NCAA Tournament, here comes USI

Hard to believe, but it appears to be true: USI’s men’s basketball team almost has a lock on an NCAA Division II Tournament spot. The Eagles were ranked No. 6 in the latest Midwest Region rankings, up from No. 9 last week. Eight teams get into the regional. If the Eagles beat Bellarmine Thursday night — and Bellarmine is ranked No. 1 in the region — and they win their GLVC Tournament first-round game at home on Sunday and yet lose in the GLVC quarterfinals, they most definitely will make the tourney. If they lose at Bellarmine and win on Sunday and lose in the quarterfinals at St. Charles, Missouri, I think they’ll still receive a berth in the tournament. Of course, if they win the GLVC championship — it would be their second straight — they’ll receive an automatic berth in the regional.

But just being in this position seems miraculous. When USI lost at McKendree back on Jan. 29, its season looked dead in the water. It was the Eagles’ fifth conference loss with eight league games remaining, half of them on the road. But, through Wednesday, they have won their last seven games, including a two-point home win over Indianapolis, which had beaten USI at Indy by 17 points.

One more thing: Drury fell out of the region rankings. Two years ago, the Panthers won the national championship. Last year, they lost to USI in the GLVC semifinals but ended up winning the Midwest Regional title (a tournament it hosted for the second consecutive year) and advanced to the Elite Eight at the Ford Center before losing in the quarterfinals. This year, they may not even make the NCAA tourney.

USI’s women’s basketball seniors

The USI women’s basketball team will honor seven seniors at its annual Senior Day ceremony during the game against Saint Joseph’s College. Playing in their final regular-season home game will be Anna Hackert, Mary O’Keefe, Autumn Miller, Libby Ogden, Cayla Herbst, Mariah Nimmo and Taylor Stevenson. Following are comments, edited for clarity, from USI coach Rick Stein on each player.

Stein on the seniors as a group: Very seldom do you get a class where every single member of it is a major factor on the court and in the classroom and in the community, and we have seven of them. Every single one of them has started at one time or another and they’re all in the rotation. It doesn’t happen with every class. It shows a talent level and a commitment level and how they have really grown and come together as a group and brought this whole team together as a group this year. It’s really a special group of seniors.

On Anna Hackert: Anna’s numbers already have her as one of the all-time greats here in points, rebounds, blocked shots and double-doubles. But the great thing about Anna is everything she does it’s trying to help our team win. Her numbers have her as one of all-time greats.

On Mary O’Keefe: I saw a stat of hers that she’s only 17 points away from 1,000 and only eight rebounds away from 500, one of only seven all-time who have done that here at USI, and I think of all great players who have gone through and not gotten that. She’s just been a really consistent force for us all four years. And she’s been a great leader on floor for us.

On Autumn Miller: She’s really taken on the leadership role for us, especially this year. As you watch our team and you see how she’s going, that’s how we’re going. She is a true point guard who really looks at that position as “I’ve got to run the show.” She’s at her best right now.

On Libby Ogden: Libby transferred in before her sophomore year from IPFW. One of things about Libby is I don’t think there’s a stat on the stat sheet that she hasn’t accomplished. You need someone to get to the bucket, she can. You need a 3, she can hit it. And she’s a lockdown defender and a player who can go get a rebound for us.

On Cayla Herbst: What’s been fun to watch with her is her understanding and how she has grown into her role this year. Her role has way expanded than it had been in years past and she has taken it on and hit the ground running. She’s not 20-point game kid, but she’s a kid on the stat sheet who is always a contributor. When she’s not blocking shots, she’s changing shots. She can be a defensive stopper in the paint.

On Mariah Nimmo: She’s probably one of the most team-oriented players you could think of. She’s always trying to find a way to do whatever our team needs to do to win. She’s made a 3, hit a pull-up jumper, made the right pass. More than anyone other than Anna, she has taken more big charges for us in critical games. She’s got a knack for it and loves to do it.

On Taylor Stevenson: Just a tremendous defensive player. I think of the players who have gone through our program, she’s a player that’s athletic and really gets to the basket and makes some plays. I think about her and her defense and what she can do. She has guarded some of best players in our league for a reason — because she can.

USI men’s basketball seniors

Saturday’s Senior Day ceremony during the home game against Saint Joseph’s College will honor the three seniors on the USI men’s basketball team: Austin Davis, a fifth-year senior who was redshirted as a freshman; TeNale Roland, in his first and only year on the team; and Gavin Schumann, a two-year starter for the Eagles after transferring from a junior college. Following are comments, which were edited for clarity, from coach Rodney Watson and the players themselves:

Austin Davis

Watson: Austin is kind of the prototypical guy we bring in where we redshirt him and build on his strength and (have him) learn the system. Here’s a guy who made as big basket as we’ve ever had that gave us a five-point lead in the GLVC Tournament at Springfield against Northern Kentucky (during the 2011-12 season). (Thursday) night (against No. 6 Indianapolis) he had 11 rebounds in his biggest game to date. He’s looks skinny but he has that mature strength … There are some people in that locker room even now who didn’t understand everything about (Thursday) night’s game. But Austin Davis does his best to get them to understand that.

