The system was deceptively simple. Rhode Island came out with a full-court man-to-man press and stayed in it the whole game. "A 40-minute press all over the floor was unheard of in those days," says Calverley. "He never played zone, never changed defense. The idea was to have his team in first-class condition and wear out the opposition. We didn't take time-outs. When the other team did, he didn't allow us to sit down."
Whenever a Ram player got his hands on the ball after an opponent's basket or in the back court, he heaved a long pass to a breaking teammate. "The idea was to beat them down the floor in numbers," Calverley adds. That was the offense; everything else was improvisation. "We had no patterns or set plays," Shannon says, "we just got the ball down fast. Keaney's theory was that if you shoot more times and maintain the same average, you win games. It was organized disorganization."
Keaney did more than do away with the traditional pattern offense and zone defense. The fast break also obliged his players to abandon the two-handed shot. "We had to shoot one-handed, on the run," Calverley recalls. "He used to say, 'Hey, if the music plays faster, you dance faster.' "
Practices consisted of conditioning exercises, scrimmages, free throws, layups and drills in throwing the ball the length of the floor. The Rams also were taught not to dribble. "He hated the dribble, absolutely hated it," Shannon says. "He'd say, 'What are you trying to do, prove there's air in the ball?' " Even in practice his love of the unorthodox surfaced. When his team shot poorly, Keaney installed 15-inch rims inside the regulation 18-inch hoops to sharpen their eye. To prepare them for smoke-filled arenas like the Garden, he filled the Rodman Gym with smudge pots burning the foulest tobacco he could find.
Most teams wilted in the face of the Rhode Island break. Unaccustomed to constant pressure and unable to stand the pace, some resorted to stalling, which brought out the showman in Keaney. Once, when Tufts tried to stall, Keaney dashed onto a stair landing and led Rhode-Island students in the school song. Maine, trailing by six points, tried to counter the break with a tight zone; Keaney responded by having four of his players read newspapers while the fifth held the ball. When Brown used the same stalling tactic, Keaney ordered Calverley to literally sit on the ball for the last eight minutes of the half. At halftime Keaney charged up to the Brown coach and barked, "You're ruining the game of basketball. You're behind and are supposed to force the issue. You're content to lose. Sonny, you're a born loser!"
Few schools dared to run with the Rams. Teams could beat Rhode Island by slowing the tempo and controlling the boards, but even with superior ability that was never easy. Though the Rams often lacked the talent and depth of their rivals, Keaney took them to four NIT tournaments. In 1946 they even reached the finals, losing to mighty Kentucky by a single point. Against stronger teams the fast break served as an equalizer, a strategy for keeping Rhode Island in even the toughest games. "He won many games he had no license to win," observes Dr. Harold Browning, a former Rhode Island dean.
Keaney's blitzkrieg approach to the game sometimes got his teams in foul trouble. In one game, in which the Rams were left with four players, he shoved a chair onto the floor and told a startled official, "Here's my fifth player. Let's get on with the game." In an NIT game against DePaul, he sent Mike Santoro, a 5'4" forward, to jump center against 6'9�" George Mikan. Predictably, rival coaches were not always amused by these antics. Some regarded Keaney as a heretic. Others resented him because, as Shannon suggests, "I don't think he was averse to running it up, to maintain our scoring average."
In reply, Keaney, at a luncheon in New York, advised his fellow coaches to "give the crowds action. If some coach puts up a screwy defense, use a screwier offense. Then if you lose, pivot and go home." To critics of his style he said simply, "We don't say we're right, but you have to stop us."
Keaney retired in 1947, leaving an imprint on the game that, curiously, went largely unrecognized. It was not until 1960, seven years before his death, that Keaney's contribution was formally acknowledged by his election to the Basketball Hall of Fame. In personal terms he gave his players what he gave basketball itself. Earl Shannon put it best: "As a motivator he was way ahead of his time. He made it fun to play the game."