MILWAUKEE — LaVall Jordan and Jeff Meyer walked off the court after Michigan’s 57-40 win over Wofford Thursday night, spent time with the team in the locker room and walked right back on the court, iPads in hand.
The assistant coaches were delegated as the scouts for the Wolverines’ game on Saturday — Meyer chosen to study Arizona State, while Jordan was assigned Texas.
Much is made of the physical rigors of the NCAA Tournament, with teams playing games in shorter spans than in the regular season, but it’s just as much an exercise in study. Instead of having weeks to get to know a Big Ten opponent, inside and out, there’s just about 40 hours to get ready for a team in the Big Dance.
“It’s a challenge,” Jordan said. “But that’s why we have smart guys. I think our guys embrace that challenge. They like trying to be the smartest team.”
It’s not that the coaches are trying to formulate offensive sets and inbounds plays from watching the games live as much as they’re trying to get a feel for their future opponent.
Sometimes a player is listed as 6-foot-11 when he’s closer to 6-foot-9. Coaches also pick up on play calls signaled on the fly, which are either not audible, not visible or both in film.
“Our job is to take what we see, information we gather metrically and then be able to give them exactly what they can absorb,” Jordan said. “You’ve got to give them a great idea of what they’re going to face.”
But while the coaches are charged to take in all the information they can, they need to pick and choose what to relay to the players.
“You always try to give them a Reader’s Digest version of preparation,” said assistant coach Bacari Alexander, who was in charge of scouting Wofford. “I think it’s anchored in strengths, weaknesses, top three scorers, high-minute guys.”
Freshman guard Zak Irvin likes to know the opponent’s style of play, who the key players are and what they like to do.
For sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, it’s important to know how they defend ball screens. He’s had to deal with Big Ten teams spending weeks concocting game plans to limit his production, so it’s a relief for him that in the NCAA Tournament, teams are too worried with their previous matchup to spend much time on that.
As Texas opened up a sizable second-half lead on Arizona State Thursday night, Jordan and Meyer sat in the scouting seats, tapping away at their Apple devices and exchanging observations. But then the Sun Devils mounted a comeback and led in the final minute, but it was tied with 16 seconds left. Longhorn center Cameron Ridley scooped an offensive rebound off the floor and laid in a buzzer-beater in prime March Madness dramatic form.
With the Texas win, Jordan would have the preparation ready to give to the team Friday. Though the focus was solely on Wofford in the preceding five days, he made sure to know a bit about the Longhorns beforehand.
“They’ve got size, a couple big guys, a lot of height,” Jordan said. “If we do end up seeing them, that’ll be something we gotta adjust.”
The coaches enter scouting with more or less a blank slate. The first thing they consider when they know an opponent is connections on the coaching tree, such as Wofford assistant coach Darris Nichols being a former point guard of Michigan coach John Beilein’s at West Virginia.
Then, they’ll look at the team’s last five games and try to pick up on tendencies.
“Who are their main scorers, where do shots come from, how do they exploit other teams’ defenses?” Alexander said. “All of those different things are ingredients that lead into preparation.”
More than any other time in the season, the fate of a team is in the assistant coaches’ hands in the NCAA Tournament. Much else about a game has been made neutral — the teams are physically tired, they’re on a neutral court and emotional intensity is peaking.
What differs between teams is how much one knows about the other, and how they recalibrate in response.
Michigan players and staff took the team bus back to the hotel shortly after the game Thursday, but Meyer and Jordan remained on the sidelines. Like synchronized studiers, they watched the game with their heads perched atop their right hand.
The players’ days were done, but it was crunch time for Meyer and Jordan.