In watching the Pentucket High School girls basketball program over the years, it is evident Coach John McNamara gets many players in the game. Other coaches and other teams stay use the bench less. I asked Coach McNamara what some of the key factors that determine playing time are.
Bench Depth and Playing Time
Given Coach McNamara’s enthusiasm behind having his player’s enjoy the high school basketball experience, he is a believer in depth. Originally when I asked him about depth, I anticipated the answer was related to the full court press that the Sachems typically employ. Coach McNamara told me that is not the case. When he played the game, he wanted to play every minute. He wants his players to adopt the same mentality, even if it is not a realistic possibility.
The real reason that he utilized his team’s depth goes back to the high school experience that he wants for the players. By playing so many kids, every player is more engaged and motivated in practices and preparation. In the real world, effort matters. When a player excels the practice before the game, there is a good chance Coach McNamara will have that player first off the bench in the game. The success of Pentucket might not be an equally divided pie chart, but he wants every player to know they have a slice. Playing time might not be evenly distributed, but many players have a chance to impact the game.
Philosophy on Starting Five
Coach McNamara said one of his best learning experiences as a coach came in a season where he had no seniors. The depth of the team made for competitive practices, but it also forced him to try many lineups. Initially he thought players enjoyed this system. Going through the line of high fives and hearing your name called is an experience. And as a result of the parity on the squad, seemingly everyone cracked the starting lineup at some point. After the season, the players informed McNamara that they hated the lack of consistency. They had no idea what their role was. The following season with essentially the same group in place, the starting lineup was more consistent. The players appreciated it.
In general, a starting five does not always equate to the best five or the group that will be expected to close out a game. Coach McNamara said it can matter very much to players and parents, but for coaches it is not as critical of an issue as you might think. This is consistent with what I learned from former UConn assistant coach and current Boston University head coach Marisa Moseley. In especially close situations, it might be valuable to team culture to placate to a senior instead of starting a freshman. The style of the opponent, injuries, foul situations, and the way that the game is playing itself out vary. All of these factors can cause a coach to give significantly more playing time to a someone off the bench than a starter.
Few Black and White Rules
I have seen Coach McNamara’s teams play for about ten years. I even caught a glimpse of a practice once. When he told me he was not really a rules person I was a little surprised initially. His teams play with incredible discipline and tenacity. They also have a way to play together. And perhaps it might be because of the fact that there are few black and white rules.
As one example, take a player that is sick. Many coaches (myself among them) will redistribute the playing time if players are unable to attend practice. Coach McNamara said he does not really draw a line in the sand. For a practice with a complicated scouting report, the player might see the minutes significantly diminished. In other instances, the sick player is better and possesses a skill set that works best to counter the opponent’s strength. McNamara’s main point is that sometimes coaches follow rules to the detriment of the program. As long as there is a justification and some consistency for making a decision, he can rationalize his choices.
It is similar on the court. When a play has several options within it, a player might pass up a lay-up because there is a robotic obligation to run the play all the way through. By staying away from absolutes, players avoid costly errors caused by hesitation.