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.

Coach Brandon Hogg?

USI men’s basketball already has a graduate assistant for this season. He’s former Reitz and McKendree star guard Clinton Happe. But I’d propose an additional grad assistant, if that were possible: Brandon Hogg. He’s already working with the guards, particularly seniors TeNale Roland and Gavin Schumann and sophomore Bobo Drummond (I profile Roland here, and he seems to be getting much help from Hogg). But Brandon has a lot to offer everyone, particularly in his knowledge of how coach Rodney Watson wants the game played.

What I really like about him is he was a self-made standout. He struggled his first two years at USI (although I understand on good authority that he and Rick Herdes, the coach at the time, were simply not compatible). Then Hogg came into his own after Watson was hired to replace Herdes. Watson kept Herdes’ offense, and Hogg proceeded to make himself into a major scorer, rebounder and passer who could take over a game all by himself.

“All my shots came within the system,” he told me when I talked to him about his work with Roland, who has to learn everything about Watson’s style and then produce after transferring here from Utah State. “I tried to get all my shots from within the system instead of going one-on-one.”

But Hogg said USI fans need to be patient with Roland and Drummond, who transferred in halfway through last season and was redshirted. “Everybody speaks highly of Bobo, but everybody has to realize he has yet to get one stat. You have good talent in Bobo and TeNale, but they don’t have one stat yet.

“Guys can be overwhelmed if it’s too much. I’m just trying to calm them down. I tell them, ‘You are playing with a lot of new guys.’ But somebody has to catch on quick.”

Sounds like a coach to me.

Nobody knows how good (or bad) USI will be

Not even Rodney Watson. When I talked to the USI men’s basketball coach last week for my Sunday profile on Shane Seniour, Watson seemed concerned, maybe even a little worried. I think it had more to do with the unknown than anything definite. He just doesn’t know how a USI team with no real post player — it has always had a legitimate post since Watson arrived before the 2009-10 season — will succeed. He’s had Tyrone Bradshaw, Mohamed Ntumba, Keith DeWitt and Aaron Nelson, all of them dominant in the paint.

This year’s hope is Shane Seniour, a 6-8, 230-pound junior-college transfer and former Castle star. He’s the closest person the Eagles have to a post (Conner Chalfant is 6-10, but he’s a freshman and probably will be redshirted). But he’s not really a center; he’s more of a power forward. So Watson is hoping for a sort of hybrid player of Seniour’s own creation to play both positions at once. But he doesn’t really know how that will work out.

“We don’t know yet what to expect from him in the lane,” said Watson. “I know he does things with a high intensity. He’s going to have to play with high intensity. Shane has to¬† read when he needs to be powerful and when he needs to use finesse.”

But don’t expect it to work right away. “This is not going to be ready the first week of November (that’s when USI will play its exhibition game at Division I Dayton, Nov. 8),” said Watson. “It’s going to take awhile.”

The same could be said for USI’s entire game plan. It will involve lots of running around. Constant running around. “We’re going to have to play really fast on offense,” he said. “We’ll have to have a lot of anticipation on defense.”

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.