After the first practice ended Saturday, the UConn men’s basketball players gathered in a circle at midcourt. They’d heard from the coaches; now it was time to critique each other.
“We’re being brutally honest,” said R.J. Evans, who has transferred to UConn to play as a postgraduate. “We’ll tell each other, ‘This is something I think you can do better.”
There will be more of it, too.
“We’re going to have meetings every week,” Evans said, “that was one of our agreements.”
The Huskies have begun preparing for the upcoming season, and it will be a challenging one in several respects. Motivation could be a challenge, with no postseason eligibility, and there is uncertainty, with new head coach Kevin Ollie signed only through April. Then there is the memory of last season, which began with great promise and ended in disappointment. In its aftermath, several players transferred or left for the NBA.
UConn players, then, are playing for each other – that’s all there is, and it’s significant. That was part of the message when the Huskies spent the last weekend in September, some 30 hours, with sports psychologist Dr. Joe Carr.
“Dr. Carr had a tremendous impact,” guard Shabazz Napier said. “We learned a lot about each other and about ourselves. You learn that everybody has problems, everyone has things going on back home that make you sad.”
Carr has worked with numerous NBA players and teams, which is where Ollie, with his 13 years in the league, became familiar with him. He helped in developing the league’s rookie orientation program. He has also worked with various college teams, such as UMass last year. The Minutemen went 25-12, their best season in several years.
“Unless you know each other inside and out,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said, in a video on the school’s website, “you’re only going to go to war and battle for each other to a certain level, a certain length.”
The Huskies (20-14 last season) had obvious chemistry issues in 2011-12, coming off the national championship run and no longer having Kemba Walker to lead them. There were disruptions, such as coach Jim Calhoun missing 11 games and Ryan Boatright missing nine. There were always questions about getting certain players the ball. After one loss, Napier, who was dealing with the deal of a close friend back home in Boston, called out teammates and it seemed to backfire.
While not dwelling on last year, Ollie is stressing right now, and the word “trust” is heard a lot around the Huskies.
“It’s amazing, how much closer we are than last year,” Boatright said.
Evans, at 23 the oldest player, said he had been exposed to sports psychology before, but “nothing to this extent.” Group activities, like going to a pool hall or bowling alley, are often tried to bring a team together. This was deeper level. During his visit, Carr stressed the ability to block out distractions and be fully engaged – for the sake of teammates – once a player enters the gym. In his exercises, he prodded players to talk about themselves, their lives and backgrounds and problems they are dealing with.
“We were telling each other things you don’t usually tell people,” forward Tyler Olandersaid.
The key to chemistry is communication, accepting criticism and coaching. The team came to certain “agreements,” one of which is to hold weekly meetings without coaches, another is to talk briefly in the circle without coaches. There is much more hanging out off the court, players are saying.
Tony Benford, the new coach at North Texas State, was an assistant at Marquette when Carr visited there. He brought Carr in for a weekend with his new players in early September. “His ability to bring a team together can have lasting effects,” Benford said, “not only this season, but for their lives.”
“If we can get players to develop blind trust,” Carr told the Denton Record-Chronicle after visiting North Texas State, “and buy into a principle, they are going to outplay a lot of people. They are playing for something else, and that’s each other. The teams that win are usually the ones that make the most sacrifices.”