New coach? No problem

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The sideline is nothing new to Coach Jesse Agel.

With 20 years of experience coaching Division I men’s basketball – two years under his belt as an assistant at Brown and 17 years at the University of Vermont – and multiple NCAA tournament appearances to show for it, Agel has much to draw from in his first year as head coach.

Having worked with his players for two years under the previous head coach (and now first brother-in-law) Craig Robinson, Agel was ready to hit the court running in his new role.

“The transition has been very smooth,” he said, adding that his players “have done a great job.”

“They have a tremendous willingness to learn and a great desire to be successful,” Agel said. “So that has enabled everything to work very smoothly for us.”

The respect was mutual, as each of the team’s captains praised their new coach.

“He’s done a phenomenal job so far,” said tri-captain Chris Skrelja ’09. “It’s always tough to transition into a new system – new plays, new assistant coaches – but he’s been doing a great job.”

“I’m just upset that it’s my last year here, and that I won’t have more years to succeed in his system,” Skrelja added.

Coming into the season, Agel had a number of goals for the team as well as changes he wanted to effect.

One goal was to win the Ivy League championship, regardless of what the Bears’ chances looked like at the beginning of the season.

“You have to shoot for the top,” he said. “That certainly is our goal, and will be our goal every year.”

The Bears have a 6-10 record overall, including an 0-2 mark in the Ivy League after back-to-back losses to Yale.

But his foremost concern is to make the men’s basketball program consistently strong, rather than reliant upon incoming and outgoing players. He plans to develop players who do not have sufficient experience or exposure and put them in a position to succeed.

Still, Agel said there is work to be done.

“We’re a work in progress,” he said. “We don’t have all the pieces we need to play the style that I foresee us playing in the future.”

Tri-captain Scott Friske ’09 echoed Agel on player development. “Our team’s not very deep,” he said.

“We have four guys in the top 10 in the league in most minutes played,” Friske said, referring to the team’s lack of support from the bench.

The loss of All-Ivy players Damon Huffman ’08 and Mark McAndrew ’08, two of the top scorers in Brown history, last year hasn’t make the transition to a new coach any easier, Friske said.

Another change has been the complete re-vamping of the assistant staff, with new assistant coaches Lamar Barrett, T.J. Sorrentine and Kyle Cieaplicki. Sorrentine and Cieaplicki are former players of Agel’s from Vermont and have experience in the NCAA tournament.

Having the younger coaches “really benefits us, because they can relate to us,” tri-captain Peter Sullivan ’11 said.

“Because they’ve been in the NCAA tournament, you respect what they say that much more,” Skrelja added.

Under Agel, the team has switched from Robinson’s Princeton offense – which involved back-door cuts and more perimeter play – to a high-low offense, where the players’ first look is inside at the post before the ball returns to the perimeter. With more freedom in the offense, players have room to be creative and use their talents to be successful.

The new offense suits the team much better, Sullivan said.

On the defensive end, the Bears now use a man-to-man defense that “makes opponents uncomfortable,” instead of the zone defense that they had used under Robinson, Skrelja said.

Because the team’s style has changed so much, so too have the practices.

One of the most welcome changes has been the rescheduling of 5:30 a.m. practices to the afternoon.

“Those were rough,” Skrelja confessed with a laugh.

“My philosophy about practice is you want to keep it fresh,” Agel said. “You want to be in a positive work environment, (where) people tend to do their best.”

But while the same freedom afforded to them in games is also allowed in practice, the afternoon sessions have still “been really intense, really stressing a lot of defense,” Skrelja said.

Even so, Sullivan said, “You enjoy playing basketball, rather than practice being a chore” and “you wake up excited to practice.”

Agel wants the Bears to be known as the “team in the Ivy League that works the hardest,” Sullivan said.

“He wants us to be a real physical team – he always wants us to play hard,” Sullivan said. “He always stresses playing harder than our opponents – always be the first guy on the ground for the loose ball.”

Last season, which saw the Bears finish second in the Ivy League, set the bar high for this year’s team. But the sub-.500 record, the captains agree, is not reflective of the progress the team has made. In non-conference play, Brown faced up with teams like Virginia, Northwestern, George Mason, Holy Cross and Providence – “tough teams that are expected to beat us,” Sullivan said.

“Our record may not show the strides that we’re making this year just because we’re playing some tough teams,” he said.

From Agel’s perspective, the six wins are significant – the fourth-highest non-conference win total in the history of the program. Things don’t get easier immediately as the Bears ready themselves for nearly a month without a home game, but Agel thinks the hostile road environments will benefit the team in the long term.

“It’s a good place to go to grow up,” Agel said. “We play in front of the (opposing) team’s fans.”

“If you want to be champions, you have to be able to win both home and away,” he said.

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