BALL STATE BASKETBALL
Interview w/ Tim Buckley
Cigarboy Interviews the Ball State Head Coach
As I was making the two-hour drive from Cincinnati to Muncie, Indiana to interview Ball State Coach Tim Buckley it became apparent that I was in the land of basketball. As I made my way through New Castle I a passed the Steve Alford All-Star Motor Inn. A little further up the road I saw the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
As I thought about the questions I would ask Coach Buckley, my mind began to wander to all the young coaches that have come from Indiana. In addition to Buckley and Alford there is Ed Schilling, Thad Matta, Ken Barer, Todd Lickliter, Scott Drew, Barry Collier, Bruce Pearl, and Jay John. When it comes to basketball, Indiana is truly a very special place and I could feel it as I drove through the rural countryside. My mind quickly snapped back to the matter at hand as I became lost in Muncie and had to call for directions.
I finally made it to the basketball office and spent a fun hour or so with Coach Buckley. I can tell you he has a nice situation at Ball State. He has a good team, with great facilities, good fan support from the community and his team plays in the MAC, a solid basketball conference. They play a tough non-conference schedule that includes Butler, Wright State, Dayton, Xavier and Indiana.
In this interview Coach Buckley talks about his program the MAC, his coaching philosophy, how he will win some big games and about some of his fellow coaches.
CigarBoy: Iíd like to start out just reviewing where your program is right now. After some initial success, last year you really got on the map. Tell me what the expectations are for this year?
Buckley: The expectations are high for the coaches and the players. But I think itís caught a lot of momentum with our fans and supporters in that we kind of finished off the season the way we started it in advancing through the NIT. What that has meant for other programs throughout the years is the potential to go onto the NCAA tournament the following year and maybe have success there. But each year is a new year and we are trying to put all this together again. Itís exciting, itís a new time and a new challenge for us.
CigarBoy: Talk specifically about your team this year. Can you run me through your starters and your first couple players off the bench?
Buckley: We have two, what I would consider to be very high level players in Theron Smith and a Chris Williams. Chris is a player that transferred in from Loyola and had a very good year last year but a year that wasnít as consistent as we had hoped. Those two are the mainstays of the program right now. Matt McCollom is a third starter that is a sophomore this year. Started about 32 games as a freshman last year so heís more experienced and someone we look to see more from. At this point and time weíre probably looking at Rob Owens at one of the forward positions. Heís 6í7Ē, athlete who can slash and has really improved his ball handling and shooting over the summer. Then we added a Junior College All-American, Cameron Echols whoís a 6í7Ē post player who can step out and shoot. Heís a rebounding machine. He averaged about 12 rebounds per game last year. So heís a very good addition to our program this year because we lost a lot of experience up front. Then I would say right now as we go through practice, Rob Robbins is a player thatís going to fill a significant roll for us in that he can make shots and he has deep range. Kevin Cates is a 6í10Ē post player whoís very aggressive and active. We are hoping to get some minutes out of Mark Farris this year and Michael Bennett who are two players whoíve been in the program for a couple of years now.
CigarBoy: Talk to me a little bit about the MAC which is always a tough conference.
Buckley: Well the MAC is a good conference in that I think every team has good players and every team is well coached. Itís very difficult to win on the road in the MAC. I think you could say that about a lot of these. But I do think the programs that have been down for a few years are quickly getting closer to the pack and have an opportunity to move through the pack. Most people would tell you Ohio is probably the favorite this year going in. I think they probably should be. They have a very good basketball team. They have a high level player in Brandon Hunter. I think Western Michigan is going to be the surprise of the league. Robert McCullumís done a great job in building that program the last couple of years and now heís got the talent to go with his system. So I think he will have a very formidable basketball team. Itís just one of those leagues where night in and night out, each team gets after it and you have to play as well as you can and youíve got to try and win on the road because everyone does a very good job of protecting their home court.
