It's one thing for a basketball coach to sell a particular defense and offense he wants to be run.
It's another thing for players to buy it.
In Polo, seventh-year head coach Matt Messer appears to have successfully executed that transaction. The Marcos are 12-5 after a 78-54 win against South Beloit on Wednesday night.
The win total is just one shy of last year's, and ahead of the 11 Polo posted in each of the two seasons before that.
The key has been a defense modeled after the one used by UNLV in the early 1990s, known as the "Amoeba" defense. It is basically a zone trap in which opposing players are steered to one side of the court or the other, and pressured by at least two players. Polo's opponents are averaging just 50 points per game.
"It's all based on pressuring the ball," Messer said, "and making sure you've got certain parts of the floor covered up. There's constant ball pressure. The kids really have to work hard in the defense, and if you don't do your job, it shows up obviously."
In a 75-55 win over Milledgeville on Monday, Polo raced out to a 22-6 lead in the first quarter, and the Missiles were forced into 10 turnovers the first 5 minutes of play. The Marcos are averaging 13.4 steals per game, with the two players at the top of the zone, Brady Bushman (2.6) and Brad Cavanaugh (2.4, tied with Brian Cavanaugh), leading the theft parade.
"It's definitely a fun defense to play, getting all those steals," Bushman said. "There's nothing more fun than a transition game, and I love playing it. It's working for us."
The steals don't just result in a change of possession. As they often occur near mid-court, the Marcos turn them into run-out layups.
Messer is finding it easier to get his players to play defense when there's an offensive payoff.
"I've sold them more on the fact that if you play this defense right, you're going to get so many steals and easy buckets that you're going to get your points," Messer said. "You don't have to worry about, Am I getting enough shots?"
Not that that's been a problem. Messer said one of the best qualities of this particular team is the players don't care who gets the credit and/or the points, as long as the wins are piling up.
AJ Dollmeyer, a 6-foot-7 junior center, happily serves as the basket-protector and chief rebounder on defense, and he's averaging 9.1 boards per game. With his size, he could easily also be the hub of the offense, trying to overpower smaller opponents inside.
He is scoring a team-high 14.9 points per game, but a lot of those points come from putbacks. Bushman (12.8 points per game), Brian Cavanaugh (10.9) and Brad Cavanaugh (9.1) have also proven themselves as capable scorers. Polo is averaging 63 points a game as a team.
"We all trust each other enough that we'll make good decisions and get good shots," Dollmeyer said.
That's not to say the Marcos have been ignoring Dollmeyer, who is still the team's primary offensive option on a majority of nights.
"Obviously with a 6-foot-7 center, you want to look in to see if he's open," Messer said. "But if he's not, we feel we have enough scorers who can put the ball in the basket if they double AJ or make it hard for him to get good looks."
The Polo program has the look of one that's going to be reckoned with for a while. Bushman is the lone senior in the starting lineup that also includes a sophomore (forward Max Simmons) and a freshman (Brad Cavanaugh). Looking more long term, Messer noted last year was the first Polo had boys teams entered in grades 5-8 in the Westwood summer league.
"Those are the things that make your teams good when they get to high school – getting that early competition and learning how to play the game the right way at a young age," Messer said. "We're not there yet, but we're building."