Davis: Coming from high school, you think you know what’s going on. (But) it’s a growing experience and you don’t really know anything. It’s been a great experience. I think of the accomplishments we have had over the years and we (the seniors) definitely don’t want it to end any time soon. (What stands out are) two conference championships. I’ve also been a part of four NCAA tournaments. And just playing with some great players and being coached by some great coaches … Those I’ll take forever with me. Coach (Watson) was talking about this the other day, that a team is a lot closer to being a family than you think it is. You think about how much time you spend with the coaches and your teammates, it really is a family.

TeNale Roland

Watson: I think first couple of months were hard for him (after he transferred about two years at Division I Utah State). The first couple of months we had some pretty direct conversations about the defensive thing and the offensive thing. I think it was very important to know where his place was. Once we got through the non-conference season and started conference play, he started to settle in. The last month he’s really started to show what he can do. His defense has been paramount. With TeNale, he has shown our guys how to work on their skills. So many times I’ve been here in the morning and he was here, sweat soaking through his shirt putting up shots. He got so many shots up. He’s shown these young guys how hard to work on your craft. Not many kids in college basketball do that.

Roland: It’s been great. I got to meet a lot of new guys and it took me awhile to get settled in because I wasn’t here this summer. I get along well with all the guys and the coaches. It’s a great conference we’re playing in. Obviously, we slipped up in a couple of games, but I think it has been a great experience for me. It just took me awhile to get comfortable.

Gavin Schumann

Watson: Gavin came in last year and he was just trying to get on the floor. His game was more physical a year ago, and everything was pretty demanding in this league. One of the toughest things you have to overcome as a transfer in this league is you’re being scouted and you are being prepared for. I think that especially this year that really  sank in for him. Last year he knew if he could guard (an opponent’s) best perimeter guy, you couldn’t take him off the floor. And Gavin didn’t get senior-itis. He takes pride in that role of guarding their best perimeter guy. He’s a guy who has shown our guys how hard you have to play be successful.

 

 

And don’t forget the women

They’ve won their last six games. They could conceivably win their final three of the regular season — at home against Indianapolis and Saint Joseph’s (two teams they have already defeated on the road) and on the road at Bellarmine. They also have clinched a first-round bye in the GLVC Tournament, which means they’ll go directly to the quarterfinals at Family Arena in St. Charles, Missouri.

Individually, the keys to USI’s success have been Anna Hackert and her monstrous final season and the emergence of sophomore Tanner Marcum as a scorer to be reckoned with. Hackert is doing what we expected, although it must still be filed in the amazing category because EVERYONE knew — opponents especially included — what she could do. And she’s still done it while being double- and triple-teamed.

And Marcum? Well, I am not that surprised. She played little last season as a freshman, but when she did she looked good. She always played hard and never, ever looked lost; she looked like she’d been playing USI basketball for years. It was just a matter of plugging her into the lineup regularly, then sitting back and watching her shoot the lights out.

Which reminds of a stat that will blow the top of your head off: Marcum is shooting 50.7 percent … from 3-point range. She’s 34-for-67 beyond the arc, far better than anyone else in the GLVC (in second place is Drury’s Annie Armstrong at 48.8 percent). Heck, overall she’s shooting 54.5 percent — that ranks third in the GLVC. A guard shooting well over 50 percent from the field is almost unheard of because guards are mostly jump shooters, even the ones who drive to the hoop. They’re not tall enough to stand under the basket and get garbage points on putbacks off teammates’ missed shots (I am NOT saying that’s easy, just that it’s not quite as difficult as shooting from 15 feet on out).

Remember this season. They don’t come around like this very often (the last one? That would be 2000-01 when the Eagles advanced to the Elite Eight). If nothing else, appreciate the topping off a magnificent college basketball career with one of the greatest individual seasons in USI women’s hoops history while simultaneously watching the advent of another amazing individual career. Now THAT almost never happens.

Two weeks change everything

Not really. USI men’s basketball still has the same weaknesses it has always had this season, namely a lack of height and a lack of depth. But the team has found a way to make up for that with a humongous abundance of grit, I think. I don’t want to fall into the hole whereby I say that a loss to a bottom-dwelling team such as McKendree was the spark the Eagles needed. But I do think it showed them what happens when they don’t play hard.

