After a season-low 38 points in the loss at St. Johnsbury a couple of weeks ago, Rice Memorial High School boys basketball coach Paul Pecor delivered this message to his team:
“We are good enough to win a lot of games, but I don’t think we are good enough to win the state championship,” said the 10th-year coach who has led the Green Knights to three Division I crowns.
With a flex offense that was run through the team’s stars, Casey Tipson and Marcus Willingham, holdovers from the 2011 title team, the Green Knights outscored opponents by nearly 15 points in a 7-0 start this winter. Then Rice hit a brick wall against talented St. Johnsbury.
“It looked good early, but then all of sudden you meet a team that is good defensively like St. Johnsbury,” Pecor said. “It immediately turned into a lot of 1-on-1s and it led to a ton of bad shots, a ton of turnovers. On the way home from St. Johnsbury I thought this isn’t going to work.”
In an anticipated matchup of undefeated teams, St. Johnsbury humbled Rice and, in Pecor’s words, exposed its offensive shortcomings. While Pecor’s honesty to his players had substance, his plan was bold: Blow up the offense.
“I told them, ‘I’m scrapping the offense, it’s gone,'” Pecor said.
In its place, Pecor switched to an attack that allows for more spacing on the floor, more ball movement and, in theory, more opportunities for role players to step up and provide balanced scoring.
“It’s too hard to try to win in D-I when you only have two guys,” Pecor said. “You gotta have more options than that or teams are going to get you.”
Rice played one more game after the St. Johnsbury loss — a win at North County — before taking advantage of an extended break to install and work on its new offense, which made its debut last Saturday at home against Mount Mansfield.
The Green Knights scored 20 more points than they did in the first meeting with MMU, earning a 71-52 victory. Earlier this week, Rice ran past the Falcons in a 75-38 victory, a game in which sophomore James Wells recorded a triple-double.
“Coach Pecor knows what he’s talking about. We’ve worked on it all week in practice and I was feeling good about it,” said Tipson, who reached 1,000 career points in the MMU win. “This is definitely a good sign for us.”
While looking for new offenses, Pecor asked his roommate, Kyle Cieplicki, a former Rice standout and assistant coach with the University of Vermont men’s basketball team, to watch tape of the Catamounts’ opponents. Pecor came across film of Albany’s offense and was impressed.
“It’s Will Brown’s offense,” said Pecor, referring to the Albany head coach. “I thought, ‘this fits my personnel. This is great, I love it.’ It just kind of clicked for us.”
The Green Knights travel to Champlain Valley tonight and Essex on Saturday. A rematch with St. Johnsbury looms Feb. 14.
“Nobody likes to lose. We have to learn from it and get better,” Tipson said. “I think the St. Johnsbury loss, it was a good thing for us. Anybody would take a couple of losses to win a championship.”