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VOL. 132 | NO. 45 | Friday, March 3, 2017

For NCAA-Bound Rhodes College, Line System Was Game-Changer

By Don Wade

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In December and early January, the Rhodes College basketball team endured a five-game losing streak. Not unusual because a lot of teams suffer five-game losing streaks.

Rhodes College guard Anesu Nyawata puts up a shot. Nyawata, a junior, considered transferring before the season but stayed when coach Mike DeGeorge implemented a new, frenetic style of play. 

(Allison Bowen)

But this five-game losing streak was notable because in those losses the Lynx had scored, in order, 94, 109, 101, 111, and no this is not a misprint, 127 points.

Score, they could. In waves.

Defend? Not so much.

Even so, Daniel Darst, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, says they never lost faith in a new system of play that, if it didn’t work, would have been embarrassing beyond whatever record it created.

“I’m actually playing less this year than last year, but there’s more camaraderie,” Darst said. “Even when we were struggling, everyone was contributing. No single person was getting blamed for a loss.”

Ah, spoken like a college kid who has never been a college coach.

If blame was going to land anywhere, of course, it would have landed on 47-year-old head coach Mike DeGeorge. This is his seventh season at Rhodes and he had led the Lynx to two Southern Athletic Association championships and four winning seasons.

That was all accomplished running a conventional defense-first, motion-offense system. Which is so common you can pick one up at your local Playbooks Are Us.

So, before this season, DeGeorge decided to implement a new system – one that can best be described as one-part Loyola Marymount offense, one-part Nolan Richardson-at-Arkansas 40 Minutes of Hell pressing defense, and one-part hockey with DeGeorge employing three five-man lines that ideally change out about every 30 seconds.

Remember the five-game losing streak? It’s now ancient history. Rhodes just won its conference tournament title, is on a 10-game winning streak, and headed to its first NCAA Tournament since 1993. The Lynx punched their ticket with a 98-95 victory over Birmingham-Southern in the tourney championship game on their home floor.

“In the past we have been like a mile-runner,” DeGeorge said of his team’s old style of play. “Now we’re trying to be Usain Bolt. We want a bunch of sprinters to share that mile.”

Junior guard Anesu Nyawata, who is 5-10 and 175 pounds, didn’t play much in the old system. He was considering transferring. But when DeGeorge told him about the new system, he decided to stay. He is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13.4 points per game. It might not sound like a lot, until you consider he’s getting this done in 15.0 minutes per game.

And given how little he played last season, it feels like more than enough.

“It was lonely, hard, and you feel like sulking around,” Nyawata said of all his bench time last season. “Nobody wants to be in that situation, nobody does. Road trips are super-fun now because everybody’s engaged.”

Well, road trips are fun for the Lynx. Not so fun for opponents who have been unable to keep up. At one road conference game, a lady just about lost her mind as her husband was losing the game.

“We had one coach’s wife tell me I was bastardizing the game,” DeGeorge said, able to laugh about it. “She was screaming at me the whole time.”

Darst remembers: “And the son was crying and the wife was like blaming us for making the son cry.”

The truth is, not everyone accepts what DeGeorge is doing. He knew this going in because he had coached against this system and Grinnell College used a similar system when he was an assistant there.

“It is a little ostracizing because you are outside the box,” he said.

But consider football. Decades ago, NFL coach Buddy Ryan was a defensive mastermind who blitzed all the time. Made the offense play on his terms. Today, offenses in the NFL, and on the college and high school levels, run crazy-fast offenses that dictate pace and limit the defense’s ability to substitute players.

“I don’t know why some people feel what we do is not basketball,” DeGeorge said.

People forget, too, that the system is not without its risks for Rhodes. Opponents can get into stretches where it looks like they are running a layup line. DeGeorge admits the games are “scary” for him because hunkering down and getting a late-game defensive stop in the half-court is not what this system does best.

On paper, their draw in the first round of the Division 3 NCAA Tournament is a tough one. The Lynx (17-10) travel to Walla Walla, Wash., to play No. 1 Whitman (27-0) in its home gym at 9:30 p.m. Friday (Memphis time) on March 3. Go to rhodeslynx.com for information on live streaming.

The game is potentially a mismatch of 1 vs. 16 proportions in the Division 1 NCAAs, though that’s not really how the match-ups are made in Division 3. And the line-changing system that will send 15 players at Whitman in five-man waves less than a minute long is a new challenge and maybe just the wildcard the underdog Lynx need.

“It widens the spectrum of teams we can beat on a one-game basis,” Nyawata said. “It gives us more of an opportunity.”

Unsolicited advice for Whitman friends and family: Keep a hanky nearby, just in case.

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