Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 7: All of Our Friends

The unselfish, fearless philosophy that directs Greg Tonagel and Indiana Wesleyan

It’s a little surprising that it took us this long to get to the most successful and difficult-to-defeat program in NAIA, but here we are. Any time you have the opportunity to cover a three-time NAIA champion (all since 2013) in depth, you have to do it. When that guy was a participant on four NCAA Tournament teams at Valparaiso and played under two of the three Drews, you definitely have to get in touch with that guy. Unsurprisingly, you find out that the secret to his coaching success is a lack of selfishness and a hands-off approach. Welcome to Greg Tonagel’s Indiana Wesleyan Wildcats, an offensive dynasty in the Midwest:

Now entering his 15th season as the Wildcats’ head coach, Tonagel is 391-104 with a 187-35 record over the last six years. He’s crafted an offensive system that aims to give everyone a chance, space the floor immensely well, and crush opponents in the paint. Think of it as an unusually friendly way of intimidating a defense into submission. “For us, we’re trying to create fearless minds with our players and creating very unselfish hearts within the team,” says Tonagel. Plays like this sum it up pretty well:

Indiana Wesleyan got 47.2% of their shot attempts within four feet of the rim, per Synergy. While the game has naturally drifted towards the perimeter, Tonagel continues to massively value any shot he can get in the paint. “There’s something mentally to it. When we’re getting scored on in the paint, as a coach, it deflates you,” says Tonagel. I don’t feel that that’s wrong by any means. He also noted how much more impactful his offense can be at the foul line. “We want to continue to have that fearless mentality that we’re going to get into the paint, one way or another.”

It wasn’t always this light-hearted, fearless, and fun. Until the 2013-14 season, Tonagel ran a slower-tempo offense with lots of set plays. While Indiana Wesleyan was plenty successful running it – 204-69 across eight years, four NAIA Elite Eight bids – he couldn’t get his team over the hump. Tonagel often critiqued his players’ shot selection and tried to have as much control as possible in how the offense ran. He felt like he was searching for answers to questions he couldn’t quite compute. One day, it hit him: relinquish control of the offense to the players themselves.

“Players were often hesitant and were wondering when they caught it if Coach wants this shot or likes this shot and if they should be playing,” Tonagel remembers. “We went through a period of letting them play faster and taking my hands off, but we had to say “your intent with the basketball needs to be the team’s intent, not your own.”” As soon as Tonagel made that switch, the results poured in like crazy:

Since the switch to a more transition-heavy offense, Indiana Wesleyan has simply overwhelmed their competition. The three NAIA titles came, but the points came, too: five of the last six seasons have resulted in 85 points per game. Prior to the switch, the Wildcats topped 76 points per game once in eight seasons. “Coaches are notorious for being control freaks, but the reality is our teams play better when our hands are off,” notes Tonagel.

The 15th-year coach presents a culture built on fearlessness, not just of the self but of others, especially of their own coach. “Going back to our culture, we go back to our two pillars: fearless and I Am Third. If you create an unselfish player or environment, you can take that fearlessness and point it towards other people,” Tonagel says. It makes sense: if you are fearless, you can ensure your teammates are fearless, too. If you can do that, well, you’ve kind of solved a key component of basketball.

There’s a few things that make Indiana Wesleyan incredibly unique, not least that their shooting guard is probably their best player. Check out Kyle Mangas (6’3″, 190) in the post:

I think sometimes, we have to be willing to go outside the box and say “what if we took our 7-footer and played him on the perimeter and we took our shooting guard who can be really dominant in the post and invert them?”” Tonagel knows this is kind of a strange strategy, but it’s part of the whole Wildcat brand. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to be an efficient offense that doesn’t do what everybody wants us to do.” (Sorry for fawning, but what a cool quote.) Here’s something else most NAIA teams don’t typically have: a 6’10” center that signs an overseas contract to play basketball after graduation. Hello, Evan Maxwell:

To close, Tonagel strongly believes in culture over scheme. It’s what his whole personal foundation is built on, even if you can define their half-court offense fairly easily (5-out motion with lots of inside-out movement) and you know that they want to move the ball as quickly as possible to get a good shot. “For us, mentality trumps scheme or strategy,” he says. If the mentality is as strong as it is here:

It’s worth adopting for your own team. It also helps to have a coach that truly, deeply loves basketball and loves people. Tonagel: “I got into coaching not just because I love coaching basketball, but I love coaching people. I love getting to coach the young men I’ve been given and meeting them where they’re at in life, helping them prepare for the next stage of life.” What a nice, earnest way to think of it.

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