Sleep is not an option for a Penn hoops assistant

Posted: February 14, 2012

Editor's note: To learn about the life of a college basketball assistant coach, the Daily News spent last week with Penn's Mike Martin in advance of the Quakers' game with first-place Harvard.

 

IT IS LATE morning Tuesday, just about 80 hours until Penn's game with Harvard at the Palestra. Mike Martin is sitting in his office and staring at his laptop, watching Penn's home game with Harvard from the previous season, a double-overtime loss that derailed the Quakers' Ivy League season.

"How about Jeremy Lin?" he says, as he looks up.

Martin, 29, is in his sixth season as a Penn assistant coach. He came to town with his college coach, Glen Miller, in 2006. A 2004 Brown graduate, Martin was a player for the winningest class in Brown history and played one professional season in Ireland before returning to Brown as Miller's volunteer assistant. He grew up in Springfield, Mass., not far from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Martin met his wife Kristin when they were students at Brown. On his way to work this morning from their Art Museum-area apartment, he dropped his 11-month-old daughter, Keira, at a Center City day care at 8:15, as Kristin drove to Wilmington for her job with Fidelity Investments.

On Penn's bus trip to New Haven, Conn., the Thursday before, once he had finished the "scout" for Brown - Penn's Saturday opponent after playing Yale on Friday - Martin started looking at Harvard DVDs. After the Brown game, while the team headed home, he went with Kristin and Keira to her parents' house an hour north of Providence in Concord, Mass. They drove home late the next morning, sharing the driving. When Kristin drove, Mike watched DVDs.

He already has looked at all six of Harvard's Ivy games as well as a few others. By Wednesday night, when he begins to condense everything he has learned for the players and the other coaches, he figures he will have seen 10 games, not including a few he watched live.

He is checking out some of Harvard's inbounds plays.

"Simple, yet effective," Martin says.

He starts the DVD, stops it and writes something on a pad. He then repeats that process over and over again, searching for a clue that can get Penn a stop, a score, a better chance to win the game. If there is something specific he wants the players to see, he captures it for the master DVD that he will put together on Thursday.

Martin is looking at Harvard big man Keith Wright on his screen. Wright is good at sealing his man and getting angles in the low post. Martin has seen bigger players who just play behind Wright give him issues at times. Princeton and Columbia, he said, have 6-9, 6-10 players who can do that. Penn does not have that player. Penn also has a defensive philosophy that tries to deny the post by fronting. So the Quakers will do what they do and hope for the best.

He is looking at personnel, plays, defenses. He spent some time Monday checking out how Harvard defends ball screens, which Penn often runs for point guard Zack Rosen. He is also looking at numbers, noting Harvard has made 50 more free throws than its opponents in the six Ivy games.

There is no practice today, just brief skill sessions for some of the players. Martin heads over to the Palestra to meet backup big men Cam Gunter and Mike Howlett. Assistant Dan Leibovitz, who shares the office with Martin, is sitting at one of the tables just off the court, staring at his laptop, which is playing a DVD of Dartmouth, Saturday's opponent.

The day before, Penn had worked on what Martin calls "our stuff." The next day and Thursday will be all about Harvard, with Wednesday specifically about how Penn will guard Harvard, using its scout team as stand-ins for the Harvard players. The first time they will talk about Dartmouth will be after Friday's game. And, he said, the same would be true if Harvard was Saturday.

Martin is working with Gunter and Howlett on post moves, some screen/pop and screen/roll, a bit of three-man game with the assistant as the third.

Head coach Jerome Allen drops in and sits a few rows up in the baseline stands, eating his lunch, observing his big men, who end up at the shooting machine at the end of the court with those new video boards.

The session ends and Martin, still looking like he could play, runs the Palestra steps for 20 minutes, showers and gets ready for the rest of his day.

Martin gets in his car around 2 p.m. and points it south toward Washington. He is going to two different schools to see games, but has been asked by Penn's compliance department to ask the Daily News not to identify the schools or players.

On the drive, Martin explains Ivy League recruiting. There are no "scholarships" but there are significant financial-aid packages, depending on a family's income. Putting a "package" together for a recruit is, he said, "important." The less a family makes, the better the package.

Harvard has a new financial-aid initiative that has certainly helped its recruiting. Penn's "packages" through the years have been no small part of the Quakers' success, either.

