Key for the Playoffs - Toughness


Joe Wootten

With last Friday's signature win over DeMatha before an enthusiastic home following and the playoffs all but upon us, this week's edition of The Week That Was continues its series of one-on-one sit-downs with our coaches – enjoying an interview with head boys basketball coach Joe Wootten.

THE WEEK THAT WAS: Throughout the season, you have questioned your team's toughness and grit. What do you mean toughness in basketball, as it pertains to your team?

COACH WOOTTEN: I think that in order for a team to be successful they have to be able to get a defensive stop, get a key rebound on either end, execute on offense to get the shot you want against a great defensive team. We talked a lot to our team about having the mental toughness, the grit, to do it. You cannot always draw up how to get a rebound, but the teams that are successful simply go get the ball. They dictate the shots the other teams get, and they dictate the shots that they get. It is getting the team to understand it is not the big-shot mentality. We have to have the grit to get the best shot for the team each time down.

For example, we have probably one of the best shooting teams in my 18 years across the board, but can you get open shots for your teammates? Against the best defense, it is not easy, but ball movement, reaction to drives, using screens and making the extra pass are key to success. Are we mentally tough enough to do it? Or do we force bad ones?

Can you guard a dip-your-head driver late in the game? Good teams get stops!

The best teams compete to win on every possession. They impose their will upon the game. Are we tough enough to do that? Early in the year, we were not. But, I have seen growth. I have seen us getting better, and we are peaking at the right time. We can win this whole thing, but it is going to come down to toughness.

Matt Lewis photoTWTW: Talk to us about both your team's strengths and weaknesses. What do you see as the staples of your program, and how have they changed through the years... or, have they?

COACH WOOTTEN: I think we have found balance on the team in terms of scoring. We are now clicking on all cylinders and the players know each other's strengths and how to get shots for one another. And we are scoring in a variety of ways (inside, outside, drives to the basket, in transition).

We have really been working on defense. We are best when we are attacking teams on defense and making them react to us. I am not sure if it is a strength, but it is a potential strength. A potential that must become a reality if we want to succeed in the tournaments we will play in the next two weeks.

TWTW: Coming off some tough losses where we just came up short in the end (both Paul VI games, earlier DeMatha game, Gonzaga twice)--yet, in doing so, we were playing some awfully good basketball--talk to us both about "finishing" while, at the same time, playing good basketball. How so in both areas?

COACH WOOTTEN: I think it comes down to toughness, which we have talked about, but it also comes down to controlling the controllables. Dominant areas that are under your control: defense, getting the right shots, rebounding at both ends. Be relentless in doing so. If you say you're going to guard a ball screen a certain way, do it right every time. In those tough losses, we did not get the stops, rebounds or the shots we wanted at the end.

Xavier Johnson photo

TWTW: Talk to us about your personnel, what makes 'em the players that they are? Most especially the first five and any key players off the bench, in particular Matt Lewis (#1), Xavier Johnson (#2) and Nate Watson (#0) – three of your big-time talents.

COACH WOOTTEN: Matt Lewis, Matt Becht, Quentin Millora-Brown and Xavier have really trusted the process and grown throughout their time at DJO. I think sometimes people lose sight that there is a process in everything you do in life and that success is not instant.

Matt Lewis has gone from a potential sophomore to a confident senior, and Xavier went from a sophomore that did not play to starting. Matt Becht and Q have shown the work ethic to develop into very reliable players. The toughness they showed to keep working is the same toughness that will help us win!

As is always the case, each has had to develop this year for us to get better. Matt Lewis has been a great defender and shooter for us for the last three years, but this year he had to learn to score out of the offense. He has done that. He has also matured as a player – leading by raising his level of play when needed and playing in the moment and not worrying about a missed shot or mistake. When he is our top rebounder on both ends, we are tough to beat. Xavier is a competitor and has great speed. He had to learn to take care of the ball. He has done that. His shooting has really improved (and you can see why when you read more about the "breakfast club" below).

Matt Becht can flat out shoot the ball, but does other things. He has a great feel for the game. This feel allows us to go small as he can run sets from anywhere, and he always seems to make the right decisions. This is his first year on varsity, but he trusted the process and has been a starter for a majority of the year. Quentin is very good at guarding a guard when teams go small and is a good rebounder who has the potential to be a dominant rebounder. If he dominates the boards, it will be a key to our success.

Nate Watson. Nate has a soft touch and is really good around the rim. When he is motivated, he is the best big man in the area. He has to get better at going to get the ball on rebounds and defending. Nate has the ability to be dominant, and he has shown that as of late. If he imposes his will on the game, he is awfully good and so are we.

Jay Heath and D'Marco Baucum have been really good off the bench. Jay is a dominant defender most of the time. When he is defending at a high level, we are very tough. His shooting and taking the ball to the basket has been very good for us. D'Marco is a hybrid. He can play inside and outside. He is a very good defender and can shoot. When he rebounds hard, he is very good on both backboards. We need that from him in the playoffs.

Nate Watson photo

TWTW: In my conversations with you, I think that you really, really like this team. Why so? What makes 'em who they are?

COACH WOOTTEN: I do like this group. They are a great group of guys. They love to be in the gym. In fact, a few of them have a 'breakfast club' going. They come in and shoot before school: Matt Becht, Matt Lewis, Jay Heath, D'Marco Baucum and Xavier Johnson. Matt and Matt are religious about it. It is no mistake that they shoot the ball well. They work at it. As a coach, you love players that are passionate about the game and really want to put the work in to separate themselves. Jay Wright at Villanova has said you want the perfect gentleman off the court and the toughest competitor on the court. We have great guys who are learning what it takes to get it done.

TWTW: It's year 18 in the Joe Wootten era at DJO, and you just hit the 400-win mark. Share with us your thoughts on that significant achievement and what does it mean to you personally?

COACH WOOTTEN: It means to me that I have coached really good players and really good teams. All the credit goes to them. It also brings up so many great memories. I still have great relationships with so many former players, and I am their biggest fan as they progress in the game of life. I believe that what makes basketball work is the same thing that makes life work – and seeing them be a success and using the work ethic, the teamwork, the never give-in mentality in life is very rewarding.

THTW: With the post-season looming, give me five keys if you are to be successful in the upcoming WCAC Tournament and the State playoffs.

COACH WOOTTEN: Toughness and more toughness, great defense, get on the boards and offensive execution.

TWTW: Anything else that you would like to add?

COACH WOOTTEN: The after-school basketball club has been an inspiration to our team this year. Every Wednesday we work with Katie, Adam, Nolan, Thomas, Henry and James. They bring such love of the game and love of life. They are so positive. And by the way, whenever we work with them before the game, we are 2-0! They are our good-luck buddies!

This is Tommy Orndorff, and that was The Week That Was.