After five years as the head women’s basketball coach at St. Bonaventure – and five losing seasons — Jim Crowley was searching for answers.
The young head coach took the helm of the program in the 2000-01 season, compiling a 44-96 mark in the ensuing five years. He was desperate to achieve a winning season for the program — and keep his job at the school in Western New York.
The dilemma was how Crowley could field a successful program at a school like St. Bonaventure. With an enrollment of 2,000 students in a town of only 12,000 people, it was definitely a small-market school with limited resources in terms of staff salaries and travel and recruiting budgets. And, the Bonnies were members of the highly-competitive Atlantic-10 Conference, playing against opponents like Temple and Xavier that had bigger budgets and nearby cities chock full of recruits.
While Crowley was at this crossroads, the lifelong Oakland A’s fan picked up the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis about how the organization led by general manager Billy Beane found success in the early 2000s with unconventional scouting methods and sabermetrics (specialized analysis of baseball statistics) despite having one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball. The book was adapted into a movie, and is currently playing nationwide in theaters with actor Brad Pitt playing the role of Beane.
Despite growing up in New York State, Crowley shunned the Yankees and the Mets, and was drawn to the Oakland A’s in the 1970s, a period in which the organization won three World Series titles (1972-74). Larger-than-life personalities like Ricky Henderson, Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco kept Crowley’s interest alive in the team in the ’80s and ’90s.
“As they continued to survive as the landscape of the game changed with the resources that other teams were paying players, they still remained competitive,” Crowley said. “It was really interesting to me how they could do that and at the time, I was trying to find different things to spark my mind to use for our program as a way we could become more competitive.”
Moneyball was published in 2003, but Crowley picked it up in the summer of 2005 as he searched for new perspectives on running a successful program. Crowley then gave the book to his assistant at the time, Jesse Fleming (now in his first year as an assistant at Stony Brook) and the two started brainstorming.
“Afterwards, we started talking about how we can think differently or how we can translate things like they (the A’s) did to basketball,” Crowley said. “There are not as many statistics or as much breakdown in basketball, but we looked for what could become vital. What could we stress and how could that impact our recruiting?
“To be a small school in a small area, and play in a high-level basketball conference, we had to be unique.”
The coaching staff began thinking about what they could control and practice and stress with their team.
“One of the main things we looked at that isn’t even a basketball statistic was time of possession,” Crowley said. “I have a great friend who is a football coach and always wants to run the football – he figured, ‘if we have the ball, they don’t.’ I started thinking that way, too. If they are more athletic than us and bigger than us, but we don’t have to defend as long, that’s going to play to our advantage.”
While it was not exactly instinctive for players to wait to shoot as the shot clock ran down, they learned the new system.
“I think the time of possession was something the kids had to buy into,” Fleming said. “It’s not always fun to hold off on shooting the ball. Our kids would yell at other if they took a shot off of one pass. That was the biggest learning curve because if they were wide open, why couldn’t they take that shot?”
“Our belief was that if we ran our offense this way, it would slow down people because they would have to guard longer,” Crowley said. “But if you want to do that, you better have people that won’t turn the ball over and can pass and not make bad decisions.”
Crowley began to concentrate on turnovers as the one of key statistics for the team. In his first five seasons, the Bonnies had averaged 522 turnovers per year. Since the 2005-06 season, that average has dropped to 475 turnovers per year. Last year, St. Bonaventure ranked seventh nationally in turnovers per game, giving up just 13.8 per contest, and the Bonnies gave up just 55.2 points per game, the 23rd least in Division I women’s basketball.
As far as recruiting players to execute their new Moneyball-inspired plan, the coaching staff went after players that other coaches found “reasons not to like.”
“What if someone was small or not fast, but really had a basketball skill that we could utilize?” Crowley said. “If we found someone who could shoot, that was a basketball skill you can’t replace – just like having a good eye in baseball. It would be on us to get someone into a situation where they could show what they were good at.”
Two of the seniors on this year’s squad are perfect examples of Crowley’s finds – Jessica Jenkins and Megan Van Tatenhove.
“Both of them love to compete and prove people wrong,” Crowley said.
Jenkins — a third-team preseason all-conference pick — ranked eighth nationally with 3.0 three-point field goals per game in 2010-2011.
“Jessica a very good player coming out of a big high school Ohio, but she was a smaller kid who people looked at to be a point guard, and wasn’t a point guard,” Crowley said. “We were fortunate enough to get her, and for my money, she’s the best shooter in the country. That’s such a dangerous weapon, especially in the women’s game.”
Van Tatenhove, who garnered first-team preseason all-conference honors, stands six-foot-one, but is a very good ball-handler. She led the Bonnies in both scoring (14.5) and rebounding (5.6) last year.
“The classic tweener – we love those kids,” Crowley said. “Usually, they can do a little of everything, so it was on us to put them into position to go inside or outside and create positive match-up situations.”
Fleming gained a totally new perspective on recruiting while he was on Crowley’s staff, something he says he will carry with him throughout his coaching career.
“I’ll be looking for those players that other people found a reason not to like,” Fleming said. “I don’t look at the package anymore, it is whether the kid can play or not.”
St. Bonaventure is coming off a 21-12 record and third-place finish in the A-10 last year, and returns all five starters as well as 92 percent of the squad’s offense from last season.
“They understand they have an opportunity to do some things for our program that haven’t been done before,” Crowley said.
Still, the Bonnies were picked sixth in the A-10 preseason poll.
“I think it really speaks to the strength of our league that we were picked sixth but yet return our top six scorers from a team that finished tied for third last year,” Crowley said.