Really, that’s where success in college basketball stems from. You don’t play hard — no matter how much talent you have — and there’s a good chance you’ll lose. Why USI wasn’t playing hard is something I can’t explain. Team dynamics are mysterious. Players either do or do not get along, but that doesn’t always affect winning and losing. I’ve always heard that some of Bruce Pearl’s teams in the 1990s had players who actively loathed each other, yet they still managed to win and win big.

Really, the best thing about USI men’s basketball right now may be Bobo Drummond. I’d even go so far to say that he is the key to the rest of the season. It took him more than half the season to get into a rhythm, as coach Rodney Watson likes to say. But now that he has, he’s amazing, often at the most opportune moments in a game — like the seven 3’s he hit last Thursday night at Missouri-St. Louis or the 3 he hit to tie the score against Maryville (after sinking a couple of 3’s earlier in the second half after doing almost nothing in the first half).

This season probably won’t end well. But it could be a preview of seasons to come with Bobo running the point. He could end up becoming one of the greatest players in USI history. He’s got two years left to get there. We may be watching a preview of coming attractions.

The number nine

That’s how many players are on the roster of the USI men’s basketball team as it heads into the final nine games of its regular season. Although coach Rodney Watson has said it’s a good number, believing that it’s good that the four players who do not start will know they are going to get in a game, I still think it’s a problem — perhaps a significant problem later in the season.

Certainly, not all nine players always get significant minutes. For instance, in the double-digit home loss to Bellarmine, 6-5 freshman guard Brett Benning sat on the bench except for one minute of playing time (although that probably didn’t matter the way Bellarmine dominated, shooting 74 percent in the second half). Still, the four who usually sub in — junior forward George Edwards (or junior forward Shane Seniour, if Edwards starts), junior guard Travis Britt, junior forward Nick Hutcheson, Benning — have been getting more playing time lately and were particularly effective against Lewis when the starters played poorly in the first half. Expect that to become a necessity as the games pile up.

By the way, those who are no longer playing (or who have never played) are a mixed lot. Junior guard Cortez Macklin, a good-sized 6-3, may have been an impressive addition, but academic issues forced Watson to redshirt him. The same thing has happened to freshman guard Calvin McEwen for second semester; he did play in eight games, but mostly he was part of the mop-up duty crew at the ends of games. Conner Chalfant, the 6-10 freshman, is redshirting because he’s just not ready to face GLVC-level competition. There’s also freshman guard Seth Lewis, but he’s a walk-on.

Regarding the academic problems, I don’t think Watson lowered his standards when he was recruiting these players. I’ve gotten the impression these situations were unexpected. That said, it’s still not good publicity for a program that prides itself on getting its athletes successfully through school. And yet, my experience with Division II hoops — I also covered USI in the late 1990s when Bruce Pearl was the coach — is that it’s far more of a crapshoot than Division I. Coaches, even the Rodney Watsons who seem to contact everyone who ever knew or coached a player, often don’t really know what kind of a person they recruited until they are on campus.

Getting back to the players who aren’t playing, all of them still participate in practice. They just won’t be getting into games. So USI will have only nine players to work with from here on. Heaven forbid the Eagles get into serious foul trouble in a game. But the more frightening scenario is fatigue and the problems it can cause, including the possibility of injury. This group was already short on height. If Seniour or Edwards (or both) gets hurt, the season is toast.

USI fans, it’s OK to knock on wood.

Dayton comes into play

That blowout USI’s men’s basketball team suffered at the University of Dayton may prove to be valuable Friday night. At least. Eagles coach Rodney Watson hopes so.

Recall that USI lost 96-66 in an exhibition game for the Division I Flyers back on Nov. 8. The Eagles looked particularly awful in the first half, falling behind 37-9 at one point while getting blown off the court by a team that was much quicker. Now USI gets to play another team that apparently is super quick: Florida Southern, which happens to be the No. 3-ranked team in the country in Division II. USI will face the Moccasins in the first game, tipping off at 4 p.m. CST, at the Bellarmine Classic.

“I hope the Dayton game helped us get ready for this game,” said Watson. “This team plays a very similar fast pace (compared to Dayton). Although they’re not as big as Dayton, they are quick.”

• Watson is worried about his team’s mind.

It has to do with final exams. They began this week at USI and they’ve been leaving players jumpy.

“It’s a mental drain on people,” said Watson. “Yesterday (Monday) we had a great start to our practice. But as practice went on, it got worse.”

He said he would be talking to the team about “staying mentally strong for 90 minutes of practice.” This doesn’t mean that Watson is putting down academics. No way.

“Regardless of what the public things about college athletes, school is paramount,” he said. “These kids are here to earn an education. The kids are really going through it. Bobo (Drummond) said to me (Monday), ‘I’ve never worked this hard in school and basketball.’ ”

 

Welcome, Bobo

USI coach Rodney Watson has said his team needs point guard Bobo Drummond’s 3-point shooting (in fact, he once wished the Eagles had had it last season, when Drummond was redshirted after he transferred to USI in the middle of the year). Well, it’s finally working out the way Watson had hoped.

