College basketball's preseason crunch ends as real season push begins

Havoc is not created in a day, at least not the sort that Shaka Smart would like to wreak. VCU's brand of mayhem takes time to build and time is not something basketball coaches always had.

But now, thanks to a few NCAA rule tweaks and a reconstituted basketball calendar, Smart and his peers have a little wiggle room. Gone are the days when coaches and players sat pent up, like horses in the gates before a big race, waiting for 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 15 to see if their players actually followed their offseason conditioning program.

For two years running, they've been able to actually work with their players individually throughout the summer -- and in larger groups after Sept. 15. And instead of the hard date of Oct. 15, practice starts six weeks prior to a team's particular opening game.

So this week, in fact, is the start for a vast majority of teams. Yes, that's worthy of an alleluia.

(Although we can pause here and say a prayer over the corpse of Midnight Madness. Lefty Driesell's brainchild is all but gone thanks to the scheduling changes. Fewer and fewer schools do anything, other than maybe a public scrimmage; more and more, if they host a madness, offer more of a public-relations, dog-and-pony show that occasionally includes a basketball; and almost no one waits until midnight).

While the changes haven't exactly added up to stress-free coaches (an oxymoron, if ever there was one), they have worked into a completely different approach to preparation and practice. Perhaps, too, they have made for a better product on the court. There's no concrete evidence to support the latter, but anecdotally, anyone who watched last year's Champions Classic and other early-season games would agree that it was pretty good hoops for early November.

"You know, 10 years ago the first practice, the first time together was Midnight Madness, so you hadn't been together as a team for several months before that," Smart said. "There's a little less of a buildup, maybe, than there used to be, but I think overall, it's been really helpful."

Every coach, like every team, approaches his preseason run-up differently.

Smart, because of his style of play, stresses conditioning. His guys have become familiar with the torture device known as the VersaClimber, a machine that mimics climbing a tree, only there is no tree, it's not much fun and it's a lot more painful.

For the Rams, conditioning has to be a year-round commitment, but with the extra time to actually see his guys and work with them, Smart at least knows the work is getting done.

"You can't practice if you're not conditioned; it would be a waste," Smart said. "You have to get your bodies ready. Our strength coach calls it building body armor."

At UCLA, Steve Alford puts the emphasis on skill development all summer and deep into September.

It's not that he ignores the fundamentals once official practice begins, but with the need to integrate offenses and defenses, plus scout opponents, he might spend just 15-20 minutes on skill development.

In the time leading up to Friday's practice start, he's devoted the better part of his two hours to skills.

"We're really taking everything they do individually and working with them," Alford said.

Meantime, Tim Miles goes in a different direction at Nebraska. He looks for specific game situations he might not otherwise have time for during practice.

"We might work on a different type of offense or some wacky plays," said Miles, whose team starts practice officially on Oct. 5. "We'll spend an hour on the third option of how we double in the post."

Most everyone agrees on one thing universally -- that used properly, the extra time allows for something even more precious than practice:

By NCAA rule, college basketball teams can practice 30 times in those 42 days prior to the first game.

Or, in other words, take 12 days off.

Days off once were like unicorns to college basketball players, fairy-tale rumors lost in the midst of two- and even three-a-day, high-intensity practices.

"I'd say probably a few, if any, coaches would ever give guys two days off in a row before," Alford said. "Now, you can actually do that."

Ideally, the rest doesn't stop in October, either. With more things checked off the to-do list early, even coaches who micromanage every minute can afford to ease off the gas once official practice starts.

And in a season that spans two semesters and stretches across six months, that's never a bad thing.

"There's nothing like basketball season," Miles said. "Your full body of work matters. A game on Jan. 8 is equal to a game on March 8, which is equal to a Nov. 25 game. You can wear your guys out, and, really, that's the worst thing you can do."