OU men's basketball: How Jim Molinari sets foundation for Sooners' defensive success
NORMAN — After a 36-point blowout over TCU in mjd-January, OU’s Alondes Williams broke into a broad smile when asked about Jim Molinari’s feelings about a second consecutive strong defensive performance.
“I know he’s real happy because that’s all he talks about, screams (about),” Williams said. “I’m surprised he didn’t go hoarse with how much yelling he does.”
Over the last four weeks, the Sooners have developed a strong defensive identity, going 5-1 with a slate of wins against top 10 opponents that sent OU skyrocketing from unranked to No. 9 heading into Saturday’s home game against Iowa State (11 a.m., ESPN2).
No one has been happier about that — or played a bigger role — than Molinari, who is in his second year as a Sooners assistant.
“Our defense … it all starts with him,” Sooners guard De’Vion Harmon said. “We feed off of him and we feed off each other.”
Molinari developed a reputation for coaching strong defense early in his career, especially when he made the leap from being an assistant at DePaul for a decade to taking his first head coaching job at Northern Illinois in 1989. He also had head coaching jobs at Bradley, Minnesota and Western Illinois before coming to OU.
“Every situation you have to look at it with a short-term lens and a long-term lens,” Molinari said. “The short-term view is it was a talent equalizer and allowed you to compete at the highest level as a group.
“And from a long-term view for players, I think defense is based on effort and toughness with no recognition and I think that’s a good life lesson. I think if you can get an individual to surrender to the group on that end and play with great effort because that’s our most precious possession and don’t worry about getting recognition, I think that’s a good life lesson.”
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The foundation of Molinari’s defensive philosophy started early in his coaching career when he read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”
“It said, ‘More troops attack, less troops defend,’” Molinari said. “And I was always in positions and teams that mostly, because of whatever it might be, we had less troops. So that’s kind of been my passion.”
And he’s got his players to buy in, complementing Kruger’s system to add a tough defensive identity.
That’s been apparent recently, as opponents’ field-goal percentage has dipped from 42.5% to 39.1% over the last six games and 3-point shooting has done down from 39.0% to 29.3%, while steals have risen more than one to 8.7 per game over the last six games.
“What he brings to our team — nothing can really replace that,” Harmon said. “It’s so contagious. You can tell when something is off or he’s not there or something because it’s not as loud as it usually is. Every practice is loud and he’s the frontrunner of it.”
It’s those practice moments where that identity is built and Molinari builds it by calling out when things aren’t done the way they’re expected.
“What you tolerate, you can’t change,” Molinari said. “So there’s not much room on our practice floor for individual or corporate bad defense. It’s not tolerated. So more and more the standard has been raised.”
And as he’s done that over the last two years, the players have become more bought in and policing themselves when it comes to defensive lapses.
“It really goes against what society is right now,” Molinari said. “Right now, society is all about mine — me, mine, be isolated. Defense is about the group. It’s about connectedness. You can hide a player on offense. You can’t hide a player on defense.
“Everybody has to play it. Then I think what happens is you win some big games with it — and we have won some big games where our offense … has struggled. Players are smart.”