The Ivy League also has something called an Academic Index (AI), a combination of GPA and SAT scores. The league has agreed that no athletes can get in that are under the cutoff AI score.

Recruiting travel stories are legend among assistants. The Tuesday before Penn played Saint Joseph's on Jan. 21, Martin flew out of Newark to Salt Lake City, with a stop in Phoenix. After seeing a recruit, he got a red-eye from Salt Lake to JFK in New York, arriving at 5:30 a.m. Three trains later, he got his car in Newark and drove back home in plenty of time for Wednesday's practice.

On a recent Saturday, after a 9:30 a.m. practice, he got a 2 p.m. flight to San Francisco, arriving at 5 p.m. local time. He checked out another recruit. He did not spend any time in Golden Gate Park or a hotel.

"Not too bad on the budget," he says.

He was in San Francisco for 5 hours before getting on a red-eye back home.

Martin is not John Calipari. He is not getting on the university's jet to blow into town for a few hours, see a player and be home in time for "SportsCenter."

Still, by comparison to his cross-country jaunts, this is an easy trip. We arrive in late afternoon at the first school on an airy campus, a place that shouts money. The game is not competitive.

Martin watches the home team run a perfect backdoor play.

"We run that play too," Martin says. "For some reason, it's not always so wide open."

Martin hangs for a few minutes after the game to chat with the coach of the home team.

Then, he is headed across town, following the blue line on his GPS, hoping to make it for a 7 p.m. tip. He pulls into the school driveway like he has done it many times before. Which he has.

Walk into the entrance of this school and you think medieval and catacombs. It is a classic structure from anther era, hosting another terrific D.C. Catholic League game on this night.

George Mason coach Paul Hewitt is in the house. He has a very good team. He would like to have more good teams.

The schools may be 30 minutes apart. The caliber of play differs by miles.

The halftime french fries won't do, so Martin is looking for a restaurant after the game ends and he chats up one of the coaches. He settles on a Ruby Tuesday's near the Verizon Center, figuring it will be quick, perhaps ending a very long day sooner rather than later.

The food takes forever.

"I should have brought my laptop in to watch Harvard tape," Martin says.

The food finally arrives and is devoured quickly. Martin follows the blue line out of town and straps on his phone. It is 10:25 p.m. He has recruiting calls to make, time zone to time zone. As we head north, he first makes two calls to players who are at New England prep schools, then two to Chicago, one to Salt Lake, one to Phoenix and one to San Francisco.

"I try not to call the house after 10:30," Martin says. "It is OK to call the prep school then."

He staggers his calls, starting in the East and ending in the West to take advantage of the time changes. When he gets a player, he spends a few minutes talking about the player's team, Penn's team, school, upcoming games. If he doesn't get a player, he leaves a message.

"If they call back, there is some interest," Martin says, as he retrieves an incoming call.

Coaches are allowed by NCAA rules to call seniors once a week, juniors once a month. In August, the silly phone rules will disappear and coaches can call players as often as they like.

Martin's final call on the ride is to Penn's ace statistician, Stu Suss. Stu stays up late and sleeps late. He gives Martin some Harvard defensive numbers to consider.

On this day without a practice, Martin arrives at the Palestra parking lot for the second time around 12:45 a.m., 16 1/2 hours after he dropped his daughter off. His Wednesday morning will begin with that same ride to day care. Practice is at 3:30 p.m.

It is early Thursday afternoon now, less than 30 hours until tipoff.

"Did you get that email from the kid in Egypt?" Leibovitz asks Martin.

Egypt?

"We get an average of five videos a day," Martin says.

Generally, if something does not pop in the first 30 seconds, it's over. So, if you are sending a video, make a very quick impression. Less than 10 percent, the coaches agree, get beyond those 30 seconds. And all are set to rap music. You might want to consider Frank Sinatra.

There is some interest in a kid from California.

"His jump shot is a little slow," Leibovitz says. "But he's athletic. Some of those dunks were crazy."

Martin moves on from the player videos on his email to Harvard-George Washington. He notices a Harvard player getting called for a technical for hanging on the rim.

"That was never a problem before," he says.

