When John McCaffrey watches the NCAA Tournament, he always keeps the remote nearby — not just to flip between games like the casual basketball fan but to pause, rewind and take notes.
The Deer Park High School varsity boys basketball coach, like many of his contemporaries on Long Island, views the tournament as a learning opportunity. From the First Four to Monday night’s national championship game, 67 games will have been played. : Many featured elite coaching matchups such as Louisville’s Rick Pitino vs. Michigan’s John Beilein and most have at least one moment that could prompt a coach to stop the action and diagram a play.
“March Madness is a basketball junkie’s heaven,” McCaffrey said, “and the DVR is a coach’s dream.”
With the DVR, coaches can rewind live television and tape games that occur simultaneously — as many as four games can overlap during a given early-round window. That is important for people such as Northport coach Andrew D’Eloia, who said he records every game.
“It’s like professional development on your television,” D’Eloia said.
Some coaches say they prefer to relax and watch games for enjoyment but those who agree with D’Eloia set different priorities as they watch. For some, like Floral Park’s Sean Boyle, identifying quick-hitters or inbounds plays is paramount. Pitino came up frequently as an elite coach for quick-hitters.
“I have a folder with like a zillion plays in it, and then at the start of the season, I try to put it into our offense,” Boyle said. “If it stinks and the kids can’t run it, then we’ll scrap it, but if it works in practice, then we’ll run that play. It’s a play that you can stick in your back pocket.”
Boyle said he enjoyed watching Beilein, Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Iona’s Tim Cluess this year. Cluess’ son, T.J., was a senior on this year’s Floral Park team, and Boyle said he has borrowed offensive action from Iona in the past.
Every coach who said he uses the tournament as a learning experience mentioned Beilein as a must-watch. Upper Room Christian School’s Tom Femminella called Beilein “the best halfcourt X’s and O’s” coach for his ability to find and exploit mismatches. McCaffrey agreed, citing the Wolverines’ senior backcourt of Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin and sophomore matchup problems Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson.
“Beilein’s guys are there for four years,” McCaffrey said. “By the time they get to four years, they’re running really intricate stuff. You can learn from that stuff more than you can learn from a quick-hitter or isolation play.”
Michigan’s offensive and defensive schemes also are applicable to the high school level because they are predicated on team cohesion instead of overpowering size and athleticism.
“You’re probably not DVR-ing Calipari’s games because he doesn’t have the best X’s-and-O’s stuff,” McCaffrey said of Kentucky coach John Calipari. “He has the best players and he gets them to play really hard on defense.”
Coaches employ strategies beyond X’s-and-O’s that many like to observe. Lawrence’s Lou Robinson said he enjoyed watching Villanova’s Jay Wright find the right combinations in his seven-man rotation. Boyle and D’Eloia each drew worthwhile notes on demeanor from Northwestern’s two tournament games.
In the Wildcats’ first-round win, Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis — unaware of the score — committed an intentional foul with 14 seconds remaining and his team leading by one. Northwestern hit both foul shots, got a stop and won, 68-66.
“Instead of thinking about that play, [Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew] was already thinking about what play are we going to run down one,” Boyle said. “I found it very interesting that he didn’t dwell on the fact that the kid literally blew the game.”
Northwestern cut Gonzaga’s 21-point lead to five in the round of 32, and with 4:57 left, Gonzaga forward Zach Collins blatantly reached through the rim to block a shot that would have trimmed the gap to three. Northwestern coach Chris Collins was irate. His anger carried him onto the court, and the officials gave him a technical foul three seconds after they missed the goaltend.
After Gonzaga converted both foul shots, Northwestern did not come closer than five the rest of the way.
“I think a lot of people empathize with how Chris Collins reacted to a terrible call,” D’Eloia said. “But the learning experience can be that if a terrible call happens to you, don’t react like that. He clear as day saw the player’s hand was inside the rim, and in the heat of the battle, he reacted and got a technical foul that perhaps could have cost his team a chance to come back.”
College coaches get questionable technical fouls throughout the season, too. But high school coaches don’t always have the time to watch.
“During the year, you’re usually looking at your own film and you’re thinking about your own team,” D’Eloia said. “When you don’t have a horse in the race and you’re looking at the college games, you can really take a step back and think about that game.”