No GLVC baseball tournament, either

I wrote in my Monday column that the Great Lakes Valley Conference won’t be returning to Evansville’s Ford Center with its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in 2015 (or 2016). I wasn’t able to squeeze in that the GLVC baseball tournament also is gone from Evansville.

Bosse Field and the USI Baseball Field hosted that tourney the past two years. Next year it’s going up to Westfield, Indiana, north of Indianapolis to a place called Grand Park. Apparently, it’s a huge complex of baseball, softball and soccer fields and would allow the GLVC to play its tournament games at the same time at the same venue. USI knows all about Grand Park, having played (and beaten) the University of Indianapolis there at the end of the 2014 regular season.

One more note: Indianapolis is nowhere close to being closer to most of the GLVC schools, unlike the basketball venue, which will now be at Family Arena in St. Charles, Missouri (with seven GLVC schools in Missouri, that could easily be used as a reason for the move from Evansville). I’m just saying. Then again, it’s baseball, which doesn’t have nearly as large a following as basketball.

It’s all new

When thinking about 2014-15 USI men’s basketball, you’ll pretty much have to completely forget about the past two seasons. There are no more 6-foot-10 Keith DeWitts, no more 6-8, 250-pound Aaron Nelsons and their 24 double-doubles in points and rebounds. Replacing them will be nine new players, many of them guards. So I’ve started to think of the new USI as the old Central Missouri.

Anyone who attended the NCAA Division II Elite Eight men’s basketball tournament at the Ford Center last March would know what I’m talking about. Central Missouri won the title with a team that consisted of 10 players who were not on the roster the previous season. It also was guard-oriented and lightning quick. USI coach Rodney Watson attended those games. It’s not hard to believe that he decided that what Central Missouri did was something he could do, too.

He may not have had a choice. A 7-foot center that USI reportedly was about to sign (I later heard that new USI point guard Bobo Drummond, who had been playing some pickup games with this player, was going around introducing him as the Eagles’ new post) eventually signed elsewhere. But I think Watson was already hoping to go in a different direction.

In USI’s case, the Eagles no longer have just one point guard — their problem the past couple of years — but two in Drummond and TeNale Roland, with Travis Britt possibly a third. As for the defense, all this could finally help turn Watson’s various schemes into a major headache for opponents simply trying to get the ball up the court.

On the vanished USI-Kentucky Wesleyan rivalry

I think both USI and Kentucky Wesleyan didn’t want to renew their men’s basketball rivalry, but they didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Of course, when you release your season schedule and the game isn’t listed — after playing each other once or, more often, twice per season since 1977-78 — it’s a big deal. I fully expect USI not to be happy with my story focusing on that one, now non-existent game instead of the rest of the schedule, but that’s what everybody’s talking about. This has been an archrivalry like no other.

But I also think it got out of hand during the second game last season. That was the game played at USI last Dec. 21, which the Eagles won 80-68, in which KWC coach Happy Osborne was whistled for two technical fouls and ejected during the final two minutes. Afterward, he intimated that USI picked the officials without KWC’s consent. That angered USI coach Rodney Watson, who pointed out that USI had nothing to do with picking the refs. It was at that point that I wondered if the series would continue.

Now it won’t. Watson said he never got a call from KWC and apparently never called Osborne. Osborne said he wanted to renew the rivalry, but said he only brought it up BEFORE that Dec. 21 game, then never mentioned it again or called Watson. One thing that time has done is make Osborne admit he was wrong in being ejected. “That was the only game in my life that I have been ejected from,” he told me on Thursday. “I certainly don’t intend for that to happen again. I hate to think that was enough to end that rivalry. But if (an apology) is what it takes, I’ll apologize.”

But I think Watson summed up his feeling — and KWC’s — the best: “Maybe some absence will create a little more of something.” He means enthusiasm.

Discovering your weaknesses

USI freshman guard Brett Benning recently found out that his defense is lacking during summer workouts and pickup games. In fact, he said it’s the biggest adjustment he’s found from high school to college. “They’re so much quicker down here,” he said. “It’s not only the first move but the second and third moves.”

Summer basketball

The best thing a college basketball program can do for its freshmen is get them on campus during the summer. Rodney Watson believes this thoroughly. “You don’t have a summer program, they (the freshmen) get down here and their first week in college is really long and by Labor Day they’re saying, ‘This isn’t for me,’ ” he said.