Martin is just about finished now and is ready to put what are typically 200 to 400 of 6- to 8-second clips from around 400 minutes of games into a 10-minute video. For instance, he has 19 clips of Harvard point guard Brandyn Curry but says he will probably show the team between 10 and 12.

After compiling 15 pages of notes, he had put the finishing touches on the 18-page scouting report that morning. He had watched the tape of Wednesday's Penn practice earlier in the morning to see how the plan looked after the players got a sense of what they would be asked to do on Friday.

The report starts with a short narrative about Harvard's season as well as team and individual statistics. Then, it's the game plan, which explains specifics about Harvard's offense and defense, as well as a rundown of all their personnel, plus diagrams of their secondary break, motion-offense plays, late clock looks, set plays, zone offense and inbound plays from the endline and sideline.

Rosen arrives in the office at 3 p.m. Allen is just back from playing several games at "Hutch." After saying, "I don't have it anymore," he mentions his team won every game.

Practice is scheduled for 4:30, with the tape session and the scout at 6. Problem is Rosen has a finance exam at 6. And Rosen's Wharton professor won't let him take it another time to make the session. In case anybody does not understand the priorities at Penn, that story crystallizes it.

Martin gives Rosen a video preview of what the team will get after practice. He gives him a copy of the plan. He talks him through the specifics as Allen calmly and succinctly emphasizes certain details.

The session ends at 4 and everybody heads up to the Palestra. The practice consists of a few drills and a lot of Martin setting up Harvard's plays and the defense as the video comes to life on the court.

As practice nears an end, Rosen slips quietly into the locker room to shower and change. The team then heads for the video room. Martin repeats what he told Rosen to the team. Each player reads aloud the personnel scout of the player he will be guarding.

At exactly 6:25, Allen announces, "8:30 tomorrow, rest."

That would be the morning shootaround. The game is set for 7 p.m. The players are now alone with their thoughts, their impressions from the videos and their game plans.

By the time the game begins, the players will have heard it, seen it, read about it. Then, of course, chaos ensues.

A very wise coach once said it is not about what he knows, but about what the players know. Martin's job is to take what he found out and give the players as much as he thinks they can absorb.

When the game finally does begin, all those videos that could be stopped and started seem to be going in super fast forward.

Harvard forward Kyle Casey looked formidable on video, unguardable (at least by Penn) on the court. Penn makes its first two shots and then can't make anything whether covered or uncovered, missing long shots and short shots both. There is nothing in any plan that solves missed shots. Harvard gets a working margin. Rosen is missing shots he would say later that "he makes in his sleep." Everything seems to be going in - and out.

Harvard leads, 28-23, at the break. Penn's defense, very good in the first half, borders on the maniacal to start the second as Harvard scores just two points in the first 8 minutes. The nearly full house (7,462) is loud even by Palestra standards as Penn ties the game 30-30 with 12 minutes left. Marin Kukoc (Toni's son) gets a wide-open three. If it goes, it would put some serious game pressure on favored Harvard. It does not go.

"If Kukoc hits that three," Martin says 15 minutes after the game, his voice trailing off, spent from the preparation, the emotion, the competition.

The game plan said Harvard freshman Corbin Miller was a "very good three-point shooter."

He proceeds to confirm that with three treys in the next 4 minutes. Harvard leads, 44-34. Penn still can't make a shot. Finally, a few fall and somehow a Rosen three gets them within 53-50 with 23 seconds left. But Miller makes a free throw. Casey makes two more. And it's done - Harvard, 56-50.

Three of Havard's starters, Curry, Wright and terrific shooter Laurent Rivard, do not make a shot, going 0-for-14. The defense really could not have been much better, holding Harvard to 34.7 percent shooting. Even Martin could not have imagined that plan working much better. They are also fortunate as Rivard was open on every one of his five misses. Casey is great with 17. So is Miller with 17.

Penn has just seven turnovers, but Rosen misses all those shots he normally makes. Tyler Bernardini gets in early foul trouble, never gets any rhythm and does not make a shot. Penn shoots just 32.1 percent. Harvard, as Martin feared, makes 18 free throws to Penn's nine.

The effort is more than good enough. There is some satisfaction in that, but none in the result.

It is 30 minutes after the game. The players are back in the video room. Leibovitz is going over the plan for Dartmouth. It is a little less than 20 hours until the next game.

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