Commentary

Every possession counts for Bonnies

'Moneyball'-like approach puts St. Bonaventure on right path

Updated: January 19, 2012, 3:17 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

OLEAN, N.Y. -- If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Jim Crowley came close to earnestly emulating his way right out of coaching early in his time at St. Bonaventure.

The more books the young coach read in search of the secrets of success, the more the losses piled up.

So to suggest a timely reading of "Moneyball" some years ago played a part in setting St. Bonaventure on the path to small-market success is not to say the Michael Lewis bestseller convinced Crowley to become the Billy Beane of the basketball court. At a time when his program was permanently mired in the back of the pack, a poor imitation of the leaders it couldn't catch, the book was more a serendipitous reminder that sometimes success means studying what other people aren't doing.

Instead of trying to be like everyone else, Crowley discovered the value of his own instincts. And St. Bonaventure discovered the value of possession.

[+] EnlargeMegan Van Tatenhove
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMegan Van Tatenhove, a versatile forward from Wisconsin, is the Bonnies' second leading scorer and leading rebounder this season.

Not that the self-effacing guy with the crew cut will complain if someone casts Brad Pitt to play him in the movie.

Picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic 10, St. Bonaventure stands 17-2 overall and 4-0 in conference play, including victories against Temple and Duquesne sides that were preseason picks to finish in the top three. One of the smallest schools in a league that lacks enormous enrollments to begin with, its campus tucked away in the western reaches of New York about 75 miles south of Buffalo, St. Bonaventure nonetheless makes a habit of exceeding expectations on the basketball court. This will be the fourth consecutive season of at least 20 wins for the Bonnies and the sixth consecutive winning season for a program that previously had just four of the latter in its entire Division I existence.

Recruiting largely from New York, both the city and upstate regions, as well as nearby Ohio and Pennsylvania, the Bonnies are masters of possession. Only Villanova turns over the ball less this season than St. Bonaventure, which gives it away just 12.2 times per game. And unlike Harry Perretta's Wildcats that rank outside the top 200 nationally in scoring offense with its extreme slow-down tempo, Crowley's team still ranks in the top half of the scoring charts at nearly 64 points per game.

The Bonnies don't play fast, but they aren't nearly as slow as the outside world has been to acknowledge their success.

"We're a different place," Crowley said. "We love the place that we're at. We think that from the university to the people to the kids in our program, it's all overlooked. We realize what great kids we have and what a great place this is, but outsiders don't, so we've got to be unique."

Like Bowling Green, Gonzaga, Green Bay, Marist, Middle Tennessee and other mid-majors with staying power before it, St. Bonaventure has discovered a formula for success that works for its particular surroundings. One of the stars of a Sweet 16 run at Bowling Green in 2007, Kate Achter is in her second season as one of Crowley's assistant coaches. What she found in the solitude of New York's Southern Tier was foreign in method but entirely familiar in effect.

"One of the things that Jim really preaches to his assistants and his kids is we have to do something that sets us apart from everybody else," said Achter, Bowling Green's all-time leader in assists. "You can tell, the area we're in, it's obviously a little bit unique -- unique would be a good word to describe it. And that's exactly what his system is. …

"We try to take care of the ball, and we make it as simple as we possibly can for our kids."

If that sounds a tad underwhelming as the secret recipe for a team that has victories this season on the road against Temple, St. John's and West Virginia, as well as at home against Duquesne, Indiana and Marist, and a program with a .703 winning percentage since the 2008-09 season, consider just how difficult it seems to be for many teams.

As of Jan. 15, 214 of 338 Division teams turned over the ball at least 17 times per game. Granted, that's an absolute statistic in a relative world. Turning over the ball 17 times while averaging 75 points per game isn't the same as turning it over 17 times while playing at a pace that provides far fewer total possessions. And turning the ball over 17 times while forcing 20 turnovers on defense isn't the same as turning it over 17 times while forcing 10 turnovers. But at its core, giving away a possession without even the opportunity to score points is about as logical as, well, a hitter in baseball swinging at pitches outside the strike zone rather than taking a walk.

