After three decades in coaching, there’s no basketball problem Mitch Fiegel can’t solve with a borrowed philosophy.
The Collegiate coach casually quotes NBA legends such as Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich to describe his ideas. This season, he sampled from the Fiegel file to help the Spartans emerge from a rough stretch that was more deeply rooted than most January skids.
“(Fiegel) told us that back when he had Maurice Evans playing for him (in 1996), they had a saying that less is more,” Collegiate senior Kendall Reed said. “The willingness that we’ve had the last half of the season to sacrifice our offensive game or our statistics has helped us get to the level we’ve gotten to.”
Collegiate (19-3) enters Thursday’s Class 4A-II quarterfinal game against Pratt on a 10-game winning streak that began one day after the top-seeded Spartans lost to No. 8 Campus in the first round of the El Dorado midseason tournament.
That defeat, Collegiate’s third in four games, was the visual and emotional representation of problems that weren’t as easy to spot when the Spartans started 7-0 but were present nonetheless. Problems such as a failure to share the basketball or to guard the way Fiegel, a defensive stickler, has always preferred.
“Coach Popovich always talks about, for the Spurs, that at some point you’ve got to get over yourself,” Fiegel said. “You’ve got to zone in, and it’s got to be about team. End of story. It took us a little longer than we thought it would, but I can’t say I was surprised because we’ve got a lot of dominant personalities on this basketball team.”
The expressions from those personalities, it can be seen now, were coming from a positive place. Collegiate has eight seniors, players who haven’t won a state championship and who were part of last season’s Class 3A runner-up.
With the end of a potentially unfulfilling career in sight, Collegiate’s seniors played with an urgency, especially with the ball, that ultimately wasn’t helping the team. Fiegel didn’t find satisfaction in games the Spartans won easily when they had a small handful of assists or weren’t engaged defensively.
“We just had too many issues where guys weren’t following their roles,” sophomore Cody McNerney said. “A lot of guys were floating out of their roles, trying to do too much for the team. The biggest thing is we’ve been saying less is more. …Less is more has actually really helped us a lot.”
“Less is more” meant finding a way for Collegiate to be greater than the sum of its parts, to put aside personal interests in the name of team improvement. It was put into practice by senior Xzavaier Adams, who took on a diminished role on offense to become what Fiegel calls the Spartans’ defensive specialist.
Austin Waddell, another senior, asked near midseason to be taken out of the starting lineup to be part of the second wave, Collegiate’s second five that comes in as a group about two minutes into every game. The Spartans’ depth is why it has survived since the recent injury to senior leading scorer Cameron Christian, who is out with a broken hand.
“There are so many guys that could probably start anywhere in the state if they went to other schools,” said Reed, a part of Collegiate’s second five. “That was (Waddell’s) choice to move to wave two, which was a pretty cool sacrifice to see.”
“We had two very instrumental guys in X and Waddell who sacrificed what they had been doing,” Fiegel said. “Really, from that point on, that’s when we took off. Now everybody is doing what they do best, first and most.”
“Best, first and most” is another Fiegel mantra that he can call upon during a crisis. His words would mean nothing, however, without belief and endorsement from his players, who seem to quote Fiegel as often as Fiegel quotes the best in his profession.
“They said, ‘You know what, maybe he’s right. We’ve been close (to a state championship), but we haven’t gotten what we wanted. Let’s buy in,’” Fiegel said. “Getting guys to buy in is about conversations. You have to have lots of conversations, and lots of time they’re hard conversations.
“But if you don’t have them, it’s that old adage where if you sweep it under the rug often enough, you’re going to trip over it. At this point of my career, I’m not going to sweep anything under the rug.”