BURLINGTON — Coming off a modest 11-9 regular season last year and a quick first round tournament loss to North Andover, expectations were low for the Burlington High boys’ basketball team when this season started back in December.
But once the season began it became increasingly apparent the Red Devils had been greatly underestimated in pre-season prognoses.
Burlington went on to clinch the Freedom Division championship with a 13-3 league record, and finish the regular season with a stellar 16-4 overall record, and a likely four-seed in Division 2 North tournament.
So how did the Red Devils exceed their pre-season expectations, and play far above what was expected of them? The answer is not as simple as one-two-three, but instead simply just the “three,” as in utilizing the 3-point shot in a huge way, to help Burlington win five more games than it had last year.
The 3-point numbers the Red Devils put up in 20 regular season games this season were simply mind-boggling. Burlington made 223 3-pointers for an average of 11.2 made 3-point shots a game. Sophomore Aidan Olivier led the assault from behind the arc with 59 3-pointers to average about three per game, while the other four starters combined for 123 threes.
Captain Mike Melanson was second in made threes with 44, followed by junior Tyler Williams (36), junior reserve Justin Bairos (28), senior co-captain Kyle Inglis (22), and sophomore point guard Shane Mahoney (21). Reserves Sean McGlaughlin, Benji Ramirez, and Brian Capobianco combined to hit 13 from deep.
In comparison to the other three teams in the Daily Times Chronicle circulation area, Burlington is far above the rest in 3-pointers made: Winchester (133), Woburn (117), Reading (106).
The high emphasis the Red Devils placed on utilizing the 3-point shot as the biggest weapon in their offense begs another question. How did Burlington develop its strong emphasis on the 3-pointer this season to begin with?
The answer lies with how the players bought into the offense instilled by fourth-year head coach Phil Conners, and his history with how he accepted the 3-point shot as the top offensive weapon to teach his players to use to become successful.
“While I was an interim head coach at Lowell High School for a year, we had a really small group with no stars, but our players were super athletes who could go to the rim, run, and jump,” said Burlington coach Phil Conners. “But it was different when I moved on to become the head coach at Tewksbury. The kids there didn’t have the size or athleticism the kids from Lowell had, so what our kids could control the most to get better is shooting the ball.”
Conners felt while any team would hit a lower percentage of threes than two-point shots, by shooting and hitting enough threes a team could still score many more points than simply shooting shots inside the arc. Therefore, Conners saw the 3-pointer as a way for the teams he has coached to increase their chances of winning games against teams that may be taller or more athletic than his own team.
“I have always believed in the math of it, since I feel it is easier to shoot 35 percent from 3-point range than 50 percent for two-point shots,” said Conners. “Even the highest levels of basketball believe in the math of it. And while I can’t control a kid’s height, speed, or athleticism, if I can impress on them the importance to shoot the ball, it can make the game much easier for us.”
Conners firmly believed since his team this year is not a particularly tall or athletic team, that placing more emphasis on shooting more 3-point shots, rather than constantly attacking the rim, was the best way for the Red Devils to maximize their offensive potential.
“Because our team this year doesn’t have a lot of size or athleticism, since all of our kids can shoot the three, that widens the court for us and makes it more difficult for other teams to stop us,” said Conners. “We get a lot of lay-ups as well, but when there’s no help at the basket, our kids can just kick it out to one of our guards, who can shoot the three.”
Another reason the players on this year’s team have easily bought into Conners’ offensive philosophy is that Conners, as a fourth-year head coach at Burlington, is the only head coach they have learned from and played for at the high school level. For Conners this is nothing new, having gone through a similar experience coaching at Tewksbury for four years.
“I coached at Tewksbury for four years, and we won seven, 11, 15, and then 20 in those four years, so each year we won more games than we did the year before,” said Conners. “Now this is Year Four for me here at Burlington, and I know that it takes a while to impress upon kids to become better shooters and understand how important it is to work on it. But these kids have now done that from what they learned in previous years, and now average 11 (made) threes a game.”
Of course, the players still need to be good shooters.
“Every player for us in a seven-man rotation can shoot the ball,” said Conners. “All of our players have been in the program for as long as I’ve been here, so there are no leftovers any more from kids who learned from someone else. These kids also have incorporated everything they have learned from me into their game even when they have played in the off-season.”
Conners uses the case of his team’s leading 3-point shooter of how he developed from a player who had trouble shooting any outside shots, into the top 3-point shooter on this year’s team.
“Aidan Olivier is the perfect example for us,” said Conners. “Last year as a freshman he was super athletic and talented, but he couldn’t shoot the ball. He only shot 20 percent from the free throw line, and hit just 13 threes all season. I told him how important shooting is, and how much his game will expand once he’s able to shoot the ball.
“So he worked hard on his own in the off-season, and changed his shooting form to more of a jump shot,” Conners continued. “Now that he can shoot the ball, he’s just exploded this year and leads the league in made threes, and it’s the fastest transformation I’ve ever seen.”
This year Conners has also emphasized to his players this that they have to shoot 3-pointers with confidence, and not worry about missing shots.
SHOOT WITH CONFIDENCE
“I have given them the freedom to miss shots, so that they are now not afraid to miss 3-point shots,” said Conners. “They know they have the green light to shoot threes as long as they do the work, and that even if it’s just seconds into the shot clock, if a wide open shot develops it’s OK to shoot that shot. I always feel it’s a good shot since our kids are good shooters.”
A big reason the Red Devils have been so much improved from last year was the off-season commitment the players made to still work on their games. Led by Melanson, all of the returning players worked extensively through the spring, summer, and fall to become better shooters, and the results this season have been amazing.
“The kids took it upon themselves to become better shooters and work on their own games right after last season ended in March,” said Conners. “They worked hard during the off-season, and when they came to play in December we could see the growth of our team. They were committed kids who are very coachable, pull for each other, and a very special group.”
Another aspect of the players Conners takes great pride in is how smart they are, which he feels helps them play more disciplined and make better decisions on the court.
“I know all of our kids have earned good grades and are very intelligent,” said Conners. “This translates to everyone pulling for each other, working as a team, watching films of games together, and improving the culture of our program. They are all very committed kids.”
Shooting 3-pointers isn’t the only aspect of the game the Red Devils have improved on this season. Burlington has also become one of the league’s best defensive teams, using more aggressive play to apply more pressure to the ball, and the results have been impressive.
“We’re a much better defensive team this year, since all of our starters are really good defenders who apply more pressure to the player with the ball,” said Conners. “Often we have caused turnovers and come up with steals simply due to our pressure defense, and it’s made a big difference for us this year.”
The combination of shooting 3-pointers at a dizzying pace, and playing pressure defense, have led to some impressive team performances this season.
“What has helped us come back to win games this year is the never-say-die attitude of these kids,” said Conners. “They have a lot of character and fortitude, and we don’t make those comebacks without being the high-character kids that they are.”
So with the regular season behind them, the Red Devils are looking ahead to the upcoming state tournament, and Conners is optimistic regarding his team’s chances for success. It appears the Red Devils will host Woburn in a first round game, and Conners feels what his team has accomplished so far this season will help improve its chances for a long post-season run.
“Regardless of what happens in the tournament, I feel this season has been a big success for our team,” said the coach. “Anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament, but what has made this season a success has been the character of our kids. We hope for a long tournament run, and we’re gearing up for it, but I’m not considering the season a success for us solely on whether or not we go on a long tournament run.”