"It's just like if you're forcing people to throw a lot of pitches," Crowley explained of his emphasis on valuing possession. "You're going to get to their pitching staff, and you're going to hopefully get a chance against someone who is going to make a mistake because they've thrown more pitches or because they haven't pitched as much in the situation you put them in. So for us, if we're controlling the ball and taking care of it and making people work harder for 20-25 seconds, we hope the chance of them getting caught up in a screen, staring at the ball or doing something like that is going to get us a good clean shot. Then it's just if we make them."

Crowley's main concern following the 2004-05 season had more to do with keeping his job than keeping the basketball. His team had just completed a second consecutive nine-win season, and his record in five seasons in charge of the Bonnies stood at 44-96. It was then that the lifelong fan of the Oakland Athletics finally got around to reading a paperback copy of "Moneyball." Already wondering if there were lessons he could take from the success international men's basketball teams were having at the time against the United States (Argentina had captured the World Championship a year earlier, and Spain would go on to win Olympic gold the following year), the book further stoked the fire of innovation. He raced through it, gave it to an assistant with instructions to read it, told him his mind was full of new ideas to try -- his own ideas.

At the root of "Moneyball" is the idea of exploiting market inefficiencies. Rather than fight a losing personnel battle against teams with bigger budgets, Beane's Oakland Athletics relied heavily on statistical analysis not then widely embraced by other teams to find players who were undervalued. Crowley had neither the mathematical inclination nor the time and resources to attempt to bring new areas of statistical study to bear on basketball, as teams like the NBA's Houston Rockets have attempted in recent seasons, but the philosophy at the heart of the book changed how he viewed his own program.

Other teams valued athleticism over possession and shooting, so he started there.

"The common thread was they're a small market and so are we," Crowley said. "They're not going to outbid people for franchise players, and neither are we. So how can you best utilize what you've got?"

A lot of schools looked at Jessica Jenkins and saw a high school point guard with a handle that made her a question mark at the Division I level. And indeed, it didn't take much more than a game or two at St. Bonaventure for all parties to agree point guard wasn't going to be her home when she arrived for the 2008-09 season. But what Crowley saw was someone with a good shot and basketball instincts, even if they came in a point guard's 5-foot-8 body. Four seasons later, the senior is the team's leading scorer at 14 points per game. She has taken more than 200 shots and turned the ball over fewer than 25 times this season.

At one of the endless tournaments on the recruiting circuit, Crowley skipped out of the gym crowded with college coaches eyeing the same prized recruits and stumbled onto Megan Van Tatenhove, a versatile forward from Wisconsin playing in front of a much smaller audience. As her career winds to a close, she's the team's second leading scorer and leading rebounder this season and already its 10th-leading scorer all time. Some might have seen a player stuck between positions, too small to survive entirely down low but not long enough to be the kind of wing so many teams crave. St. Bonaventure, keeping it simple, saw a basketball player.

"It's great that people want to go out and recruit the most athletic kids that can sprint up and down the floor and play fast," Achter said. "But when you put them in our system, and you ask them to think about basketball and make basketball reads, it changes a little bit. ... We do have athletes, we do. But we just recruit a different type of athlete for our system."

As recently as 2006, a blowout loss at home against one of Achter's Bowling Green teams convinced Crowley to take the final plunge and scrap the remaining vestiges of his old system. It was, in essence, pushing his remaining chips to the middle of the table and betting on himself. There will come a day in the not-too-distant future when Achter gets a head coaching job of her own -- a former point guard from a family of coaches, she just sounds like a coach when she talks. Yet when she allows herself to talk about the possibility of that someday coming to fruition, she talks about running the system she learned from Crowley.

That's not the legacy of a guy coaching out of a book.

"I've heard of it," Jenkins allowed of the Lewis book since turned into a movie. "He's mentioned it a couple of times. I don't know if everybody always gets the references. …

"[The system] takes a little while to get used to because it's a little bit different than what most of us have ever played before. But once it's in your brain, I don't know if I could play anything else right now."

The next challenge for the program is reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time. Stuck in as competitive a league as there is in the nation, given the typical depth of talent in combination with a spotty history of multiple at-large bids, that remains far from a given this season.

"We feel we have a chance against virtually anybody because of how we play," Crowley said. "Now we're going to need to hit some jump shots to take that further, but we at least have that chance. Whereas if we're doing some other things, we're not sure we'd have that chance. That's more our approach to it."

Somebody might want to make a movie about it.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.