You always see it in their eyes right before it happens.
Frustration doesn’t hide well in front of thousands of screaming basketball fans.
As tempers would just begin to boil over — sometimes it was a panicked player after committing another turnover, sometimes a coach after watching another errant pass sail into the stands — Kevin Mackey always delighted in knowing it was time to turn up the intensity even more on the “Run & Stun” full-court press he perfected as a coach at Cleveland State University in the 1980s.
“Oh yeah, you can see it,” said Mackey, now a scout with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. “They break. Some break in the middle, some break late. You see it on the floor. You look at the bench and the coach starts yelling at the assistant coaches. They start yelling at the players. They players start fighting with themselves. It’s embarrassing. It makes them look bad. … And it’s a great feeling when it happens.”
It’s a feeling Paul Weir, the first year head coach of the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team, wants to bring back to the Pit. The new high-paced style — and a replication of the “Run and Stun” press that Mackey and Weir agree helps bridge the gap between smaller teams and larger ones — is just one of many changes Weir is implementing as he tries to put his stamp on the program.
This one, though, is the one that will actually be seen by all on the court. While Weir says he plans to pick the brains of coaches from all levels on a regular basis, implementing this style this season is why he flew Mackey to Albuquerque in May to talk about implementing the unique strategy.
Talking about running and pressing isn’t just coach speak, or so Weir says. And it’s definitely not pandering to a fan base still clamoring for a return to the high-tempo teams coached by “Stormin” Norm Ellenberger.
“I’m not sitting here saying we’re going to play that style because I want to be like Norm or we just want to just appease the fans,” Weir said. “We’re going to do that style because it gives us our best chance to win.
“I mean, the reality is we are a little undersized. The reality is we lack one or two McDonalds All-Americans on our team. What we have is our depth. What we have is our teamwork. What we have is our elevation. What we have is our speed, our shooting ability. So those kinds of things are going to lend themselves to success. I’m not here trying to propel some cause just to make nostalgic people happy.
“I’m here to win. That’s really what it’s about.”
Run and Stun
So what, then, is this “Run and Stun” full-court press, exactly?
Teams talk about pressing all the time. Does this approach actually work?
It did in 1986 when Mackey led tiny Cleveland State to a 29-win season and an NCAA Tournament berth where his 14th-seeded Vikings upset No. 3 seed Indiana led by a coach named Bobby Knight and some guard named Steve Alford, the former UNM coach who once had Weir on his staff at Iowa more than a decade ago.
That Cleveland State team went on to the Sweet 16 and was a one-point loss to David Robinson and Navy away from an Elite 8 appearance.
“On their case. In their face. Take away their space,” Mackey says through his thick Boston accent. “You trap the ball. Two on the ball. Two in the passing lane. One back. …
“It’s a lot of fun for the fans. It’s great for the players. It’s high energy, all over the court. The only one in the country that is doing it now is West Virginia. And they’ve had terrific success.”
So why, then, aren’t more teams trying it if it helps teams like Cleveland State in the ’80s and has recently helped Bob Huggins get West Virginia back into national title discussions?
“When it comes down to actually doing it, it’s hard for guys to pull the trigger because it goes against a lot of their DNA,” Mackey said. “Coaches are afraid it’s going to be a layup drill. They’re afraid to extend their defense. That’s why it’s not in most coaches’ DNA. They’re interested in it. They explore it then in the end, they choose not to do it.”
Will Weir do the same?
UNM is certainly preparing physically in the offseason as though they’ll be running and playing high-pressure defense like never before. And Weir has even started contemplating adding to the opposing team’s locker room an oxygen tank and a warning sign similar to the one played over the public address system before each home game cautioning players about over exerting themselves at such a high elevation.
So, for now, he says he’s committed.
On May 13, Weir flew Mackey out to Albuquerque where the coaches broke down two game films: The 1986 win over Indiana and the Dec. 3, 2016, West Virginia road win over then No. 6 Virginia.
Both games clearly showed one team — the underdog — dictating the tempo and overwhelming its opponent.
“That’s it. The defense sets the tone. Every night, you control the tempo,” Mackey said. “(At Cleveland State,) we led the country in turning the other team over and West Virginia does that all the time now.”
Bridging the gap
Mackey says smaller or less talented teams can bridge the gap by playing this style. That is, of course, if there is genuine buy in from the players.
“With substitutions, the coach can control the effort,” Mackey said. “You can’t have one foot in on this.”
Weir understands the potential pitfalls of committing to the level of pressing the “Run and Stun” defense entails. Without depth, with foul trouble, with any injuries, the Lobos could see opponents easily break the press then take advantage of a defense that is too spread out all over the court to prevent easy shots.
“At this point, we’re going to do it no matter what,” Weir said in July when the team still had three open scholarships and no player taller than 6-foot-9.
Since that time, UNM has filled those scholarships, including a third player who stands 6-9. But this is still one of the Mountain West’s smaller teams.
“We’re not going to find a true back to the basket ‘Five’ (center) that we would really change things for. I mean if Tim Williams had another year of eligibility, you utilize somebody like that — a gifted low post back to the basket player. You would never want to not use a player like that.”
Weir sees this Lobos roster as versatile and committed enough to be a potentially perfect fit to utilize full-time pressing that has never been done in the Pit.
“I would say that after made baskets, we will be doing this 100 percent of the time,” Weir said.
“I think it can be a terrific brand for us.”