cal's demeanor was much improved as many on ASoB have noted. He still was too in the face on a couple of occasions, I thought, and his micromanagement of player positioning on offense drives me nutty. C'mon, Cal, teach them what to do in practice, tell them what to do in games, and inform them civilly when you're talking to them on the bench. Nobody likes to be yelled at and mocked in front of thousands of people, and most don't respond to it very well. You want them to act more mature, then treat them like adults--more talking and encouraging and less yelling. Despite the exceptions, there was great improvement in this area, I thought, and the team seemed to respond very well to new Cal. Let's keep it up.
Now the questions are: Will play continue to improve? Will the changes last? Will the improved FT percentage in the UF game be the new norm? Will we overlook the purple Cats? I, for one, can't wait till Friday night to find out.