CLICK HERE to read original article - written by Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Kevin Thomas
STANDISH — Rob Sanicola was a traditional and defensive-minded coach during his first 15 seasons at Saint Joseph's College.
Not so much this year.
It's his 16th season as coach of the Saint Joseph's College men's basketball team, and Rob Sanicola installed a new offense "with no rules."
Once big on drills and plays, Sanicola has loosened the reins while watching his men's basketball team take off. The Monks (10-3) are averaging 93.6 points a game – ninth-best among the nation's NCAA Division III teams. That's 20 more points per game than last season.
And how do the players describe the Monks' new style?
"We kind of do our own thing," said senior guard Ian Mileikis of Auburn. "We basically play with no rules."
"We have a few concepts," Mileikis said, "but we're just out there, playing and reading off each other."
Sophomore Jack Casale of Portland said the team struggled at first.
"We weren't used to how to get the best shot in the offense," he said, before correcting himself with a smile. "But it really isn't an offense."
True, there are no offensive plays. The plan is to take a good shot and make it. And making the shot is crucial, since the Monks rarely rebound on the offensive end. Sanicola does emphasize defensive rebounding.
But speaking of defense, Saint Joseph's has not worked much on that, allowing 82 points a game.
"We're playing well but we still have a lot to improve, especially defense," Mileikis said.
That showed on Tuesday during a Great North Athletic Conference opener. Riding a nine-game winning streak, the Monks led at Lasell for most of the evening. But they allowed the Lasers to rally and score on a layup at the buzzer for a 98-97 victory.
The Monks will be tested again Thursday night when longtime GNAC powerhouse Albertus Magnus comes to Standish. But overall, the new philosophy has worked.
"Been a fun little experiment that we're doing," Sanicola said. "And it's obviously more fun because we've had some success."
Sanicola, a 1999 graduate of Saint Joseph's, has been successful before – an NCAA tournament berth in 2009 and 11 winning seasons, including last year's 16-10 mark. But last season ended with the third-seeded Monks losing to No. 6 Suffolk in the conference quarterfinals.
"We were coming off a pretty good year, but we got upset in the playoffs and didn't reach our goal," Sanicola said.
"We had to change something. We couldn't be the same."
Sanicola was not looking to tweak his coaching style, but to turn it upside-down. He wanted to make the game fun for all his players, in practices and games.
"We used to be play-heavy, drill heavy," Sanicola said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but we just had a feeling we needed (something different) … We used to instill this play (in the offense) and that play and that one. We were the masters of none."
Sanicola consulted with Noah LaRoche, one of Sanicola's first players (Class of 2006), who has made a name for himself as a player development coach, his clientele including NBA players (Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Paul George among them). From his Integrity Hoops business, located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, LaRoche spoke often with Sanicola and visited practices.
"A lot of thought and planning," Sanicola said. "We've scrapped everything."
In place of drills in practice, Sanicola runs scrimmages – 3-on-3, 4-on-4, 5-on-5 – emphasizing different concepts. The focus might be on passing around for the open shot, passing inside and then out, cutting to the basket. There are no plays; just work for a good shot.
Mileikis could not believe what he was hearing at first.
"I was surprised. We were switching (things) up in my last year," Mileikis said. "It was frustrating for a lot of guys, myself included.
"But as we worked on it in practice, we could see ourselves getting better. And in games, it showed that it's working pretty well. I think everyone is on board now."
Among the nation's Division III teams, St. Joe's ranks fourth in assists per game (21.3), seventh in field-goal percentage (52.3), and fourth in 3-point percentage (43.2).
All of this without any plays.
"We play with each other so much, we know where each other is moving on the court," Mileikis said. "We're spread out every time down the floor, (each possession) could be something totally different. It's hard to guard."
Casale, a 6-6 guard/forward who played at Cheverus High, leads the team at 23.1 points a game (ranking 12th nationally), while shooting 50 percent, including a 4-of-8 average from the 3-point arc.
Casale said the team's 1-2 start was because of unfamiliarity with the new style.
"We passed up open shots, or took quick shots," he said. "Now we've adjusted … We've learned what works and what doesn't."
"Instead of coming down and calling a play, we come down at a pace where the defense can never really get set," Casale said.
Saint Joseph's also hurries back on defense, sacrificing offensive rebounds (a league-worst average of 7.5). The Monks use a man-to-man defense similar to what they employed last year, but it needs work, considering that Lasell was averaging 65 points before scoring 98 against them on Tuesday.
"We haven't been the best defensively, but we have 12 more games to get better," Sanicola said.
Sanicola said the defense will be worked on. But the early emphasis was the new offensive philosophy and getting his players to buy into it.
They apparently have.
"This is fun to be a part of," Mileikis said.