The freshmen aren’t just there to play hoops. They’ll take a summer class or two, which is another way to get them acclimated, but without all the pressure of a full load of classes. There’s also conditioning to consider. The college game is far more physical and quicker than the high school game. So new players can get into the shape they need to be in once preseason practice begins in October. Watson has seen that in Brett Benning, a 6-foot-5 freshman shooting guard who the coach expects to play right away. “I spoke to him … about conditioning and he said, ‘Man, I feel stronger than ever before,’ ” said Watson.

One more game

It’s come down to this: USI’s baseball team needs to win just one game to capture its second NCAA Division II national championship. But before it faces Colorado Mesa in that game on Saturday night, think back over this season and recall how remarkable it has been. This team has won 48 games of the 61 it has played. Yet, the most amazing stat may be that, among all those victories, the Screaming Eagles have won 15 one-run games. Successful teams don’t necessarily dominate opponents but they almost always manage to win the close games. And the only way to do that is with timely hitting and timely pitching — something USI has been doing all season.

It was on display again during the team’s 4-3 victory over Minnesota State on Friday. The Eagles trailed 3-0 when they suddenly strung together not only a series of hits but employed trickery with a steal of home — by catcher Ryan Bertram, no less — while another USI runner was stealing second (not surprised to see coach Tracy Archuleta pull that one out of his bag of tricks, something GLVC coaches would have been ready for but a move that nobody at Minnesota State had ever seen, I’m willing to wager). Then starting pitcher David Toth did his thing: struggling in the first inning by giving up three runs right off the bat, then settling down and keeping Minnesota State from scoring again. But the key moment was reliever Andrew Mercer replacing Toth with two runners on base and just one out and pitching out of the jam without a run scoring.

Survive and advance is all but a cliche nowadays. But there’s no other way to describe how the USI baseball team plays the game. Besides, it doesn’t matter how you win as long as you win, and the Eagles seem to know how to do that better than anyone else right now.

Johnnie Guy and Elly Rono

They’re separated by 16 years, but they’re together now in the USI men’s track & field record book. Johnnie Guy on Thursday night became the first USI runner since Ely Rono in 1998 to win the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Division II Outdoor National Track & Field Championships. Next up for Guy, who’s just a sophomore, is taking aim at Rono’s two other national championships, set in 1997-98: the indoor 5,000 meters and a cross country title. Guy could also add an outdoor 5,000 championship someday (maybe Saturday, when this year’s race will be contested).

Assuming he remains healthy, Guy could easily surpass Rono. By the way, Guy’s winning time of 29 minutes, 33.31 seconds isn’t anywhere close to the school record. That’s held, not by Rono (who ranks second), but by Dustin Emerick, at 28:33.35, set in 2012 at the Payton Jordan Invitational (Rono’s best time was 28:51.91 set at the 1998 Penn Relays). Guy’s time doesn’t even surpass his best: 29:29.67, set this year at the Hillsdale “Gina” Relays; it ranks fourth on USI’s all-time list. But then, the pace of Thursday night’s race apparently was slow, which wasn’t Guy’s fault and probably played to his strength, which involves gradually pulling away from the field starting around 7,000 meters.

That was an interesting part of Thursday night’s race. Apparently, nobody knew anything about Guy’s running strategy. USI coach Mike Hillyard, with Guy’s concurrence, had deliberately kept Guy from going all out until the nationals. So nobody ever saw exactly what he could do. “Nobody had their eye on me and thought I was capable of winning,” said Guy. “So when I went by them the guy who was leading at the time I didn’t think took it seriously.”

One more thing: the runner Guy beat for the title, another sophomore named Michael Biwott, is Kenyan. Thus another feather in the USI runner’s cap — defeating a competitor from the best distance running country in the world.

Ford Center losing GLVC basketball tournaments

The GLVC men’s and women’s basketball tournaments that have been played here at the Ford Center the past two years will not return next year. GLVC commissioner Jim Naumovich told me there’s a conflict with the dates the GLVC would need next year at the Ford Center. He said the Missouri Valley Conference is requiring that the University of Evansville women’s basketball team must have those dates open at the Ford Center for the Aces’ final regular-season home games. So the tournament probably will end up at one of two proposed sites: Family Arena in St. Charles,  Missouri, near St. Louis (ironically, the site of the MVC women’s tournament) or the Independence Events Center in Independence, Missouri, near Kansas City. Naumovich will present the proposals at the league meetings on May 20 and a decision where the GLVC tournaments will be played should be announced shortly after that.

Yes, the GLVC will miss the Ford Center. “It will be very, very difficult for us to duplicate all the Ford Center had to offer us,” said Naumovich. The best part, he said, may have been the Ford Center’s version of the “One Shining Moment” video highlights reel that was shown on the massive overhead scoreboard after the trophies were presented following the men’s and women’s championship games. Not even the NCAA (or CBS) did that following the NCAA Division II men’s national championship game this year.

