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It doesn’t matter if a Jacksonville University basketball player is the second coming of Steph Curry.
He’s not getting on the court for first-year coach Jordan Mincy unless he embraces playing defense – and all the nitty, gritty, dirty details of stopping the other team when it has the ball.
Mincy’s philosophy is echoed by every player. You can’t go more than a few seconds into a conversation with any of the 2021-22 Dolphins without them spouting his three favorite words: “Guard the Yard.”
“It’s all about playing hard, communicating, giving your best effort,” said junior guard Tyreese Davis, who said Mincy has brought more of a defensive mentality out of him this season. “Everyone is on the same page. We have each other’s back and that’s what makes it easy on the defensive end.”
Sophomore forward Osayi Osifo, who transferred from the University of Florida after Mincy was hired off Mike White’s staff, said it’s now become a badge of honor to think defense-first at JU.
“It’s a pride thing,” he said.
The Dolphins got their pride stung a little on Jan. 18 when they gave up a season-high 88 points to defending ASUN champion Liberty. JU entered that game leading the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 54.6 points per game after beating the University of North Florida on the road Jan. 15, 54-61.
JU came out of it third in the nation at 56.6 points entering Saturday’s game at Bellarmine. Mincy said it might have been a hard lesson in dwelling on the victory over UNF and paying too much attention to social media trumpeting the Dolphins rising to the top of the nation in a key statistical category.
“Let’s give credit to Liberty,” he said after the game. “They made some adjustments and went on an insane run [19-6, after JU took a 16-5 lead]. We have to do a better job of blocking out the noise and have a better understanding of who we are. Make sure we stay humble and hungry and the same time.”
Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said his team’s performance, in which they shot 72 percent from the floor and 75 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in the second half, doesn’t detract from the turnaround Mincy has made at JU in taking the Dolphins to the top of every key defensive category in the conference, allowing 13 fewer points per game and knocking 49 percentage points off opponents’ shooting percentage over last season.
“We have a ton of respect for Jacksonville because we know how stout their defense has been,” he said. “The score is not indicative of [the] opponent they are, and they are going to be a factor in this league.”
Even after that defeat, the first time this season the Dolphins have given up more than 69 points, they have remained among the national leaders in a number of categories, such as field-goal percentage defense (.390, 23rd) and 3-point percentage defense (.296, 42nd).
JU has held 11 of its 16 opponents to less than 60 points. And in three games against major conference opponents, Georgia, Minnesota and Pittsburgh, JU held them to an average of 62.7 points, .428 from the floor and .272 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Defense got Mincy on the court
As a high school basketball player at Memphis (Tenn.) Ridgeway, Mincy recognized something early.
“I couldn’t shoot, couldn’t finish and couldn’t score,” he said. “But I could lock up. I was really good on defense, and that was the only way I was going to play.”
The blue-collar nature of how he approached basketball was also bred in him. His brother Jerome was a star at UAB and one of only three players there to have his jersey retired, his sister played at Ole Miss and they were raised by a police officer and a school teacher.
Mincy said his earliest influence was Ridgeway coach Wes Henning, then later at Kent State under Jim Christian. Mincy was a sure-passing point guard who was almost always asked to guard the other team’s top outside shooter, is still seventh on the all-time Kent State career list in assists, set the program record with the most games played (135) and was the MAC defensive player of the year as a senior in 2009 – when he averaged 5.4 points per game.
When Mincy realized defense was what he did best, he embraced it.
“Defense is an attitude … you want it to be your ID,” he said. “It’s having the pride to sit down and guard the ball. You don’t always need mental toughness to make a shot. You just get in the flow of the offense. But you need mental toughness to play defense.”
Mincy said he learned much more about angles, ball-screen defense and perimeter defense while working for White for six seasons at Florida.
“A lot of what I do comes from Mike,” he said. “About 75 percent of it, with the other 25 coming from Jim Christian. It’s a good mix of both.”
Conditioning was the key
When Mincy arrived at JU he immediately began a more stringent strength and conditioning program with Pat Lewis, a strength coach he hired from Florida.
