With a new coaching staff and several new players, the University of Tulsa men’s basketball team has a refreshing feel.
First-year head coach Eric Konkol, who takes over in Tulsa after seven seasons at Louisiana Tech, has been implementing his system and culture, and while it has taken some time for the players to adapt, as the preseason winds down they are starting to congeal into a cohesive team.
“Their intentions have been great and their effort has been really good,” Konkol said during Tuesday’s media day press conference. “Of course, the execution piece is the one that you keep working on, and that process is going to be ongoing. There are some staples that we’ve implemented, there are some things that we absolutely want to be great at, there are statistical measures that we’re making every day in practice and in the two scrimmages that we’ve had, and we’ve been inconsistent. We’re searching for that consistency.”
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With the Golden Hurricane’s season opener at Oregon State on Nov. 7, the evaluations are ongoing as to which players will make up the starting five. Junior guard Sam Griffin, who led TU in scoring last season with 14.6 points per game, will be one of them, and it is likely that sophomore guard Anthony Pritchard from Webster High School, who started 18 of 27 games last year and averaged 4.4 points and 2.6 rebounds per contest, will be another. But with a number of newcomers, including two transfers and three freshman, not to mention several players who made contributions last season as reserves, plenty of options are available.
“In our scrimmages and even in practice, we chart lineups,” Konkol said. “We try to figure out which lineups are doing best overall, what’s our best offensive lineup, defensive lineup, and those things will continue to develop and evolve because guys will get better. And we’ll see against outside competition when the games count. We’re looking at a number of different combinations, from small groupings, bigger groupings, to what is our best lineup for man-to-man defense and switching man-to-man defense, full-court pressure, half-court man. So we’ve got a number of things that we’re going to look at, and much of that evaluation is going to come from when we’re playing games.”
Two of the cornerstones of Konkol’s philosophy that he’s been working on establishing as part of the Golden Hurricane’s new culture are a scrappy defensive mindset and more intense practices.
“We’re looking to build a program, and a program that has staying power, and a program that there are certain characteristics that, regardless of team, that you see every year, and we talk about being gritty, nasty and tough,” Konkol said. “We want to be great guys outside the lines but inside the lines, have a grittiness where there’s a passion and perseverance that our fans can feel, but then also just that toughness that you know comes from being a team that’s really together , and then just downright nasty. So it’s really a way to say three words that really complement one another and emphasize how we want to be.”
As for the new defensive standard, the players are adjusting and making progress.
“He holds us to a high expectation on defense,” said guard Brandon Betson, a transfer from Chicago State. “In film, we watch every clip, he comments, ‘Y’all are doing good but things could be way better.’ So we’ve kind of taken that as a challenge. We’re getting stops on each other in practice, the two scrimmages we did well but we can even take it up a notch. He’s statistically breaking everything down, every day – contested shots , box-out rates, transition break points, all that stuff, so it’s good.”
“It’s helped our team understand the importance of defending, rebounding and the importance of contesting shots and how that impacts winning,” Griffin said of the defensive focus. “Offense is always going to take care of itself when you have talented players and a good flow, but if you have no defensive identity, it’s really hard to win like that. That’s been a great emphasis.”
One of the ways Konkol has elicited more contested practices has been to institute his ‘Cane of the Week points system, where his staff keeps track of statistics during practice. Each week, the ‘Cane of the Week has been announced on social media — this past week it was forward Tim Dalger.
“We started this I think six seasons ago, and I was looking for a way to grade practice,” Konkol said. “We stat everything. I love numbers, I think numbers tell a story, numbers can also really enforce what your eye may see. There’s a statistical model, from shots taken, shots missed, assists, rebounds, hockey assists — the pass that leads to the assist, your team winning, deflections, charges get a high point value.
“So just a number of different things, and at the end of the week, we’ll add them all up and whoever got the leading score, as long as that person wasn’t late for anything or missed any appointments, then they’ re the ‘Cane of the Week and they’ll wear a slightly different jersey than everybody else for the next week, as long as they stay on time and do everything.
“It’s a high standard and it’s a way for us to evaluate, set a tone, and the guys compete like crazy for that jersey.”
Dalger has actually been ‘Cane of the Week for the last two weeks and while he downplayed how much he tries to win it, he acknowledged that it’s a nice reward for doing well during practice.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s something that I just strive for,” said Dalger, who averaged 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game last season. “But I do try to make sure that I bring it every day in practice , do the things that I have to do every day to get ready for the season coming up, with the big role that I’ll be having. I feel like it’s a big honor, but I’m looking to do my work when it counts.”
Other players agreed that the ‘Cane of the Week is something they want and that it’s made practices more spirited.
“We got a lot of competitive guys so everybody really shoots for that,” Betson said. “You might even see bigs down there, they’re trying to take rebounds away from each other, so they’re trying to get ‘Cane of the Week.”
“It achieves the goal of being intense in practice but it also achieves character,” Griffin added. “Because the rule is you can have the most points, but if you don’t show up on time for class, if you miss a meeting , if you’re late for something, then it all goes out the door. So just like in a game, if you’re playing good, you’re up by two with a minute left. if you get a technical foul and they ‘re able to shoot two free throws, then that’s the game. That’s why there’s such an emphasis on character first, and ‘Cane of the Week is not just about what you’re doing on the court, but also what you’re doing off the court.”
It’s all part of the process of Konkol molding the team to where it will be ready for the season opener.
“You never feel like you’re really ready, but I know we are ready to go compete against somebody in the score count,” Konkol said. “We had two good scrimmages, learned a lot from those opportunities. Of course, we’ ve just got to become more and more experienced and get some live action where we can continue to evaluate and get better and better.
“We’ve seen measurable improvements, but improvement is never a straight line. We’ve got to keep building up.”