CigarBoy: The MAC has gone to a format, I guess itís been in place for a while, where you have the conference tournament played on campuses and then you come together in Cleveland for the semi-finals. Howís that working? You like that format?
Buckley: I liked it last year because we didnít have to play on a campus. We went right to Gund Arena. We got the number two seed so we had a chance to get the bye. I think itís a good idea in that it creates excitement on the campus. I like the fact that we have all the teams in the tournament. When I first got here as an assistant, not everyone made the tournament and I think as a coach, you look at it from a job security standpoint, I think that hurt when you didnít have everybody in the tournament. So I think thatís been really beneficial to have everybody go. The MAC has done a terrific job of hosting in Gund Arena.
CigarBoy: Whatís your coaching philosophy, your overall philosophy as a coach?
Buckley: I think you have to have good players if youíre going to have a good program so thatís the foundation of what we try to do. We try to recruit good players and good people. Philosophically on the court, I would say we like to play an up-tempo offensive game where we push the pace. We like to call it organized playground basketball. We like our players to be put in positions where they can make plays and understand how to play. Defensively, we like to be a tough, physical, aggressive type team who rebounds the basketball and hopefully our defense keys our break.
CigarBoy: Letís talk a little about recruiting. I know you have a recruiting philosophy, but do you have a base you recruit from, like Indiana and you go out from there? What do you look for in a player?
Buckley: We really do a lot of regionalized recruiting. Right now we have 5 players from Indiana, 4 players from Illinois, 1 from Iowa, 1 from Florida, 1 from Ohio. We like to recruit from our home base and work our way out. I think it just fits with players. They like to stay close to home. They like their families to see them play. There are special situations. The ironic thing about it is our best player is from Florida but sometimes weíll go out of our area to find a player if we need to, in order to fill a need. Probably the number one characteristic we look for is character. Obviously you have to have talent in order to play so you canít overlook that, but we wonít overlook the character issue when it comes to talent because if they have talent and they donít have character, itís going to be very difficult to coach that person. Itíll be difficult to get that person to fit in to what the team is trying to do so we really look for character. Then we look for athleticism and skill because we think those two things are very important.
CigarBoy: How do you verify character?
Buckley: I would say thereís usually a pattern or a case history to every person. We like to talk to a lot of people who have interacted with that person and not necessarily on a superficial level but on a level where theyíve been involved with them, either through their family history or itís a coach whoís been very involved with that player. We like guys that are on time, go to class, work hard. I think those are all character type issues.
CigarBoy: On-time would rule me out, I couldnít play for you.
Buckley: (laughing) Anyway, I think thatís important and thatís also something that you can teach. I think all those things all fit into somebody who has good character.
CigarBoy: When you are on the recruiting trail, occasionally youíll snag a player from an Indiana or Purdue, but more often than not you are recruiting against a couple of schools that look for the same kind of things that you look for. You are seeing them all the time on the recruiting trail. You may get a player, and sometimes they may get a player from you. Who are those 3 or 4 schools that you always see out there who are recruiting the same guys you are recruiting?
Buckley: Probably the fact that we compete against Butler, Wright State, Miami, Dayton and Xavier. I think those are all really good programs that look for the same types of things that we look for and they all have very successful coaches who have put together great programs. So you always feel good, even though it makes it more difficult, but you feel good when youíre involved with other great schools that recruit that person.
CigarBoy: What does Ball State offer? When youíre selling the program, be it to a perspective athlete, booster, or to anyone that you are selling the program to, what makes the Ball State experience unique?
Buckley: Well the number one thing people see when they come here are the facilities. I think we have outstanding facilities for the Mid-American Conference. Our arena, in my opinion, is as good as any arena we play in and I think thatís appealing to people when they first come here. I think facilities are important, but at the same time, I think people are the most important thing. What people find the longer they stay on our campus is the quality of people we have here at our university, whether it is our professors, the coaches, the administrators, the students. There just seems to be a connection between people here and thereís a friendly outgoing atmosphere on our campus.
