Kevin Gant returns

USI’s new assistant men’s basketball coach will look familiar to longtime Eagles fans: Kevin Gant (an announcement will be forthcoming over the next couple of weeks, after USI’s personnel department finishes the paperwork). He was the team’s point guard during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, leading USI in assists both years. In fact, nobody has passed out as many assists in a single season as Gant since he was on the team — 141 in ’09-10, 148 in ’10-11. And nobody has had the assist average he had, either: 5.2 assists per game in ’09-10, 4.9 in ’10-11.

How this will translate into being an assistant coach, well, we’ll have to wait and see, although he did work briefly as a USI student/graduate assistant after he used up his eligibilty. Gant didn’t talk much when he played; he just did his job. He led with his actions rather than his mouth. But I got the impression he got his points across in his own quiet way. Running drills during practice will get him to open up. And his knowledge of the game and how to run the point, he’ll be able to talk about that. Anecdote can be a great illustration. What he went through I’m certain he’ll be able to convey vividly.

Coach Rodney Watson doesn’t hire loud assistants. Some people who follow USI don’t like that. But what matters are the results. The Eagles haven’t done well in the NCAA Tournament since Watson arrived, reaching the second round only once, and that’s been a consistent sore point with many USI fans. A new assistant coach will be just one of several new cogs in the machine this season, and that machine will be expected to perform much better than it has. Maybe Kevin Gant, in his own way, will make a difference.

They’re tall, but just how good will they be?

All the height that the USI men’s basketball team added during its most recent spate of signings looks great (for background, read my story here). A 6-foot-7 and a 6-11 and a 7-1 are a combination the Eagles have not had at any point under coach Rodney Watson.

But will any of these guys turn out to be dominant players? Or even just plain good players?

Start with the 6-7 Emmanuel Audu. Watson admits — and Audu admits — that’s he’s not exactly a scorer (he averaged 3.9 points per game at Carl Albert State College). But he can rebound (he averaged 5.1 boards in junior college) and, supposedly, block shots. But he has a lot of work ahead of him to get used to USI’s playing style. The upside may be that he has three years of eligibility to do that.

As for 7-1 Davis Carter, he said he STARTED playing organized hoops his senior year in high school. He then went to a prep school, Bridgton Academy in Maine. After that, he signed with a junor college that, he said, was more focused on guards than post players. He realized his mistake and decided that maybe going to USI — which had seriously considered signing him when he was still in high school — would be a good idea. But Watson said he may be redshirted and that Carter is cool with that, so we may have to wait awhile to see exactly what Carter, who has three of years of eligibility, can do.

Them there’s the 6-11 Macam Macam. Watson said he was offered a scholarship by Syracuse. But, in the end, he didn’t end up at any Division I school, instead going to a junior college in Kansas. I understand the holdup may have had something to do with academics related to his deafness. In any case, he has the respect of at least one online recruiting service, Rivals.com, which rated him a four-star recruit, with five stars being the top rating. On the other hand, we’ll apparently have to wait until after school starts in August to see what he can do; Watson said he’s at home in Lynn, Massachusetts (Macam is a native of Sudan), and will not arrive at USI until the start of the fall semester.

That’s not a great sign. Working out with his future teammates on campus over the summer would allow him to get to know them and help him start to figuring out how he will fit in to the Eagles’s offensive and defensive schemes. I understand that he is sensitive about his deafness. But he’s going to have a fairly steep learning curve when he does show up and only a couple of months to climb it. And don’t forget that everybody will have to acclimate themselves to communicating with him, either through sign language or an interpreter, adding another level of adjustment.

At least give Watson credit for finding not one, not two, but three bigs. We just won’t know if they’re any good until after the season begins. If then.

Big additions

USI men’s basketball is going big.

Coach Rodney Watson has reportedly gotten commitments from two very tall post players: 7-foot-1, 235-pound Davis Carter and 6-11, 230-pound Macam Macam. Carter, who attended a junior college in Nebraska last season, seems to be a project (he averaged just 2.5 points and 3.0 rebounds at Western Nebraska Community College); he’ll apparently have three years of eligibility at USI. But Macam, who will have two years of eligibility, sounds like the real deal. According to a post at Rivals.com last fall, he’s been tagged a “high-level talent.”