“Pat’s been unbelievable about developing their bodies from a cardio standpoint,” Mincy said. “Our summer workouts were hard.”
Especially “Strongman Fridays.” Players had to get up at 5 a.m. and run, run and run some more.
“It was as much mental as physical,” Mincy said.
Mincy clearly went for inside presence first, with Osifo (6-8, 225), Mike Marsh (6-10, 250), Rod Brown (6-8, 215) and Isaiah Broady (6-7, 175).
But he also came up with a handful of guards who have shown the kind of tenacity he wants on defense, such as Jordan Davis, Tommy Bruner, George Pridgett and Gyasi Powell, a Bishop Snyder graduate.
“I tell them when I recruit them, it’s defense first,” Mincy said. “My pitch to them is that defense is black and white, offense is gray. I’ll let you have freedom on offense. I’ve never told a guy, ‘That’s a bad shot.’ But on defense, when you’re not in position, not where you’re supposed to be, that’s when I get on them.”
Nolan said effort trumps everything.
“If you make a mistake, but you’re going 120 percent, coach Mincy is fine with that,” Nolan said. “This is our identity now, to come out and play hard.”
Zone is a four-letter word
Mincy is a pure man-to-man defensive coach. It’s what he played at every level, it’s what he brought from Florida and it’s what he intends to stay with at JU.
What would it take for him to go to a zone?
“If UNF goes crazy hitting 3-pointers off ball screens, then I might have to mix it up,” he said. “But I believe in sitting down, one-on-one. Don’t let them score, don’t foul and grab the rebound.”
Mincy said defense has changed in recent years with the emphasis on the 3-point shot. His big men can’t hover around the low post. Eventually, they will need to come out and confront outside shooters.
“The 3-point shot has changed defense,” he said. “You need five guys who can guard the perimeter.”
Mincy also stresses beating players to their favorite spots, part of an overall sense of urgency.
That’s seen even during time-outs – Mincy rarely uses the full time allotted, especially when the other team has the ball. He prefers to give his team their instructions and get them on the court.
“We had to change the urgency in the program,” he said. “Wherever you're going in life, going to class, to practice, your job, have a level of urgency. Be five minutes early. And on defense, it’s all about getting there, but getting there with a level of quickness, aggressiveness. Get to the spot. That’s why we want to be first to break the huddle on defense. Get on the court, get in a defensive stance and be ready to go.”
JU gets few turnovers
The Dolphins also play good defense without forcing a lot of turnovers. They’re 118th in the nation in turnovers per game by opponents, 49th in steals per game (8.3) and tied for 279th in blocked shots per game (2.4).
That means JU stopping teams straight up, forcing a missed shot and then getting in position to block out. The Dolphins rebound by committee. Osifo leads with 6.5 per game, fifth in the ASUN, but seven players have 3.4 rebounds or more and the net result is they’re 28th in the nation in rebounding margin (plus-six).
Mincy said in a way, coaches fight a battle against social media and ESPN highlights. He cited the recent viral nature of a video of the Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant’s two-handed block of a shot by Avery Bradley of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Everyone saw the block, but when do you see video of someone just sitting down and guarding,” he said. “Kids want to go for the big steal or block but the end result, not letting someone score, can happen without that, with hard work and being connected with your teammates.”
The JU players who returned this season have also sacrificed their scoring for the greater good. Nolan, Tyreese Davis and Bryce Workman were all double-digit scorers last season, but Nolan and Davis have seen their averages drop more than four points and Workman is down more than two points, the product of more depth but also slightly fewer possessions.
Know what? They don’t care, because with 12 regular-season games and the ASUN tournament left, JU has already won as many games as last year.
“If anyone’s scoring average has done down, fine,” Davis said. “We just want to win and we’re doing whatever it takes to win.”
Nolan said the team has taken notice of a key aspect of Mincy’s personality, and taken it on.
“He preaches attention to detail and working hard but the most important thing he talks to us about is unselfishness,” Nolan said. “He doesn’t want to take credit for everything, but he does so much. It rubs off on us.”
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville University basketball coach Jordan Mincy stresses defense