Houston Cougar basketball fans might be in for a bit of a shock when basketball season gets underway next month. That's because they'll be seeing something that they haven't seen in a few years: An offense running plays.
The Cougars started practice on Friday afternoon, and the words of the day were discipline, fundamentals, passing, defense, open shots, running plays. No freelancing. No jacking-up a shot from 35 feet. This isn't the basketball of Tom Penders. This is the basketball of James Dickey. And the structure of fundamentals and discipline apply to just more than the play on the court.
"There's a lot more discipline and structure," said senior point guard Zamal Nixon. "We've got to be everywhere ten minutes before whatever [Coach Dickey] says. It's just a whole learning process. It hasn't been a tough adjustment, but it's definitely been an adjustment."
And it's an adjustment that, so far, not only are the players buying into, but an adjustment that they love. To a man, the players questioned responded with affection to Dickey and his work ethic, and his teaching abilities, and the level of detail that he's throwing at them and expecting them to know and follow.
"Both [Penders and Dickey] are great coaches," senior forward Maurice McNeil said. "But I feel that with Coach Dickey I'm learning a lot this year. Compared with what I've ever learned in my life. Like the coaching staff this year has been great for me."
The new attitude around the team was evidenced at that first official practice last Friday. Practice started on time, at 5 p.m. All of the players were already out on the court, talking to the media or shooting the ball. In seasons past, practice might have been set for 5 p.m., but wouldn't actually start until 5:30 or 6 p.m.. When 5 p.m. hit this time, practice was underway.
"I think the guys on the team are doing a great job of adjusting," Nixon said. "Nobody's been complaining about the new things we're doing, and everybody's buying in. So it's been an easy transition."
Another example of the new attitude, of the transition being made, came from something Dickey was shouting over and over in practice: "Dunk it or the use glass. Dunk it or use the glass." Dickey doesn't care about the style points of the underhanded lay-up that goes over the front rim. Style points don't matter to Dickey because style points don't go up on the scoreboard if the shot is missed. But being fundamental and dunking the ball or using the glass generally lead to points on the scoreboard. And points on the scoreboard are a fundamental element of getting a win.
And to go with getting the sure points will be a stress on defense because it is going to be the defense that leads the team to victory when the shots aren't falling.
"We know we can play great defense every night. There's going to be times offensively when that basket has a lid on it, and how are we going to be able to win when on the road -- two of the things that I think are critical, one is you've got to be very disciplined and you have to play great defense to have a chance to win on the road."
The attitude of the returning players also seemed different. Unlike in years past where the offense was all about one or two players with everybody else taking what was left, this year the offense is going to be one with structure where the guy with the best shot takes the shot.
"Coach Dickey has a nice, structured offense," said senior shooting guard Adam Brown. "We're going to take good shots. Last year was a more free -- often you could take shots as you felt necessary. This year we're going to take good shots, and focus on defense a lot."
The season is still a month away from starting. And Dickey says the team still has a far way to go and much to learn. But the players are buying into what he's selling, and sometimes, for a new coach, the most important thing, above all others, is the players buying into what he's selling. So while he's demanding more structure, more discipline, more responsibility, his players are completely buying into his plans.
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"They'll respond," Dickey said. "They'll accept discipline if they know you care about them."
And the players say Dickey cares. He's always there teaching. He's always answering their questions. He's asking for no more than he's willing to do himself.
"It's real, way better than it was last year," sophomore forward Kendrick Washington said. "We're playing more as a team."
The Cougars might not win more games this season than last. They might not win the C-USA tournament, they might not get back to the NCAAs. But if James Dickey has his way, and if his players play like they say they're going to play, then the Houston Cougars will definitely be a better basketball team.