Sunday, February 28, 1999

Defense thrills Miami's Coles

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Miami's John Estick (31) and Anthony Taylor sweep the board.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        OXFORD — Charlie Coles lost track of the time. He was too busy issuing instructions to realize the full scope of his success; too much in the moment to count the minutes.

        Asked how long it had been since he had seen a basketball team held 15 minutes without a field goal, the erudite coach of Miami University had to concede a gap in his knowledge.

        “Is that what happened?” Coles blurted Saturday afternoon at Millett Hall, proud as a new papa. “I like it. I didn't know that.”

        Coaches are forever pleading with their players to defend as diligently as they attack, and sometimes the message actually makes it through. Sometimes, a team will play as tenaciously as the RedHawks did Saturday in a 69-43 stampede of Ball State. Sometimes, a carefully drilled basketball team can be made to seem as sloppy and panicked as Mr. Bean retouching Whistler's Mother.

A day to remember
        A coach craves days like this, when he can see his lesson plan come to life, for it happens so seldom. Yet if you wonder why Charlie Coles would subject himself to the rigors of big-time basketball following cardiac arrest, you should have seen his RedHawks open the Mid-American Conference Tournament Saturday afternoon.

        “Their second-half defense was as good as any I've faced in six years at Ball State,” Cardinals coach Ray McCallum said. “I can't remember playing against anybody — MAC or Big Ten — who was any better.”

        Ball State, to put it charitably, was brutal. The Cardinals committed 11 turnovers in the second half against only three field goals, and went 15 minutes and 13 seconds at one stretch without sinking a single shot from the field. Miami guard Damon Frierson had seven steals in the second half, and left Ball State's guards so flummoxed that the few shots they attempted were barely worthy of being called “bricks.”

        They were more like cinderblocks, heavy and dull and rotationally challenged. (A skilled shooter, conceivably, could put backspin on a brick.) The Miami students took to chanting “airball” each time Ball State's Mickey Hosier contemplated a shot, but none of the visitors were especially accurate. Guard Duane Clemens missed 11 of 16 shots; forward Marcus Mason missed 10 out of 12. To shoot 26 percent from the field requires a total team meltdown.

        “When you work on the defensive end, you know your team's taking nothing for granted,” said Wally Szczerbiak, Miami's star forward. “You just go out and take the heart out of the other team.”

RedHawks work on D
        Offense is ephemeral. Defense is diligence, and a Miami mantra. Forward John Estick says he learned to play defense at Miami as a means of convincing his teammates to let him touch the ball.

        “You've got to spend a lot of time on it,” Coles said. “We criticize it. We comment on it. We don't let it slide.”

        Great teams win because they are able to compensate when their shots aren't falling. Miami is hardly a great team — even by MAC standards — but it could be capable of a respectable run in the NCAA Tournament if Saturday's effort can be replicated.

        “I think that's something you hang on the wall,” Coles said. “I think when you do things that kids don't do naturally, you've got to sell it. I certainly talk about Michael Jordan and how he felt about defense. I talk about Scottie Pippen and the Bulls, how tough Cincinnati's defense is, Xavier's press. I'm not proud. I'll use anything.”

        Coles identified his best brainstorm Saturday as Mike Ensminger. The sophomore forward did not score, and grabbed only one rebound, but his interior defense was sufficiently suffocating that Ball State's halfcourt game completely vanished after the Cardinals claimed a 29-24 lead early in the second half.

        When Ball State next scored from the field, on a three-point shot by Clemens, it was to close a 24-point deficit to 21 points. By then, additional points were pointless.

        “When you play great defense, you've always got a chance,” Coles said. “This was phenomenal.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at