Tuesday, January 24, 2012

First-Year Coaches Find Themselves in Different Situations

Above: Kennesaw State's Lewis Preston, FGCU's Andy Enfield and Stetson's Casey Alexander

Midway through their first season as head coaches, Stetson’s Casey Alexander, FGCU’s Andy Enfield and Kennesaw State’s Lewis Preston already have their own unique story to tell.

The first thing Alexander will tell you about his first season as a head coach is that he “loves coming to work.”

“I have encountered no surprises in my first year as a head coach,” Alexander says. “I appreciate the opportunities and responsibilities that come with the job. I think as a first-year head coach it has been important to remember to start with the big picture, and to stay focused on what we want to establish in the program. I think it is easy to lose track of that and begin to focus on standings, seedings and wins and losses.”

The former Belmont assistant calls this opportunity the right place that came at the right time. “I was at one school for a long time and was ready for something new. More and more I felt ready to run my own program,” he says. “I got to the point that I knew it was time for a change. I didn’t want to go just anywhere just to be a head coach, but to go somewhere where the philosophy in which I believed could transfer. I believe this is a good place for that.”

Alexander refers to the Hatters (7-13, 4-5) as a team who is more offensive-focused, as evidenced by the fact that eight of the 11 statistical categories in which they rank in the top half of the A-Sun are offensive. However, Stetson also leads the conference in rebounding offense, defensive rebounds and defensive rebounding percentage. Stetson also has three of the top 10 scorers in the conference, led by Adam Pegg (15.1 ppg), Chris Perez (13.3 ppg) and Aaron Graham (12.9 ppg).

So what will it take for the Hatters to find themselves in the mix in late February? Stetson is last in the A-Sun in scoring defense and in turnover margin, two areas of emphasis for Alexander moving forward. “Our nemesis all season has been taking care of the ball,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons we have struggled to do that, but that is the bottom line. In the big picture we are an offensive-minded team, and we have not been as committed to defense as much as we need to be.”

Enfield, whose FGCU team (9-10, 5-4) currently sits in a three-way tie for fourth in the conference, admits that he entered his first season with the Eagles with tempered expectations of the A-Sun.

“Coming from another conference, I really didn’t know what to expect from the A-Sun. I am pleasantly surprised with that I have seen halfway through my first year,” Enfield says. “There is a lot of talent in this league. You expect every team to have a good player or two, but there are talented players from top to bottom. Plus, the level of coaching is excellent.”

Enfield has some good players of his own, as the Eagles rank in the top half of the A-Sun in nine statistical categories. Bernard Thompson (11.9 ppg) and Sherwood Brown (11.3 ppg) average in double figures, while Brett Comer is the conference leader in assists (5.4 apg) and Christophe Varidel is the A-Sun’s top free throw shooter (.907) and No. 3 three-point shooter (.447).

In six of their first seven losses, the Eagles lost by six points or fewer in each contest. Enfield says that provided his older players the opportunity to show leadership, and gave his younger players a chance to grow up and to gain confidence.

“I think our veteran players have continued to improve, and our younger players are learning from them and from the close games we played early in the season,” says Enfield. “After coming through those games our freshmen are beginning to play like sophomore and juniors.”

“Now I think we just need to continue to play hard. We have identified our strengths and weaknesses and know what we have to do to overcome them. The level of success we enjoy in the second half of the season will be determined by how hard we play, and how much pay attention to details.”

Personally, making the transition from assistant to head coach in a new conference is one that Enfield is savoring. “I am enjoying being a head coach. It is always tough when you are in a new situation, and we are experiencing the growing pains that teams always experience,” he says. “Things pop up from time to time that now as a head coach I must deal with, but it is like that at any program.

“As a head coach I realize better how our time is stretched thin, particularly when helping our players do everything they have to do to become the best student-athletes they can.”

Lewis Preston will testify that while the growth process of his team in his first year has not been as expeditious as desired, it is still a process ripe with discovery about himself, his staff and his team.

“I think the adjustment from assistant to head coach in my first year has been a decent one, although the results have not turned out as well as I would have liked,” Preston says. “It has certainly provided an opportunity for growth, and for us to find out more about ourselves as a staff and a team.

“As much as I hate to say it, I have to focus more right now not neccesarily on wins and losses, but on recognizing that growth and hang my hat on that. It is going much slower than I would like, but I understand that we can overcome that by getting after it.”

Although featuring two of the A-Sun’s top two scorers in Markeith Cummings (15.8 ppg) and Spencer Dixon (13.2 ppg) and the conference’s top rebounder in Aaron Anderson (9.1 rpg), the Owls are winless in the A-Sun at 0-9 and 3-18 overall. Preston attributes his team’s struggles in part to the change in philosophy, and looks forward to becoming another of the A-Sun’s success stories.

“I think the biggest challenge for our team has been realizing how hard you have to work every day to be successful,” he says. “We stress with our players that you are not guaranteed anything for the next day, so you have to stay positive and continue to work hard. I pick out Cliff Warren at JU as an example of how through hard work and staying to the task, you build a good program.”

“There are many good stories right now in the A-Sun. A few that come to mind include Mercer, who is playing very well with a great class of sophomores that obviously have put it together. Belmont is going to be Belmont, and now USC Upstate has a good chance to continue its success.

Preston says that for him many similarities exist between being an assistant and a head coach, along with certainly some unique differences. “The amount of sleep that you lose is certainly a difference,” he jokes.

“I have to continue to understand the moment, and remain cool and unruffled in adversity or prosperity – and stay focused. I believe that mentality will transfer down to our staff and to our team. I think as coaches we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. I know that to some point we all have those visions of grandeur, but I have realized that it is a process.”

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