Big East teams try different strategies

By Nick Piotrowicz

Sports Writer

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Southern Nash coach Robbie Kennedy tries his best to make his players well-versed in the arts of man-to-man defense, good spacing and boxing out.

Yet for all his work with the necessities of good basketball, Kennedy can’t do one thing: He can’t make his team taller. So the Firebirds try – need, really – to create a very specific type of basketball game, and so far, it has been working with a 2-0 start in the Big East conference.

Southern Nash almost always sticks to its man-to-man defense and tries its best to make opponents do the same.

“That’s how we gotta play because we’re so small,” Kennedy said. “It’s kind of a battle of wills, really.”

Southern Nash (6-9, 2-0) receives its biggest test of the conference season tonight against Rocky Mount High (8-4, 1-1), a team that possess nearly every advantage on paper. The Gryphons have three players taller than 6-foot-4 in their starting lineup; Southern Nash has zero on its whole team.

Rocky Mount and Southern Nash met once this season, in the final of the Nash County Christmas Tournament, a game for which Kennedy devised a plan to neutralize the Gryphons’ size. Southern Nash wanted to create gaps in Rocky Mount’s 2-3 zone with smart movement and open jumpshots.

To a degree, it worked. Southern Nash had its open shots – except the Firebirds made only six field goals in the first half and trailed by 22 points at halftime, well on the way to a blowout loss.

“I watched the tape of when we played them the first time, and they’re just so big on the back line, I think we were intimidated a little bit to go inside against them,” Kennedy said. “That kind of bothered me a little bit. We’re going to try to do some different stuff (tonight) and maybe try to speed it up a little bit, but the biggest thing for us is we gotta be able to make shots.”

More than in previous years, everyone in the Big East Conference has a clear style this season.

Conference favorite Wilson Hunt thrives on easy baskets that come from a demanding press, while Rocky Mount, normally a hounding, fullcourt man-to-man team, uses its some 19 feet of frontcourt to play a 2-3 zone.

Nash Central and Northern Nash don’t have much size, so all both rely on zone defenses for long stretches.

Wilson Fike, even though it is not usually at a height disadvantage, plays zones frequently.

Teams with size already have an advantage. All the other teams try to deal with it and win anyway.

“You just have to adapt to your personnel and try to play to your strengths,” said Northern Nash coach Rick Ruffin, whose team has lost two starters since Christmas. “We have to play a certain tempo.

“We’re scoring 52 points per game and teams we’re playing are scoring 65 to 70 points per game. I’ve stressed to the kids that rushing a quick shot against teams that run the floor really hurts our odds.”

Out of necessity, Southern Nash sticks to one thing and tries its best to make teams match up with its many athletic, veteran ballhandlers.

“We play almost all man. Almost everyone else plays zone,” Kennedy said. “What we try to do offensively – we’re just so small – we try to spread people out, try to get them wide, try to drive and kick. That’s our goal, is to try to get them to play us man.”

For the teams without innate advantages, Nash Central coach Renny Taylor said discipline is probably the biggest strength they can have. When games turn sloppy for the outmanned team, he said, it’s an invitation for a blowout.

“You have to tell the kids that if they do what they’re supposed to do, we got a good chance,” Taylor said. “For us, we can break a press four straight times, then the fifth time we’ll have a guy try and dribble all the way through it. It makes you want to bang your head against the scorer’s table. If we just did it right four times, why couldn’t we do it right the fifth?”

Height or lack thereof has caused moves and countermoves from Big East coaches. The first and second meetings between teams often are much different, Taylor said, and everyone has to stay creative.

Most conference games, many of the coaches believe, will be decided by which team can force a game to be played under its terms.

“Everybody in our conference is pretty different,” Ruffin said. “You have to find what you can do well and do it the best you can.”

Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz