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TOM DAVIS: Southwood coach John Burrus has been preparing for this moment his entire life

Southwood High School boy's basketball coach John Burrus watches his team compete against Blackhawk Christian Saturday in the IHSAA Class A Semi-state at Huntington North. (By Dan Vance of News-Sentinel.com)
Southwood High School boy's basketball coach John Burrus shouts instructions to his team as it competes against Blackhawk Christian Saturday in the IHSAA Class A Semi-state at Huntington North. (By Dan Vance of News-Sentinel.com)
Southwood High School boy's basketball coach John Burrus shakes hands with the Blackhawk Christian coaches following the Knights' win Saturday in the IHSAA Class A Semi-state at Huntington North. (By Dan Vance of News-Sentinel.com)
Southwood High School boy's basketball coach John Burrus watches his team compete against Blackhawk Christian Saturday in the IHSAA Class A Semi-state at Huntington North. (By Dan Vance of News-Sentinel.com)
Southwood High School boy's basketball coach John Burrus shouts instructions to junior forward Dallas Holmes against Blackhawk Christian Saturday in the IHSAA Class A Semi-state at Huntington North. (By Dan Vance of News-Sentinel.com)
Southwood High School boy's basketball coach John Burrus celebrates with the Knight fans following his team's win over Blackhawk Christian Saturday in the IHSAA Class A Semi-state at Huntington North. (By Dan Vance of News-Sentinel.com)

INDIANAPOLIS – It was a frigid winter morning in early 2003 and my wife was on her way to her teaching job in Logansport when she approached the “curves by the castle” on Indiana Highway 16 just west of the Miami County town of Denver.

She heard a thud come from the engine as the van came to a slow drift to the side of the road. The problem was a cracked engine head and thankfully she was near the home of a family friend, John and Tammy Burrus.

She traipsed up the hill and knocked on the front door, and once inside she was taken aback, as the Burrus girls, Lael, a fourth grader, and Alicia, a sixth grader, were spending their pre-dawn mornings watching basketball highlights on SportsCenter.

That was the first inclination that the Burrus’ were a little bit different than most families when it came to absorbing sports. From the dad on down, they can’t get enough of athletics.

“I’ve watched a lot of guys,” Burrus told News-Sentinel.com earlier this week, “Digger Phelps, when he used to knock off teams at Notre Dame that they shouldn’t beat, when you are facing the number one team, you better have some mental advantages, because on paper, physically you don’t.”

Burrus has already led the Southwood High School boy’s basketball team to its greatest heights ever – twice – and he is set to do it again Saturday.

The Knights (25-3) will face Morristown (27-2) in the IHSAA Class A State Finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (10:30 a.m., Fox Sports Indiana), and if Southwood fails in its quest for a championship, it won’t be due to a lack of preparation on Burrus’ part.

CONTINUING EDUCATION

If John Burrus is anything, he is a learner.

The veteran educator and coach reads voraciously on the topics of leadership and philosophy and he studies the game of basketball insatiably.

I stopped by his house on a random night last summer and he was watching the NBA Summer League. I guess you never know when the Lakers might run an out of bounds play that could prove to be effective against Northfield seven months later.

“We’ve talked about how we’re up against it,” Burrus said of his current group. “We’re facing teams that everybody thinks that we’re not going to beat, so when we play those teams, we’ve got to have some kind of psychological advantage, because our advantage is not on the court with our size or how great we are.”

There is the mental preparation that he has put in coming to the forefront.

Burrus has spent decades not only studying how to lead, teach, and defend, but he has also communicated with some of the all-time greats within the sport.

REACHING OUT

There is no nice way to put this – but Burrus can be a tad obtuse when it comes to reaching out to other coaches for insight.

Name a legendary coach and Burrus has probably fired off an email asking them how they handle certain situations. And he does this all of the time.

Ask Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter how many brain-storming sessions Burrus has made him endure and he’ll respond “too many,” with a laugh.

But all of that education plays a part in explaining how and why Southwood has achieved what it has, which is quite a bit.

The Knights have made a habit under Burrus of winning games against teams “that everybody thinks that we’re not going to beat.”

NO CHALLENGE TOO BIG

Eight years ago, it was defeating two-time defending state champion Bishop Luers in the Class 2A Regional at Tipton. That team featured multiple NCAA Division I athletes, including 2010 Indiana Mr. Basketball Deshaun Thomas.

More recently, it was Lafayette Central Catholic.

The Knights of LCC had won 16 consecutive sectionals and Southwood had to find a way to beat them on their home court after falling behind 8-0 to start the game.

Lord knows where Burrus pulled the insight from, but the point is, he had it somewhere and the Knights from Wabash prevailed.

Two weeks later, Burrus’ team had to figure out how to get past No. 1-ranked Blackhawk Christian, whose frontline dwarfed the kids from Wabash.

He formulated a game plan that called for his team to be unlike it had been all season (very similar to the Luers’ game plan) and play slower, which for the fourth highest-scoring team in the state, was a risk, to say the least.

Southwood only scored 55 points, but its zone defense limited Blackhawk to 21 points below its season average, as the Braves only had 53.

“We’ve been tested,” Burrus said.

And then some.

Oak Hill is going to play for the Class 2A state championship less than an hour following Southwood’s game Saturday, and the Knights have split their last two games with the Eagles.

Oak Hill narrowly got past Burrus’ boys this year – in Converse – 76-71 in overtime after falling to Southwood – in Converse – in the 2017 Class 2A Sectional.

As well, the Knights are 5-1 this season against Class 3A and 4A opposition, with its lone loss coming to Huntington North – in Huntington – 49-46. That game was played a week after the Vikings devoured 4A power Homestead by 23 points.

“You don’t just beat a team like Blackhawk, just to beat them,” Burrus explained philosophically. “There is a reason why it happened. There is a lead up to that. The lead up has been we lost in overtime to Oak Hill. We lost to Huntington North. We had them beat, but we just couldn’t keep them down; and then going to Lafayette Central Catholic, all of that prepared us.”

Which Burrus will tell you without hesitation, that preparation is the key to any success.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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