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A visit to Mercer practice.

Division I schools aren't allowed to hold their first official practices of the 2009-10 season until October 16th, but practice for Region XIX schools like Mercer County Community College starts up two weeks sooner, beginning last Thursday afternoon.

I had a chance to sit in on the Vikings' first practice, thanks to the invitation of head coach and former Princeton assistant Howie Levy.

Last year Mercer finished Levy's initial campaign as head man with a 13-15 record, falling by a point to Manor in the first round of the Region XIX tournament.

In the middle of the day on the first of October, I arrived at Mercer's gym to find 16 young men wearing a random assortment of short sleeve t-shirts, muscle Ts and basketball shorts working on their two-handed passing skills at center court under Levy's watchful eye.

Nondescript waves of players wearing everything from blue shorts with yellow trim, to gray sweatshorts and red mesh workout gear went baseline to baseline for four minutes at a time, trying to show variety bringing the ball up and down the floor, with a focus on improving their weak hand.

At one point a player was challenged by Levy to "do something else!" with the basketball. A behind-the-back move went awry and Levy immediately said with a chuckle "not that!"

This drill was replaced by a three man full court weave, similar to the five man weave shown on the Joe Scott "Princeton Offense" DVD here, with the ball rarely hitting the floor and no passes allowed traveling backwards behind the man with the ball.

After having sprinted from one end of the gym to the other repeatedly, a steady blur of red socks, white socks, black socks and gray socks, the challenge became to make three pointers as a team from three different positions on the court - top of the key, right corner and left corner - in a limited amount of time. Levy stressed the importance of making your first shot, and if you missed that shot, you better make your second shot. That advice didn't help the ball go through the basket often. The first shot was true. Few followed. When time expired, the team had connected 38 times.

The attention moved from dribbling and passing to team communication. In a series of different drills, the Mercer players were instructed how to protect the basket and stop the ball on the break - screaming (after much encouragement from their coach to increase their volume) "I've got the basket!" and "I've got the ball!" as loud as they could in the near-empty gym.

The size of the drill grew slowly. 2-on-3 defense became 3-on-4 defense and developed eventually to a 4-on-5.

While this group of players appeared to have played together during limited unofficial workouts and some had seen time for Coach Levy last season, all of the drills worked on what many of these freshmen and sophomores had taken for granted in high school. Levy was looking to turn this group into decisive players who made smart decisions.

At one point the play fell apart and Levy was left at midcourt with one of his most improved players, Marcus Jimenez, someone who had stood out to me watching the practice because he was both the smallest on the court and the most vocally enthusiastic of the bunch, constantly cheering his teammates on.

"Who was your high school coach?," Levy asked him.


"Who was your high school coach?," Levy asked again.


"I want you to tell that man over there who your high school coach was," Levy said, pointing in my direction as I sat in front of the bleachers.


"Dave Orlandini."

I smiled, recognizing the name of a former Princeton standout.

The action resumed.

Before moving on to basic instructions about his offense, Levy had the team repeat the team three point shooting exercise they had struggled with earlier in the afternoon. This time they made 52, not breaking the goal of 60 threes their coach had set, but improving.

As I prepared to leave, Levy walked his team through two basic principles of his offensive scheme - setting up a back cut out of a feed to the post off the wing and then re-feeding the post from the opposite wing if the back cut isn't available. The variety of options the offense held was clear, as was the fact that things that are open in practice aren't always there as easily when playing against another team.

Well-executed plays earned a "not too bad" from Mercer's head coach, and anything less meant the team set up from the halfcourt line and started from scratch.

By the time I headed out the door and back into the crisp October air there were starting to be more and more "not too bads."

Mercer plays three scrimmages late this month before kicking off their season at home on November 7 with the MCCC Classic.

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