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Sacramento State’s Craighead Aims for Big Sky Title: Will Fast Paced, Three-Point Shooting Offense Work?

After a particularly frustrating day in the class of 10th grade boys I teach, my co-teacher came to our daily coffee rendezvous the next morning and dropped Sun Tzu’s Art of War on the table with a mischievous grin, saying nothing about it until I brought it up.

We eventually started joking about how we’re in a battle of wills with “these knuckleheads”, but then began to discuss more seriously the possibility of using the text as a complement to the Civil Rights movement literature we are planning on using next semester.

As I revisited the book with our class in mind, the principle that stood out was fittingly the one about imposing one’s will on the enemy in Book VI:

Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.

Perhaps revisiting The Art of War distorted my perception a bit as I watched basketball during the long Thanksgiving weekend, but I couldn’t help but think about Sun Tzu’s principle of imposing one’s will as I watched the Sacramento State Hornets play three games in Seattle over the extended Thanksgiving holiday weekend, finishing with a record of 2-1 and ranking among the nation’s best offenses.

Hornet Sports Women's Basketball Release

Head coach Jamie Craighead has implemented her full court, up-tempo offense, and it shows on the offensive side of the scoreboard, leading the Big Sky with a 76.7 ppg scoring average, which ranks 30th nationally. The defensive end is still a work in progress, however, as the Hornets rank 330 out of 332 Division I teams in scoring defense, allowing their opponents to score 87.0 ppg.

Despite their defense being a "work in progress", the post-game interviews I had with the three opposing coaches illuminated Sun Tzu’s ancient principle: all three coaches described how they knew what Sacramento State wanted to do and made adjustments, but were ultimately forced into playing at the Hornets' frantic pace.

University of Washington coach Tia Jackson expressed it most directly after a disappointing 74-71 loss to Sacramento State in the final game of the Husky Classic last Sunday.

"They want to make us play their pace – they want to make us play on a 12 second shot clock,” said Jackson after the loss, who also said they weren’t surprised by the pace after watching the Hornets play Memphis on Black Friday. “We didn’t want to do that – we want to play our pace…we started to play that 12 second shot clock too and it was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa – that’s not us.’"

Jackson's comments reflect the common theme among the post-game comments from opposing coaches last week: Sacramento State somehow forced them into playing their pace, despite the fact that they knew what to expect.

Aiming for the Big Sky title

Even in their 101-72 blowout loss to the University of Nevada last Wednesday afternoon, one could argue it was the Hornets who set the pace.

Although Nevada head coach Jane Albright said before the game that they also like to run, they not only put up a season high 75 shots (18 shots above their season average), but also scored more points than they had scored in over 20 years and hit nearly as many threes as they had hit in their previous six games.

Memphis was similarly forced to adjust to their style putting up a season-high 98 points on 70 shots and required a late run and 49 points from Brittany Carter to get a 98-83 victory in the first game of the Husky Classic that was actually closer than the final score indicates; consider that without an extraordinary performance from Carter, Memphis might have lost.

“That was a very good Sacramento State team – their record does not reflect it,” said Memphis coach Melissa McFerrin after their victory against Sacramento State. “But when you take into account how many things you have to adjust to to play that style, it’s monumental for a team.”

In their loss to Sacramento State, Seattle University shot a season-high 31 three point attempts. A large part of the Hornets' offensive attack is three point shots in transition and they rank among the nation's best in three-pointers made, led by senior forward Erika Edwards.

Hornet Sports Women's Basketball Release

The Hornets rank eighth in the nation in three-pointers made per game, knocking down 8.8 per contest. That is in large part thanks to the performance of Erika Edwards, who ranks eighth nationally in three-point field goal percentage (58.8 percent) and 19th in three’s per game (3.3).

Like Jackson, head coach Joan Bonvicini lamented getting caught up in the Hornets’ frenzy.

“For us, that’s way too many for us,” said Bonvicini when asked about the combined 62 three point attempts in Sacramento State’s 80-68 victory on the day before Thanksgiving. “Too many for us.”

It's all part of what first year head coach Jamie Craighead had in mind from the beginning of the season.

Win or lose, the message sent from Sacramento State thus far is that they are going to impose their will on the game and force teams to play the way their game -- a goal of 75-85 shots a game with lots of transition threes in a manner that has already been likened to “Paul Ball”.

With a dizzying pace that seems to affect teams on both sides of the court, Craighead is aiming for nothing less than the BIg Sky championship in her first season.

“I think that once we get to the Big Sky – which is what this whole pre-season is to prepare for that – I think it’s gonna be anybody’s game and I think that we could win a championship this year,” said Craighead, whose team was picked to finish 5th in the Big Sky in preseason media poll and 8th in the Coaches’ Poll. “It’s gonna take everybody – we gotta play back to back nights this year in the Big Sky – but I think that we’re preparing for that and we have a chance to do that.”

