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Fryer: McKnight finds new ways to keep Mater Dei on top
SANTA ANA – When you’re 64 years old and need some help with newfangled technology, you turn to somebody younger.
That’s what Gary McKnight, Mater Dei’s 64-year-old boys basketball coach, did.
McKnight, in his 35th season coaching the wildly successful Monarchs program that plays in another CIF-Southern Section championship game Saturday night at Honda Center, added a video analytics coach to the staff. Shu Isagawa, 36, has added a high-tech approach that is used by only a few of the nation’s high school basketball teams.
Isagawa started working as an analytics-inclined assistant coach with the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA’s Development League. He joined the Mater Dei coaching staff three years ago.
Every student and faculty member at Mater Dei is issued an iPad. McKnight figured an iPad could help further his players’ basketball education, too.
“We can get a chart on every shot we take,” McKnight said. “Where we took it from, what the percentage was of making them, and then we can push a button and show the guy shooting it.”
The iPad also assists the scouting of upcoming opponents.
“With the iPad thing,” McKnight said, “we can say to one of our guys, ‘OK, you’re guarding this guy’ and send him video so he can study the guy he’s going to guard.”
Few high school basketball programs in the nation have the resources of Mater Dei. Of the four teams that played in last Friday’s CIF-SS Open Division semifinals doubleheader at USC’s Galen Center, Mater Dei was the only one using this technology.
“That helped us out against Chino Hills,” Isagawa said. “We knew where they shoot all their shots from and what their percentage was on those shots.”
Mater Dei beat Chino Hills in overtime, 83-80. Chino Hills made shot 31 percent from the floor, making 26 of an astonishing 85 shots. Chino Hills was 18 for an astonishing 54 on 3-pointers.
McKnight has changed other ways he gets Mater Dei ready for a game, and for a season.
Conditioning is different – “Quality instead of quantity” is how McKnight described it. Weight training, once practically ignored, is part of the routine.
“In the seasons I didn’t do a good job having them lift enough, we lost a lot of stamina and strength during the year,” he said.
McKnight said that for too long “we usually had the wrong guy” running weight training.
“Now, we’ve got guys who know what they’re doing in there,” McKnight said.
McKnight’s role in the weight room?
“I just walk around and entertain the troops,” he said.
Mater Dei players used to run laps on the school track. Not any more. Practice provides sufficient conditioning.
The Monarchs’ weekly program changed for this week since they have only one game, the Open Division final against Bishop Montgomery of Torrance on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Honda Center.
This week’s itinerary:
Monday was going to be an off day. McKnight decided to make it an optional shoot-around day. While players worked on their shooting and their free throws, McKnight and staff watched game video of Bishop Montgomery.
“Then, as the week goes on, we work on things we need to shore up,” McKnight said. The Monarchs are 31-1, so there can’t be a lot to do there.
On Tuesday, several Mater Dei players put on green jerseys that had the uniform numbers of Bishop Montgomery players. Those green-clad Monarchs were taught how to best impersonate the Bishop Montgomery player who will wear that number Saturday. They learned the Bishop Montgomery offense, even its inbounds plays.
“Then we work on our own inbounds plays,” McKnight said. “We always add one or two of those for a game like this.”
Wednesday’s practice went about 90 minutes, with some full-tilt full-court work. The Monarchs did video studying and weightlifting. Thursday would be similar.
Friday’s practice was set for an hour. Further exploration of what to expect from Bishop Montgomery would be emphasized.
“We’ll talk to everybody about their assignments,” McKnight said, “and who will be subbing in for who and why.”
Do the players always accept the substitution plan?
“They don’t understand why,” McKnight said. “But I tell them why anyway.”
Mater Dei substitutes more actively than most high school teams.
“We’ve got eight guys who can really play,” McKnight said. “I’ve always tried to get as many guys into the rotation as possible, but that’s hard to get with eight guys. In college, with 20-minute halves you can do more of that, but not as much when you have 16 minute halves like we do in high school basketball.”
On Saturday, the Monarchs will have a walk through at 4:30 p.m. They will board a bus at 5:15 where sandwiches will be waiting and it’s on to Honda Center where Mater Dei will try to win its 23rd CIF-SS boys basketball championship.
Some of McKnight’s assistant coaches have been around for a long time. Jason Quinn is in his 25th season as a Monarchs assistant. Quinn played on a Mater Dei CIF-SS title team, too.
McKnight’s oldest son Clay, who was an All-Orange County guard at Mater Dei and played on a couple of section championship teams, has recently helped coach some of the Monarchs’ section and state winners. Clay was an assistant at UCLA and Syracuse, and he regularly will elbow his father during a game with an observation.
Quinn used to focus on running the defense, but now is in charge of offense. Marquis Washington, at 30 one of the young additions, is the defensive specialist but Quinn provides ample supervision.
Jerry DeBusk is back. He retired from Santa Margarita after 20 years of coaching excellence there, took a couple of years off, started helping a bit at Mater Dei where his duties and time commitment grew until he was a full-fledged assistant. A second attempt at retirement did not take, so DeBusk this season went from scouting Trinity League opponents to again being a game-day assistant.
“Jerry was bored to death again,” McKnight said. “You can only talk with your dogs so much.”
There are others, like Myrond Brown who is a varsity skills coach and junior varsity assistant. Max Hoskins works with the shooters. Chris Llamas runs the basketball office.
Everybody has roles. And everybody’s role includes showing McKnight there might be a new, untried path to victory.
Embracing technology is a fresh route.
McKnight remembers what was said by the late Al Maguire, one of McKnight’s all-time favorite college basketball coaches, about assembling a coaching staff.
“He said ‘Don’t hire people who are like you and do what you do,’” McKnight recalled. “He said, ‘Find people who don’t do what you do.’”
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