CigarBoy: Iím going to name some fellow coaches and I want you to give me a sentence on each one. Whatever comes to mind. Oliver Purnell.
Buckley: Heís done a terrific job at a very high-pressure place. He has a very easygoing demeanor on the outside and he gets his players to do what he wants them to do. Heís very good with how he handles situations.
CigarBoy: Thad Matta
Buckley: Very intelligent. I think he understands people very well. He does a good job handling and working with his players. I think that he gets things done the way he wants them done but he also gives a sense of ownership to his players.
CigarBoy: John Calipari
Buckley: Enthusiastic. Thereís always a buzz about him. It always seems like thereís something going on wherever Coach Calipari is, thatís the place youíre suppose to be. I think heís a guy that fits what you are kind of looking for in your coaches today in that he has a lot of style and with that style goes a lot of substance. I think you need that today, not only to promote your program, but also to recruit and coach todayís players.
CigarBoy: Iím not sure how well you know Scott Drew?
Buckley: Actually heís a good friend. We spend a lot of time on the phone together and we always have - when we were assistants and now that we are head coaches. Very enthusiastic, very persistent! I think heís been able to find a niche in recruiting and heís taken advantage of that and as theyíve had more success. Now theyíve been able to recruit very well in Indiana and the surrounding states. I think heís going to be a ball of energy. I think his players are really going to enjoy working with him. I think he made an outstanding hire in Mike Heideman, the former head coach at Green Bay. Thatís going to give him that rock on the bench in someone he can lean on in tough times.
CigarBoy: Mike Brey
Buckley: Easy going. Very friendly. Very humble. Doesnít look as though heís the head coach at Notre Dame and doesnít carry himself that way, which I admire. Heís a regular guy in a very high profile situation. He has done an unbelievable job at Notre Dame and heís been able to keep that momentum going that got started his first year. Heís a coach that I definitely keep a close eye on what they are doing, not only with basketball but also off the court with recruiting things.
CigarBoy: Larry Farmer
Buckley: I know him a little bit, not a lot. Very nice guy. I think that heís done a really good job in the city of Chicago where heís kind of looked at as an outsider. The one thing I can say about Larry Farmer is heís a winner. Anyone that is 89 - 1 as a player, has to have some kind of characteristic about him that makes him that successful.
CigarBoy: Jimmy Collins
Buckley: Dynamic personality. Someone that everyone gets along with. He has a way of disarming people. He really relates to the kids even though he might be a generation removed. I think he gets them to play in an organized fashion although he allows his talented players to play to the level they can play at and doesnít restrict them within his structure. I think he has a very good coaching staff. Assistant wise, I think he attracts good people.
CigarBoy: Barry Collier
Buckley: The thing that Iím most impressed with Barry Collier is what has gone on at Butler since heís left. I think he laid the foundation for them to have greatness. The people that have been in place since heís been gone have done a terrific job in their own rite, but when you put together a program and you build a program, when you leave, you wouldnít hope that it would fall apart. You would hope that it would thrive and get better and thatís what he did there and I know thatís what heíll do at Nebraska. Heís a very bright guy, very disciplined type person, has a disciplined program I think for the betterment of the players that are in it. I think heís a very good role model for his players.
CigarBoy: Bob Huggins
Buckley: I think heís a guy who is who he is and if you are going to be a successful coach thatís what you have to be. I think people get caught up in too many of the other things with him because of the way his personality is. He is who he is and he has to be that way. Heís not trying to be phony. But I think heís an outstanding coach. Heís really brought, in my opinion, strength training to college basketball. I think a lot of people look at how big and strong his players are and yet they are still basketball players. His dominance in Conference USA and the great Midwest is unparalleled. I donít think heís ever not won the conference championship. I admire that. I also admire the fact that last year, they werenít picked to do very much, and it was arguable if not his best year ever in coaching and I think that says a lot about him as a person and as a coach.