Early in their preparations, the question is not whether they are able to impose their will – clearly the Hornets are forcing teams to play at their tempo. The question is whether they can win consistently playing at this frantic pace.

Speed, scoring, and three pointers

Coach stresses speed, scoring - Sacramento Sports | Sacramento Bee

"I'm a big believer in everything is about putting points on the scoreboard," said Craighead, a former Hornets assistant who was elevated to the top job May 1 after Dan Muscatell left to become an assistant at Oregon. "I want to score more points than our opponent. I didn't say stop our opponent. I said score more points."

Craighead's plans include full-court pressure and half-court traps to disrupt opponent's offenses.

"Our goal is to take the other opponent out of what they want to do," she said.

While her pre-season statements could be easily dismissed as the standard kind of embellished, over-aggressive talk from all sports coaches that ultimately becomes meaningless once the season begins, thus far Craighead has been able to back her words with action.

As McFerrin alluded to, the adjustments start with covering Sacramento State on the three point line. Thus far, there has been a simple formula to winning for Sacramento State – Sacramento State is one of the nation’s best three point shooting teams and in their two wins against SeattleU and Washington, they hit 11 threes and shot over 35% from the three-point line.

However, in all five of their losses, they’ve shot under 35% and hovered between 4-9 threes. In other words, it’s not impossible to stop them, but they are going to put up about 26 threes a game and force defenses to stop them.

“Yeah, it sounds crazy doesn’t it?” said Jackson after last Sunday's loss, referring to the four threes that three different Sacramento State players rained on them in the first five and a half minutes of the game to take an early 19-11 lead. “Like, ‘did we know this team shoots all these threes?’ Yeah. But we can only take so much away. And as a team ideally you don’t want to zone ‘em because they shoot the three so well. Well we then have to extend our zone, that way we’re covering areas and not getting screened, not running around against penetration – we’re covering certain areas.”

As Albright said referring to their success against the Hornets, extending the defense “really takes you out of it” because of the number of gaps.

For Washington, the combination of scrambling to cover threes plus the inability to get in position to box out got them in an early hole. Although the Hornets start three forwards and two guards – all under 6’0” – they managed to get 48% of the available offensive rebounds against the bigger Huskies in the first half, decreasing the risk of shooting so many threes and extending possessions.

While struggling to keep up with the frantic pace and keep them off the boards, Washington experienced defensive breakdowns which allowed cuts and penetration into the middle of the defense, something the Huskies don’t like allowing, according to Jackson.

“One young lady, #2 –I’m drawing a blank on her name because I have Central Florida on my mind – went for 19 just on middle penetration alone and so I think that hurt us,” said Jackson on last Tuesday's media day, referring to Sacramento State senior forward Charday Hunt, who was named to the Husky Classic All-Tournament Team and Big Sky Co-Player of the Week. “If you take just that one element of the game and that’s a different outcome.”

Part of what allows the Hornets offense to run well is the play of their point guards.

With a team that starts two guards and three forwards, they have multiple players on the court who can handle the ball and maintain the pace. That starts with the play of their point guards -- Ashley Garcia and Tika Koshiyama-Diaz -- both offensively and defensively.

“Tika and Garcia have been our two-headed quarterbacks and I anticipate they’ll continue to do that,” said Craighead after the victorious Husky Classic finale. “They complement each other really well and they really kept the pace going for us. They gotta push tempo – [if] their guards aren’t running for them on the wings, then I anticipate that they’ll be beating them down the floor on the dribble. They gotta keep up the tempo make sure that we get up lots of shots. And obviously on the defensive end, they gotta be face-guard and make people really work on the defensive end.”

Against SeattleU, Garcia and Koshiyama-Diaz combined for 11 assists, 5 steals, and 3 turnovers. Although the 5’7” Garcia and the 5’6” Koshiyama-Diaz struggled a bit defensively in the Husky Classic, starting off-guard Jasmine Cannady’s energy on defense resulted in 5 steals.

They are quick, able to see gaps, and cause a lot of problems for defenses.

“They penetrate very, very well,” said Jackson after Washington’s 64-46 win over Eastern Washington on Black Friday. “You saw the little point guard from Eastern that’s about 5 foot that was just a little jet [5’0” sophomore Chene Cooper]? Well [Sacramento State] has that same penetration, just their guards are a lot taller. And they see a lot better.”

The constant energy on both ends of the floor and the ability to get the ball to shooters like Edwards and Hunt, the former among the nation’s best from deep and Hunt with deadly textbook form on her mid-range jumper. It allows them to not only score in multiple ways off the fast break, as Bonvicini described after watching Sacramento State go on a 21-6 run in the second half.

“Actually, the majority of their shots were in transition,” said Bonvicini about the run. “Not necessarily lay ups, but in transition where they reversed it and hit a quick jumper.”

Jackson also mentioned that they do a very good job finding one another, which is essential for a relatively small team that doesn’t rely too heavily on their post game. The key is that they have the players to run the system that Craighead is implementing.