The 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard leads the team with 12 3-point baskets — of the 18 he’s made overall — through five games. And 10 of those treys came in two games: his 5-for-12 performance from beyond the arc in the victory over Shorter University and his 5-for-10 effort in the win over Indiana East. For the season, Drummond is 12-for-32 (37.5 percent) from 3-point range.

But the Eagles need every bit of offense they can generate. George Edwards may be continuing his Aaron Nelson impersonation in the paint with his double-doubles, but you can bet that won’t continue come the GLVC portion of the schedule. Outside shooting appears to be the only constant offense on this team this season, and anybody who can hit 3-pointers with consistency isn’t a luxury but a necessity.

But there’s more to success than that, and Drummond knows what needs to be done. Play better defense, he says.

“Defense is our main focus,” he told me. “It’s one, two and three (in importance). Right now, our offense is a little ahead of our defense. But great teams I watch on TV, they don’t really rely on their offense; they rely on their defense. It’s about who wants to get down in a stance for 40 minutes on defense.”

He’s right, of course. USI is averaging 86.2 points. But it’s also giving up an average of 73.8. That won’t lead to much success in the conference. Digging further into the team stats, the Eagles have sunk 153 baskets — but have allowed 142. That’s not much of a difference. Neither is USI’s field-goal percentage of 46.9 percent and opponents’ FG average of 46.6 percent.

Keep hitting those field goals, but do it a little bit better, and also start getting more of a hand in the opposition shooters’ faces. The more separation USI gets in the number of baskets it makes compared to the number of baskets its opponent makes can only make winning easier.

Scratch a guard from the USI roster

Cortez Macklin, one of the new guards coach Rodney Watson brought onto the team for this season, probably won’t play any games. Watson said the 6-foot-3 junior from Louisville, Kentucky, and Rend Lake Junior College has some academic issues he needs to take care of and probably will be redshirted. Judging from his statistics — admittedly an iffy judgment considering that playing in a different system and in the GLVC is an adjustment for almost any player joining USI — Macklin could have been one of the team’s better players. He averaged 13.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists at Rend Lake, and his season-best game was 28 points.

USI fans may think that one fewer guard on a team that already had seven other guards won’t make much of a difference, but I disagree. A team that must use quickness to spread the court in order to make up for a height disadvantage can use as many quick guards as it can get if only to maintain the proper pace. And with Macklin available, the Eagles could rotate five experienced guards — including redshirt sophomore Bobo Drummond, junior Travis Britt and seniors Gavin Schumann and TeNale Roland — into and out of the lineup as a game progressed. And Macklin’s 6-3 size made him one of the tallest of those guards. Now Watson will have to rely more on freshmen such as the 6-5 Brett Benning, who he said would get a lot of playing time regardless, and 6-foot Calvin McEwen.

The importance of winning early

USI’s men’s basketball team opens its season on Saturday at home at 1 p.m. against Davis & Elkins, a school from West Virginia that plays in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (the league Kentucky Wesleyan fled to a couple of years ago). The G-MAC, as it’s called, has yet to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. But its teams are still in the Midwest Region, which means one thing for USI: this is a must-win game.

Of course, all games are must-win games. But often fans (and sometimes players and even coaches) don’t worry as much about these non-conference contests. Many are supposed to be gimmes — easy victories. Besides, it’s the conference schedule that counts, the thinking goes. And it does, but only up to a point. Lose a non-conference game and, if you find yourself on the NCAA Division II tournament bubble come March, your season may just burst into nothingness.

This could have happened to USI last season. Even with all-American center Aaron Nelson piling up all those double-doubles in points and rebounds and even with two victories over rival Bellarmine, home and away, the Eagles’ NCAA tourney hopes were never a given (not that it ended up mattering anyway as USI lost in the first round again, but that’s a story for another post). But they got in with the help of wins they earned over the likes of Lake Erie.

Remember Lake Erie? Second game of the season. At the PAC. USI was coming off a 70-61 season-opening win at archrival Kentucky Wesleyan. But the Eagles blew a 15-point lead in the second half against a Lake Erie squad that ended up finishing 10-18. In fact, USI trailed by two points with one second left in the game when senior point guard Lawrence Thomas hit a 3-point basket to win it.

USI coach Rodney Watson still says something to the effect of, “If we’d lost that game instead of winning it, we would have needed divine intervention to get into the NCAA tournament.”

Think about that during the Eagles’ first eight games — all non-conference opponents — of the 2014-15 season. If USI goes 8-0, it will make the postseason a much more likely possibility.