CigarBoy: Charlie Coles
Buckley: Definitely very entertaining. Probably one of the better human beings that youíll meet and at the same time, in my opinion, an outstanding coach in that his teams are always prepared. His teams are always a difficult match-up for us and their opponents. I think his players have tremendous respect for him. Charlieís one of those guys that, you donít ever like to loose to, but if youíre going to get beat, and you get beat by a guy like Charlie Coles, you donít take it as bad as you would somebody else just because of how he is. Heís all about the game and heís all about the players and not just Miami even though Miami is his school and one that he represents very well and is very proud of. He pulls for other guys in the league whether itís other coaches or players. I think heís a great representation of what college basketball should be like.
CigarBoy: Ed Schilling
Buckley: I think the first thing that comes off to me about Ed is that he has his priorities in order. I think his family is really important to him. I think his faith is really important to him and heís not afraid to tell you that. At the same time, basketball is very important to him. When you are around Ed, you feel at ease and you feel comfortable because I think heís a good friend. Heís willing to share things with people whether itís basketball, or his faith or his family. Heís very open and I think when you are open and you are vulnerable, thatís a good quality to have because I think people feel comfortable around you. I know his players love to play for him. Weíve scheduled Wright State. Weíre actually going to play a four-year series because of our tremendous respect for him and his program. What heís been able to do at Wright State, in my opinion, has been very impressive.
CigarBoy: Phil Martelli
Buckley: He obviously has the best coachís show in college basketball. We had to study a lot of film on St. Joeís when we played them in the NIT. I think they are a very well coached basketball team. I think he adapts very well to his personnel from year to year. They run really good stuff and youíve really got to be on your toes defensively because theyíll take advantage of mismatches. I think heís a very good recruiter because heís a good communicator and I think St. Joeís has the potential to be a perennial power in the Atlantic 10.
CigarBoy: Todd Lickliter
Buckley: Todd is somebody that I think came into a very difficult situation. How are you going to top what Thad had done the year before? I think he came in and handled that whole situation very well in that heís a humble person. He wonít take any of the credit although I think he deserves a lot of it. I think his players really bought into him and when they wanted him to get the job they didnít go in there and say, ďif he doesnít get the job weíre leaving, they just kind of said, Coach Lickliterís the guy we want to run this program.Ē Heís a Butler guy. He understands the Butler way and heíll continue the legacy here. Obviously heís done that and I donít see that changing at all. Heís also had great experiences where heís been a high school coach before. Heís been around the college circles as an assistant. Heís a big Five Star Camp guy, so heís had great experiences that have really lent themselves to him having the success heís having at Butler.
CigarBoy: Bruiser Flint
Buckley: Very personable guy. Had a lot to do with the building of the UMass program when John Calipari first got it. I think that we as coaches take too much of the heat and we get too much of the credit but for UMass to continue at the pace they were continuing at when John Calipari was there, itís hard to continue. I think Bruiser did a very good job, an almost under-appreciated job at some point because I thought his teams played hard. I thought he had talent. It thought they competed and now that heís made the move to Drexel, they had a great year. I think he was coach of the year and I think heís just a rising young star in our business. To handle that adverse situation very well and he took his program and his system and made it successful at Drexel.
CigarBoy: He was coach of the year!
Buckley: Yeah thatís what I thought.
CigarBoy: One of the toughest things a coach has to do is come up with a scheduling philosophy that produces wins, leads to the NCAA, keeps the fans happy, and maybe helps you get on TV and generate some money too. Whatís your scheduling philosophy?
Buckley: Well, we like to play as quality an opponent as we can play. Obviously at our level, if you can get a high major program that benefits the excitement or the buzz about your program, especially for that year. But we also understand what the high major situations are like. For them to leave and go somewhere costs them money because they could be making money at a home game, even if they bought somebody in. Weíve been fortunate enough over the last few years here at Ball State to bring in teams like Michigan and Old Miss, and teams like that. Weíve got Indiana coming in this year. We want to play as competitive a schedule as we can play and one that mirrors what the Mid-American conference is going to be like so that it helps prepare us for that conference season.