Craighead is maximizing the team’s talent rather than using an “insurgent strategy”

As an undersized team with a RPI ranking in the mid-300's that just beat a Pac-10 opponent for the first time ever, it may be tempting to explain Craighead’s approach with Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of using the full court press as an “insurgent strategy” to catch teams off guard.

Rethinking Gladwell: Maximizing talent vs “insurgent strategies”?
...insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David's only chances of competing successfully against Goliath.

While Craighead might be challenging “convention” (although Westhead is leading the charge on this style of play, it’s not necessarily widespread), she is certainly not substituting effort for ability.

Craighead's strategy simply would not work with a team without the ball handlers and shooters that the Hornets have to work with. Therefore, she is actually taking an undersized team and maximizing their strengths while minimizing the impact of their obvious size disadvantage.

Bigger teams who don’t get caught up in their pace, should be able to stop the Hornets, possibly in the manner Craighead described the Nevada blowout last Wednesday:

Wolf Pack Women's Basketball: Pack hits 100-point mark "” first time in 20 years | | The Reno Gazette-Journal
"They're a lot bigger than we are. We didn't do a very good job getting around them," Craighead said. "We kind of let them do whatever they wanted to. They did a really good job pounding the glass. They got a lot of second and third chances."

While critics might use the Nevada blowout as evidence that Craighead should abandon this strategy due to its unsustainability, it probably is the strategy that best maximizes the abilities of the Hornets’ personnel.

Certainly the trip to Seattle will be a series of road games that they can look back on and draw confidence from. However, some may easily dismiss their two wins in Seattle – SeattleU is a transitioning Division I team and bitter UW fans might suggest that the Husky Classic road victory is more a reflection of Jackson’s coaching than Sacramento State imposing their will.

Nevertheless, the key is to continue building confidence in what they’re doing even when the chips are down.

“Stick to what you believe,” said McFerrin, chuckling and shaking her head when asked if she had any advice for Craighead as a first year coach. “I mean I think that’s one thing. Obviously she believes in that system and they’re very good at it. So stick with what you believe, get your kids to believe, and it’s a great ride when you’re a first year coach and those kids are hanging on your every word.”

While Craighead only has two wins to show for it, thus far the attempt she’s made to impose her team’s will on the game as a first-year coach has earned her the respect of her peers while playing a very entertaining brand of basketball.

“So, I mean--,” said Jackson, pausing and letting out a gasp of exasperation. “We’re not surprised by the threes, it’s just their game. I mean heck, you saw them put up 80 or something the other night, right? That’s their game – that’s what they do. Jamie Craighead does a very good job with her team.”

Transition Points:

  • Although Sacramento State is not one of the nation’s worst defensive teams, Bonvicini, Jackson and McFerrin all pointed to their defensive schemes as part of what they had to adjust to. Against Memphis and SeattleU, it was the half court zone defense, while against Washington, it was their full-court press that was partially responsible for the Huskies’ disorientation at the beginning of the game.

    “That’s what presses do: they press you into situations that you’re not usually known for,” said Jackson.
  • Some transitive NCAA fun: Eastern Washington University is currently second in the preseason Big Sky standings with a 4-3 record after going 1-1 at the Husky Classic. If Sacramento State beat Washington by 3 and Washington beat Eastern Washington by 18, then is Sacramento State 21 points better than Eastern Washington?

    Adding to the comparative mind games, Portland State University was voted #1 in both the Big Sky Conference in the both the preseason coaches and media poll. If Sacramento State beat Washington by 3 and Portland State beat Washington by 1 on a buzzer-beater by forward Kelli Valentine, is Sacramento State also better than PSU, which is currently on a five game losing streak?

    In summary, Craighead’s claim that Sacramento State might not be too far-fetched using their win against Washington as a barometer. Or maybe losing to two 2-5 Big Sky teams means Washington is going to have a really rough time in Pac-10 play.
  • For those who have yet to see Sacramento State play, it would be justifiable to be skeptical of the Hornets' chances to win the Big Sky given their 2-5 record -- which includes three blowout losses. However, consider the wisdom of University of Washington men's coach Lorenzo Romar in response to claims that the Pac-10 is a weaker conference this year during UW's weekly press conference: it is not uncommon for teams that start slow in the pre-season to come together later in the season and make some noise.

    Given that the championship is predicated on winning a three-day tournament at a neutral site, it's certainly feasible that Sacramento State could find a rhythm and take the championship.
  • We did end up deciding to use excerpts from The Art of War next semester alongside specific texts as we move through our book list next semester. Coincidentally, my co-teacher's favorite part is the line before the aforementioned line about imposing one's will:

    Sun Tzu said: Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be
    fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive
  • Sacramento State will face Fresno State University (4-3) -- the two time reigning champions of the WAC -- tonight at 7:05 pm PST. The game will be available via video on Fresno State's website.

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