Men's College Basketball: Defense separates Russell from stereotype
An ugly, oversized television and VCR sits in one corner of Jim Russell’s office.
One uncomfortable chair is placed next to his desk, which holds piles of papers. A small dorm refrigerator is in there, too. Books, binders and videotapes decorate the walls.
Without examining the book titles or the spines of the binders, it would be impossible to distinguish Russell’s office from any of his Central Lakes College colleagues.
The same can be said for Russell, who looks the part of math teacher more than what he’s actually been doing at the community college in Brainerd for the past 14 years.
The unconventional Vietnamese native is the head basketball coach of the National Junior College Athletic Association’s top-ranked Raiders. And, in a profession where name recognition is your livelihood, Russell’s name is linked with defense.
And, to know Russell is to know why.
“When I recruit and the first time a kid sees me, I know what’s going through their mind — ‘What in the world is this,’” said Russell.
“It’s the same thing before a game,” he added. “We’re going to go play a game and when we get done I want their coach and his players to say, ‘I don’t want to play them again.’ Does my defense represent who I am? Probably. We’re going to be a feisty, little guy who is going to get after you and by the time we’re done, I hope you’re going to say, No. 1, “We better be prepared when we play them again,’ or, ‘I don’t ever want to play them again.’”
Russell’s Raiders are fourth in the nation defensively with a 58.69-point per game average. Yet, not one player is in the top 25 for blocked shots per game. Only one player (Michael Farrington) is listed in the top 25 for steals per game.
The Raiders are holding teams to six fewer points on average than the state’s second-place team (Northland).
CLC sits with a 13-0 record thanks to, in the words of Russell: “Toughness.”
“This team is pretty tough when it comes to defense,” he said. “It’s tough in that you’re getting challenged and toughness because we will outplay you and the shot clock. We’re not going to give you something easy. We’re not going to quit. That’s the kind of toughness we have. If you beat one, you have to beat all of us. We’re very strong and we’re very athletic, but mentally we’ve been pretty tough.”
And dominant. The Raiders outscored Rainy River by 31 and 38 points, Hibbing by 22, Concordia JV by 56, St. Cloud Technical by 64, Fond Du Lac by 53, Northland by 21 and 28, Bismarck State by 24 and Itasca by 29
One of their closest games was a contest Russell thought his team was going to lose. CLC beat United Tribes by 19 points in the W. Arman Classic at Bismarck, N.D.
He thought at this point in the season the Raiders would be 11-2. The biggest reason they aren’t — defense.
“I don’t know if we’re the top-ranked team in the nation,” said Russell,” But the biggest surprise of this team is our defense. We cover a lot of ground. We are a very good defensive team. This might be one of the best defensive teams I’ve ever had.
“With all that being said, I haven’t said boo about our offense. We don’t have a lot of scorers on offense, but we are good defensively. When you can go 6-foot-5, 6-6 guarding shooters on the wing the way they move it’s pretty nice. Then our post guys, we have some athletic guys and we have some other guys who aren’t as athletic, but they’re pretty smart.
“Then we have probably three guys who can guard on the ball and can make a guy really, really sweat.”
The foundation for Russell’s defense began at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. under the guidance of Don Brubacher. It was further developed at Western State College of Colorado with the help of Jay Helman, now the president of that college.
“Jay played for John Wooden at UCLA and he pretty much told me to run with it,” said Russell. “That put even more pressure on me to see if my stuff worked or didn’t work. It also made me define what I was trying to do and what I was using.
“I’m still using the same stuff defensively I used from Day One when I first started coaching. It’s been successful. The main reason it’s been successful is we demand it. We play that style not only because it’s been successful, but it helps kids develop their game.”
Three keys are the core of Russell’s defense. The first key is on-the-ball pressure. The second is protecting the lane. The last is contesting shots.
“We’re not going to make anything easy for anybody,” said Russell. “If they’re going to make a basket, they’re going to have to earn it. This team right now, we’re not playing 20 minutes, we’re trying to play 40 minutes of tough defense.”
Russell has an argument for all three of his core values. He agrees his way isn’t the only way, but he’s debated and heard both sides of all three issues and he likes his side of the argument.
Russell’s philosophy on contesting shots was derived from an extensive argument among coaches at Western State. The debate was between whether to put a hand in the shooters’ face and stay on your feet so you could be in a better position to rebound. Russell has a different point of view.
“We’re going to try and block shots and my reasoning is even if we don’t block it at least we’re contesting it and making it harder for the shooter,” Russell said. “Now, we’re going to lose position on rebounding because we tried to block the shot, which is understandable, but if a guy makes it there’s no reason to block out.”
“If you guard the guy with the ball, your responsibility is to guard the ball. Everyone else’s responsibility is to guard the lane,” Russell said. “If you get beat and you tried your hardest to keep him in front of you, but you still get beat, we’re going to help you. To me, this is where I differ with a lot of coaches who say ‘don’t get beat, don’t get beat.’ My guys’ attitude is they’re going to go out there and bust their tail and try to stop you, but if you go by me, good luck because there is going to be four other guys ready to meet you. You have to trust your teammates.
“Now, if you don’t bust your tail, well now you have four guys to deal with.”
Russell also learned to keep his defenses simple. He wants players reacting not thinking, but they also have to adapt. Once his core defense is ingrained, then he can make in-game adjustments with a simple change of a number.
Russell doesn’t like playing zone defense, but he understands the purpose for zones and he has a few. He also has a few presses, but the reason for them may surprise some.
“We have different defenses to change the pace of the game,” said Russell. “It’s not to create confusion or turnovers, it’s more to change the pace of the game. If a team gets comfortable shooting or running their offense, let’s change it up so they don’t get comfortable.
“The other reason we change our defenses, I believe when you step on the court you are equally matched. What is going to make you one or two more plays better to win that game?
“When we do a press, it’s not to get steals, it’s to see how you operate. Do you panic? Do you throw it to the same place every time. If you do, by the end of the game, if we need to press, or we need a steal we’ll make that one adjustment to get that steal.”
Russell admits to being intoxicated with basketball’s chess game. He loves scouting a team and dissecting its tendencies. He enjoys coming up with game plans to stop players and offenses. He also understands the give and take of defense. For instance, how do you stop a pure scorer?
“There are so many guys that are so good at one-on-one,” said Russell. “But they’re not good at one-at-five and let me tell you why. If you put your defensive players in the right position, that creates the mindset in the offensive player that he can’t do what he wants to do. I don’t know if that makes sense.
“Here’s an example. A lot of people play defense and their help-side defense is always flat on the baseline. We’re not flat on the baseline. They’ll be sitting if we’re flat on the baseline. To me you’re flat on the baseline, you’re just watching the game. If you move up the lane and the guy is going to dribble the ball, we’ll you’re right there to help. If you get that offensive player to get the mindset that he can’t go where he wants to go, they’ll be shooting shots they don’t want to shoot.”
Two of Russell’s favorite aspects of the game are taking a charge and trapping defenses. He calls the charge one of the biggest momentum swings in basketball.
Russell admits he’s not as confident with creating offenses as he is with picking them apart, yet his team averages 92 points a game, putting them fourth in the nation.
But what Russell excels at most of all, and again it’s a product of being who he is, he has a knack for getting the most out of his players.
“You have to convince them to play defense,” he said. “One of my biggest recruiting lines that I tell all my players is defense is all about your heart and your effort. Every day since the moment you start playing basketball every kid walks into the gym with a basketball. What would make someone more special than the next guy? I always tell them if you show them you heart, your hustle and your defense, then you’re better than the next guy.”
Few have done it more consistently over a longer period of time than Russell himself.
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5856.