CigarBoy: You scheduled Dayton for one time at their place. I gottaí ask you this: usually when people play a money game itís not against another mid-major. Youíre a high mid-major and I would call them kind of a high mid-major and usually if you go and play a money game you go to Cincinnati or Indiana or Ohio State. Itís kind of rare that you schedule a money game against as school that is in about the same hierarchy place that you are. How did that come about and when was the decision made to schedule Dayton like that?
Buckley: Well, I think the biggest thing is the proximity. Itís easy for our fans to get down there and watch us play at Dayton. Dayton has a great environment down there. We have a lot of respect for Oliver Purnell and his program. We think itís a good game for us. I happen to think Dayton is one of those schools that can compete with anyone in one of the major conferences. It just happens that their league isnít viewed like the Big 10 or the ACC or the SCC, but the higher level teams in that conference could probably compete in those other leagues. So thatís how we look at the Dayton game.
CigarBoy: Let me expand on that a little more. As you look at Dayton, what do you have to do going into Dayton to beat Dayton?
Buckley: Well the first thing you have to do is block out the crowd. I think itís a really tough environment to play in. I think that Dayton does a really good job of blending their inside/outside game so you can never relax defensively because they can attack you from so many different ways. Youíve got to be prepared for Dayton because Dayton might throw something at you defensively coming out of a time-out that can change what you talked about during your time-out. They might throw a trap at you or something different so youíve got to be aware of that. Youíve got to be ready to attack that.
CigarBoy: What do have to do to go into Xavier and beat them?
Buckley: Weíll probably have to play the perfect game. (Chuckle). In my opinion, Xavier is my dark horse to go play in the Final Four this year. I think they have two NBA players in David West and Romain Sato. I think they are very well coached. I think now, more than ever, theyíve grasped the system because itís a little bit different and Thad plays differently. Now those guys understand how they want to play and they are going to be a very difficult match up. Youíve got to hope that they arenít playing as well as they are capable of and youíve got to hope that you are playing as well as you are capable of.
CigarBoy: Wait until you see that crowd in Cintas. You think Daytonís bad, itís at least as loud. What about Butler? What do you have to do to beat Butler?
Buckley: Well, first of all Thomas Jackson and Rylan Hainje leaving helps, but then they still have Brandon Miller and Cornette and some other fine players so the system keeps going at Butler and they just plug the personnel in. Weíve got to play better basketball. Two years ago they just flat out beat us. They played better and we were still a little discombobulated. It was still early in my tenure here. We were still trying to understand how we wanted to play. Then when they came here and played, they were coming off a tough stretch and they just have a great toughness. I think thatís where our team needs to get to the point where night in and night out we are a very tough basketball team to play against. I wouldnít say you want to match Butlerís toughness, but youíve got to go in and play with that kind of toughness.
CigarBoy: Is that a long time series with Butler. Have you been playing for years and years?
Buckley: I think itís been an 80-year series so weíll probably just keep going.
CigarBoy: I know as conference team, you probably know each other inside and out, thereís probably not a special strategy but talk to me a little bit about what it takes beat Miami.
Buckley: Well, we havenít done that in the last 10 years over at Millett Hall, so weíve got to figure out a way to do that. Two years ago we were up 7 with 3 minutes to go and got beat over there, so we didnít do a good job of protecting the lead. Last year we got down early. They came right at us and put it on us. We had a shot at the buzzer for three to tie it, so we ended up loosing by three. Then we beat them here and we beat them in the conference tournament which we are really proud of because Miami has been to five straight championship games in the MAC tournament and we were able to break that string. Coach Colesí team is always well prepared. Itís a big contrast in styles in that, we like to run, and they donít. They like to run half court offense and grind it out. What I think his teams have been really good at against us is scoring late in the shot clock because what they do is they wear you down, and wear you down, and then they find an opening and make a play.