It’s a shame the GLVC tourney won’t return next year, especially with the Division II men’s Elite Eight coming back to the Ford Center. At the very least the GLVC was a good run-through for the Elite Eight. But it was also a perfect fit for Evansville. It provided a relatively inexpensive ticket to people in the Tri-State to see great basketball. It also got more media coverage here than it will get anywhere else, especially in large media markets like Kansas City and St. Louis, where it will be a mere afterthought. On the other hand, with the GLVC having expanded deeply into Missouri — seven of the league’s 16 schools are located in that state — it only seems fair to host the tourney there for at least a couple of years.

But Evansville and the Ford Center is still the best fit. Let’s just hope the Evansville Sports Corp. (with the cooperation of UE and the MVC) will put in a bid when the possibility comes up again in two years.

All hail Tracy Archuleta

Seriously. USI’s head coach has his baseball team on such a roll that it has won 25 of its last 27 games, has put together a 39-9 overall record, a 29-5 mark in the GLVC, a No. 1 ranking in the Midwest Region and a No. 8 ranking in the entire nation in Division II. Next up is the GLVC Tournament, with USI as the No. 1 seed in games taking place at Bosse Field and USI starting Thursday (under conference rules, USI must play at Bosse Field because it is the host) and a really good shot at hosting the NCAA Midwest Regional.

Of course, Archuleta would be the first to downplay his role in this. But consider what happened the past two years.

USI didn’t even make the GLVC Tournament — even though it has been the host the past two years. In a way, that was Archuleta’s fault as much as he deserves credit for this year’s success. Several key injuries didn’t help, but the team also never seemed to get its footing until it was too late in the season to make up for lost ground. The same coach who guided the Screaming Eagles to a DII national championship in 2010 seemed to have lost his touch.

Not.

Several players who were part of last year’s disappointment are key components in this year’s run. Others are either new or moved into the starting lineup off the bench. But if you’ve ever had the privilege of watching a weekday practice, you’d know that what’s been happening in 2014 could just as easily have happened in 2013 or 2012. Archuleta’s concentration on the basics of the game — things like throwing to the right base, bunting, knowing when to hit the cutoff man, taking the extra base on a hit or even a groundout, stealing bases, working the count, pitching to contact, etc. — have been his emphasis since he first arrived on the West Side.

From what I’ve heard there are many parallels with the 2010 squad, the most important being this team’s resilience and ability to come back and win after falling behind. Case in point: USI has won 11 one-run games this season.

With so many games, success in baseball depends on momentum. USI certainly has that right now.

Evan Brinkmeyer’s departure

I can’t say I was surprised when Evan Brinkmeyer decided to leave the USI basketball team. He never looked like he was having much fun during games or in practice. Going from being the star player on your high school team to being what amounted to a second choice off the bench must have been difficult. But he never really adapted to USI’s game. He was supposed to be a shooter, especially an outside threat. Yet, what I kept hearing when he decided to leave was that many of his high school points came off drives to the hoop, something that somebody should have realized would be all but impossible for him in the GLVC.

At 6-2 and, face it, somewhat chunky, Brinkmeyer wasn’t particularly built for the up-and-down game or even the half-court scheme that coach Rodney Watson employed. You have to be quick even in that situation, and Evan is not a quick player. On defense, it was worse; he got beat time and time again by quicker players. Watson always made it a point to praise Brinkmeyer, I guess to buck up Evan’s confidence. He often said he was a “clutch player.” But, I have to admit, I never saw what all the fuss was about.

I guess that was because I kept waiting for Brinkmeyer to become what Watson wanted: a consistently reliable 3-point shooter. He finished 10-for-26 from 3-point range over the two years he played, a .384 percentage, and was just 3-for-9 this season. Sure, he didn’t play a lot, getting only about eight to nine minutes per game off the bench. But he never was much of a catch-and-shoot man, which I think is the only way to be effective from beyond the 3-point line in today’s college game. Passes come flying out of the paint to the perimeter to players who only have a split-second opening to shoot, and Brinkmeyer never mastered that.

From what I’ve heard, he’s a great teammate and a wonderful person and an outstanding student. He’ll graduate in December with a business degree, and Watson believes Brinkmeyer will be an honest, trustworthy businessman. I can’t believe he won’t be. But college basketball — at least the way USI plays the game and how it’s played in the GLVC, the highest level of ball in NCAA Division II — wasn’t his strong suit.