Winthrop University

Beyond hoops: Winthrop coaches measure a side of basketball that fans seldom see

Can you make the grade? Grade a Winthrop basketball defensive clip

Winthrop basketball’s extensive defensive grading system has made the Eagles one of the best defensive teams in the Big South Conference. Try your hand at grading a defensive clip from Winthrop’s win over High Point Feb. 10, 2018.
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Winthrop basketball’s extensive defensive grading system has made the Eagles one of the best defensive teams in the Big South Conference. Try your hand at grading a defensive clip from Winthrop’s win over High Point Feb. 10, 2018.

Winthrop basketball players Austin Awad and Adam Pickett both flicked their arms at a High Point player as he caught the basketball during the teams’ Feb. 10, 2018 game.

There.

Right there.

Did you see it?

Watching the video clip on Winthrop’s team bus on the way home from the game that night, Eagles assistant coach Mark Prosser would have given both players a point in the successful category.

Because Winthrop’s coaching staff knows you can’t monitor what you don’t measure.

Winthrop Way

One of the driving factors behind Winthrop’s success -- the Eagles are 106-51 since the start of the 2013-14 season and right in the hunt for a second straight regular season conference championship -- is its pair of grading systems that monitor seemingly every aspect of players’ on-court performance.

The first is called “Winthrop Way.”

It’s compiled by managers during and after practices and is used to assess everything from number of shots made to how many fouls a player is whistled for during practice. Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey brought much of the system with him from his time at Xavier. There, the system was called “the Xavier Way.” Kelsey got lucky with the alliteration in Rock Hill.

Winthrop Way stats are tallied after every practice. Only competitive segments of practice are graded. Those are held more often earlier in the season but make up just 15-20 minutes of late season practices.

Winthrop Way is tallied in a monster spreadsheet containing a separate sheet for every practice of the season. Each week’s cumulative Winthrop Way winner wears a gold jersey the following week of practices. Senior Xavier Cooks has lived in that gold jersey this season. During the 119th practice of the season last Wednesday, Cooks finished plus-20, best on the team by a healthy margin.

The following categories are graded during competitive portions of Winthrop men’s basketball practice:

Category

Result

2-point shot

+2 for make; -1 for miss

3-point shot

+3 for make; -1 for miss

Defensive rebound

+1

Offensive rebound

+2

Assist

+2

Blocked shot

+1

Steal

+1

Charge taken

+2

Touched ball (deflection)

+1

Foul drawn

+1

Team wins a drill

+1

Foul committed

-1

Coach’s choice (miscellaneous good play)

+1

Within 30 minutes of practice ending, every Winthrop player and coach receives a text message with that day’s efficiency scores.

“Everyone wants to get that gold jersey,” said freshman Kyle Zunic. “Xav gets it a lot. One week I got it, the second week we were here, so talking a bit of smack to everyone. It’s just a bit of fun to be able to compete.”

The chart includes everyone’s score. The scores aren’t secret. They’re viewable by anyone who receives the text, especially teammates who play similar positions and may be competing for playing time.

“Those guys know you are accountable for every second of practice too,” said Kelsey. “And it makes practice more competitive too because they know I’m looking at those efficiency scores and defensive grading, and deciding who plays.”

Defensive grading system

Chris Mack and his coaching staff at Xavier concocted the Musketeers’ defensive grading system around 2009. Kelsey, who was Mack’s associate head coach, was involved with the creation of the system, as was Xavier basketball director of administration Mario Mercurio.

“We wanted to create a grading system that allowed our staff to evaluate the deeper pieces of defense, rather than just points per game or points per possession,” Mercurio said recently. “What are those traits each of our guys does on an individual basis that contribute to the effectiveness of our team defense?”

Zunic came to the program from the elite Australian Institute of Sport and his coaches there had a concept called a “habit chart,” that encouraged players to draw charges and limit offensive turnovers. But he’d never encountered anything like the defensive grading that the Eagles use.

Ten intricate categories are divvied up among the assistant coaches for grading.

Video of each game and practice are uploaded to the program’s server shortly after they end. Following road games, coaches usually grade their categories on the bus ride back to Rock Hill. Whether played at home or away, the game’s grading is always done by the next morning.

Brian Kloman grades transition defense and effort, for example, while Prosser dissects the players’ performance and effort when they’re the off-ball defender. Watching Prosser dissect a defensive possession it becomes apparent how much mental juice is spent every time down the floor, and how much is spent producing the grades, which takes around 90 minutes.

‘It’s embarrassing’

The grading results create positive change. Just ask junior Adam Pickett and freshman Keondre Schumacher, who are in different phases of a similar defensive progression.

Both players came to Winthrop as offensive assassins. Little was required of them defensively in high school or AAU ball.

“I was horrible at my gaps,” said Pickett. “I had never played system basketball before I got here.”

The system he referred to is the pack line defense. It’s a man-to-man defense, but players who defend off the ball drop into the pack, instead of staying out on their man. Their help defense position is called a gap. Pack line defenders have to be cognizant of the ball and their gap.

“I’m still adjusting to that,” said Schumacher, who is redshirting this season. “It’s tough to be two places at once, especially with everyone moving off the ball.”

If a Winthrop player fails in any of his pack line obligations, he gets a 0-for-1 on a coach’s pad of paper. The final grade is a color-coded percentage. Red is bad.

“It made me have to adjust really fast,” Schumacher said, “because it’s embarrassing to get a grading back and you’re in, like, the 30’s.”

Schumacher got his first grade last July, shortly after arriving in Rock Hill. It was an eye-opener Pickett remembers well.

“You come back and you’re in the red, the low 50’s, not only is it embarrassing, but you come to practice the next day and they’re gonna go at you just because they know your gradings are bad,” said Pickett, who is now in the mid-60s regularly. “You’re getting attacked in practice the next day.”

Knowing it’s valued

One player towers above the rest defensively during Kelsey’s tenure at Winthrop: Tevin Prescott. His defensive grading percentages are plastered next to the door of the team’s locker room in Winthrop Coliseum, the last thing players see before they head out to the court.

“He was just very responsible and always alert,” said Prosser. “He was a very, very responsible system defender for us.”

Prescott wasn’t a physical specimen, and wasn’t even a scholarship player until later in his career. But he was a valuable, reliable member of the Winthrop program because of his defensive attentiveness. Whether that was a product of the grading system isn’t clear, but the positive peer pressure Prescott’s grades exerted was invaluable.

“I think having the grading makes it more competitive because you don’t want to be the one who in defensive grading is not 65 or above,” Pickett said. “It makes practice more competitive, as far as the defensive end. We practice really hard and in games it translates.”

There is value in having the Winthrop Way and defending categories formally typed out in a spreadsheet.

“Your players know that it’s valued,” said Mercurio. “Any time you take the time to highlight an area for your guys and emphasize it over the course of 110 practices and 40 games, it speaks volumes to what matters to the head coach and what matters to the staff.”

As if finishing Mercurio’s sentence, Kelsey said, “It makes this matter,” while pointing to the court where the Eagles had just wrapped up practice.

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