CigarBoy: One of the biggest controversies in mid-major basketball (I hate that term but for lack of a better term) when you say mid-major you think of a Butler, a Wright State, Ball State, and Dayton. The NCAA, for the last three years, has put a lot of emphasis on RPI which means for mid-majors youíve got to schedule up or youíve got to get them somehow to play you and you canít get them to come to your place so you are kind of in a Catch 22. What are your thoughts on the NCAA selection process and what do you think it ought to be?
Buckley: Well, I think itís a hard job, I really do. They are limited to 65 teams now and you canít please everybody is the way I look at it. I think if you know the rules, you donít have to agree with them, but youíve got to play by them. If you know them and you play by them, and our rules are you better win the conference tournament or youíre not guaranteed you are going to get in. Last year we had the 15th toughest, non-conference schedule in the country and we went 7-4. Bowling Green had the 207th rated non-conference schedule and they won all of them, and neither one of us got in. So what are you suppose to do? You really donít know. Youíve just got to play the games. The problem we face with the RPI is anytime you play in your league your RPI goes down where as anytime youíre in the Big 10 or the ACC, your RPI goes up. So it hurts us as we play conference games with the RPI. But people who know our league understand that itís a very tough league and we canít stub our toe at all. Weíve got to win all the games in order to get that at-large bid. Itís harder to do. I was at Wisconsin. We were a 7th place Big 10 team one year and we got in. So Iíve been on the other side of it as well. Itís hard to say. I think it would help if we had someone from our conference on the committee. Missouri Valley had someone on there the last 5 years and I think 4 or 5 years, Missouri Valley had 2 teams in there. Iím not saying that thatís a political advantage but when you have someone on the inside who understands what you need and what the criteria is, maybe that helps your league.
CigarBoy: Coach, the two hours a day that you are not actually engaged in basketball activities, what do you spend time doing?
Buckley: Actually, my hobby is basketball. I like to watch NBA games. I like to talk basketball with people. I enjoy doing things with my family. I come from a family that worked from 9-5 so family was always around and with my job, Iím not always around so itís important that when Iím home that I have quality time with my family. I play Barbieís and Polly Pocketís with my daughters so I guess thatís a hobby. (chuckling) I do like to play golf a little although I donít play much of it and Iím not very good at it.
CigarBoy: One thing about coaches is they travel a lot. They see a lot of country from Boston to San Francisco, so itís always good to ask the coach where to eat. So my next question to you is give me your top 5 restaurants, they can be anywhere.
Buckley: My number one place to be St. Elmoís Steakhouse in Indianapolis. I like Buca De Beppos which is an Italian restaurant which I think is becoming a chain. I went to a really good Italian restaurant in LA and I canít remember the name of it to save my life so I canít use that one. I really like Puerto Vallarta, a Mexican restaurant here in Muncie. I like Smokeyís Steakhouse in Madison, WI andÖmy wife would be better at this than I would. She remembers the names of all these places. I would say Texas Roadhouse.
CigarBoy: If we bust into your CD player, what 3-4 CDís are in it right now?
Buckley: I have the Remember the Titans soundtrack, George Strait, and Keith Whitley
CigarBoy: Final question, weíre about a month off from your first game. At this point, what are you looking forward to? What in your life are you looking forward to right now?
Buckley: As far as the basketballís concerned?
CigarBoy: It could be anything.
Buckley: Iíd really like to see this team have success because itís been built the way we wanted it built and Iím not only talking about from a basketball standpoint. We have guys with high character, who do things the right way. They go to class, they work hard, they are great in the communities, I think they are together and they are doing things the way weíd like for them to do it, unselfishly. When they do all those things, youíd really like to see them be rewarded for it.
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