Ricky Bowers has three rules that his players must obey or they come out of the game.
“First, they must shoot if they’re open,’’ says Bowers, coach of the defending Div. II state champion Ensworth High boys basketball team. “Second, they must run the floor back on defense if the other team gets the ball — and I mean really run the floor — fast. And third, they must be on their man defensively within one second of the time he gets the ball.’’
And if they don’t?
“Then they come out of the game — all five of them,’’ he says. “If one guy messes up, the other four guys get on him when they come out, as you can imagine.’’
Now any player would certainly love rule No. 1 — that's a no-brainer. But it’s No. 2 and 3 that require a little more discipline and extra hustle, which makes for a bit of a strainer.
But Tiger players have totally bought into it.
“We have superior depth to go at that pace for four quarters,’’ says Daniel McFadden who scored 17 points to lead the Tigers, ranked No. 2 in last week’s AP poll, to a 94-70 DII win over BGA last week. “It’s a frenetic non-stop pace,’’ adds the 6-4 senior. “Sometimes, you wish you were in the game more, but we’re winning, and that’s the main thing.”
Ah, winning. The rigid rules have added up to what may be the best team in Nashville. Through last Wednesday, Ensworth was 14-3 and in first place in its region.
“Last year, we had a great player like Tavarres (Jefferson). This year, we’re all so balanced,’’ McFadden says. “We have a lot of weapons. I feel like I can score in the post or, when Conor McDermott who is 6-8, is in the game, I can go outside and score.’’
Order on the court
The seemingly tireless Bowers, who is coach and athletic director at the six-year-old private high school, is a bundle of energy on the sidelines, looking sometimes more like a traffic cop than a coach. His style of play must make teams feel like they’ve been hit by a tidal wave — or least a series of waves.
At one point this season, Bowers had 15 players, He’s platooned all 15 of them in waves of five each — regardless of who’s the best player or the one at the end of the bench. He’s down to 12 players recently due to injury, but he still platoons and presses nearly the entire game.
And this season, he may well have his best and certainly, by any account, his most balanced team. Team statistics reveal incredibly a set of balanced numbers.
For a team averaging 81 points a game, amazingly only two players average in double figures. The leading scorer — McFadden — is barely there, averaging 11.1 per game.
Corn Elder is next at 10.6, then McDermott at 9.6 a game. No one else average more than 7 points.
At practice, groups of five run plays at both main and side baskets in the Tiger gym. Each group runs with great speed under the watchful eye of Bowers.
“We go at a very frenetic pace,’’ Bowers says in a classic understatement. “Offense or defense, same way. I think we have more good players than ever before, so we can go at a pace like that.’’ Bowers remarked that this year is the first time as a coach he has ever coached a team to play at that fast a style.
Just as pleasing to Bowers is the suffocating style of defense his team plays. At times, it can resemble a swarm of bees.
“It’s something we’ve all bought into, a really high paced game,’’ explains Daley Hill, a 6-foot, 165-pound senior guard. “I love to play that way it’s a lot of fun, especially when we really bring high intensity on defense. We know when we go in, we better play hard and go all out, or we’re coming out.”
Hill, who's averaging 6.6 points per game credits the team's success to “very sound” fundamentals — something, he says, Coach Bowers really emphasizes.
Second straight championship?
Despite graduation losses like state tournament MVP Tavarres Jefferson and all-tourney Richard Bowers (the coach's son), Ensworth continues to motor along toward what the Tigers hope is a second straight state championship.
At 81 points a game, Ensworth is the highest scoring team in Nashville — and may be challenging the all-time mark. Its 24.1-point margin of victory is also highest in Nashville.
The running and gunning Tigers have hit the century mark just once (a 102-52 win over USN) but has gone over 90 points six other times, including three in DII play.
“It’s the highest scoring team I’ve ever coached,’’ says Bowers, who won three state DII titles when he was at MBA. “We had an outstanding player last year in Tavarres (state tourney MVP), but now that we are in our third year with a senior class, we have a very complete team.’’
Eleven of his 16 players average at least four points per game, which adds up pretty fast.
It’s the same in other categories too.
• Through last week, Ensworth also has a plus-10 rebound per game average over opponents (37.7-27.7). Leading rebounder is McDermott (6.4), but no one else is over 4.2. Once the Tigers rebound or get a steal, they’re off to the races.
• Elder is the leader in assists with 74, followed by Alex Thomas (51). The Tigers average 23 three-point attempts per game, making 10 on average. Hill is the leader with 27.
• The highest scorer in a game this season came from Elder with his 23 points against Ryan. McDermott had 21 vs. Harpeth.
• In five games, the mercy rule (where the clock runs continuously in the fourth quarter) has been used because the Tigers were so far ahead of their foes.
“The only team we’ve played that I think was significantly better than we were is (Clarksville) Northeast,’’ offered Bowers. “I thought we were competitive against CPA (a 57-55 loss), when we didn’t have our football players back, and against Beech.’’
After last Tuesday’s 94-70 win over BGA, Bowers, still seeking perfection, said, “we gave up far too many points.’’
Ensworth will be hosting the DII Middle/East tournament (Feb.19-20) which gives Bowers' squad one additional advantage — home court. Through last week, Ensworth was a perfect 8-0 at home.
For Bowers, Ensworth's success is coming in waves — points after points and wins after wins. For his Tigers, the battle cry might just be “Surf's Up!”