From the post: “… the Boston area product is a legitimate four-star prospect capable of making an impact at the high-major level. Macam is also certified as disabled because he is deaf. However, watching him play one would never guess that he has any kind of disability. Big and strong, Macam was able to do whatever he wanted to around the rim. He chased down rebounds in and out of his area, swatted shots and even stepped out and hit some jumpers. A transfer from Massachusetts Bay Community College in the Boston area, Macam averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds per game as a freshman and those numbers should rise as a sophomore. Macam plays spirited ball on both ends of the floor and has the tools to help out at a high level if his academics are in order.”

Notice Macam is deaf, which may be why he’s ended up at a Division II school instead of in Division I. I’m assuming Watson and his staff will be learning (or already have learned) the basics of sign language. Anyway, Macam averaged 14.5 points, 57.7 percent field-goal shooting and 10.0 rebounds last season at Brown Mackie College, a junior college in Salina, Kansas. But the most notable thing about him may be his shot blocking: he averaged 2.3 blocks per game, totaling 66 for the season (as a team, USI finished with 76). Without a consistent shot blocker this past season, Eagles opponents drove to the rim frequently and successfully. And Macam’s rebounding would also be a major plus. Meanwhile, expect returning point guard Bobo Drummond’s assist totals to rise dramatically next season.

Macam is the type of player USI was rumored to be about to sign last summer, but it never materialized, and the Eagles suffered accordingly. With a small, guard-oriented group. they played well at times but seemed to run out of gas by the end of the season.

In other hoops news, senior-to-be forward George Edwards apparently has been redshirted for next season. Recall that the 6-6 Edwards — the team’sleading rebounder last season and one of its leading scorers — was arrested for drunk driving early this spring, and Watson suspended  him from the team indefinitely.

Who will be USI’s new assistant men’s basketball coach?

In the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t seem that important. Assistant basketball coaches come and go, and, at USI, head coach Rodney Watson is very much in charge of every single practice, literally right in the middle of all of them. So it didn’t come as a surprise when he said the person who will replace Gerad Good — who left to become head coach at his alma mater, Manchester University — might very well be a former player of Watson’s.

“I’d like to find someone who is familiar with what we do,” said Watson the day the Good announcement came out. “I’d like to look at a former player. That would be really advantageous for us because … they would know our personality and know the culture of USI.”

I know, I know. Some of you out there think maybe USI needs someone who is NOT connected to the current men’s basketball culture. Maybe that would get the Eagles not only into but through much of the NCAA Tournament. An assistant coach also can influence recruiting, bringing in players who might not otherwise play here. But I can see Watson’s point: He wants someone he can work with, someone who can implement what he (Watson) wants done.

A winning basketball team is more than just a great coach, great assistant coaches and great players. If they’re great individually, they more than likely won’t be great collectively. It really is about team. Success is about getting all the parts to work together in a way that nobody outside that team can do anything to beat.

What a way to end a season

In the end, the USI men’s basketball team missed a bunch of layups while losing to 11th-seeded Maryville in the GLVC Tournament on Sunday. But that was nothing new. The Eagles have been doing that a lot lately. George Edwards, just as an example, has lately been driving to the basket only to push the ball over the rim or watch the ball bounce off the backboard or, worst of all, see it drop through and then pop out of the cylinder. Same thing with Shane Seniour and TeNale Roland and Bobo Drummond and Austin Davis and Gavin Schumann on one of his wild drives through the paint. But it happened so much I have to believe it was more than mere bad luck. Shooting too hard? Shooting too softly? Layups are both the simplest and most difficult of shots. We saw that in game after game this season with USI.

But that wasn’t the only thing that went wrong during Sunday’s 72-71 overtime loss. The Eagles also couldn’t hit from 3-point range consistently. They went 8-for-24 beyond the arc. Roland hit three of them and Schumann and Davis sank two each. But Drummond, who had been mostly money from 3 the past several games, went just 1-for-8. If he’d just sunk one more trey …

Anyway, USI’s NCAA Tournament hopes may not be completely dashed. Yes, it’ll be very tough to get a berth after losing at home to a team that’s under .500. But if there are no surprises in both the GLVC and GLIAC tournaments — that is, no bad teams win their respective conference championships — the Eagles may just squeak into the Midwest Regional, which probably will take place at Bellarmine in Louisville, Kentucky. USI was the No. 6 team in last week’s Midwest Region rankings. Eight teams receive berths in the Midwest Regional.

Eagles fans, there is still hope.

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 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.

 

 

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.’ ”