A few odds and ends wrapping up the USI men’s basketball season:
— Coach Rodney Watson and his assistants got pretty much what they wanted in their recruiting this past season: length, meaning height and long arms. That translated into a team that averaged a Great Lakes Valley Conference best 48.1 rebounds per game, with a league-best plus-12 rebounding margin. “We went out and got length and we really used that,” said Watson. “We were tenacious on the boards. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a team that did as well as we did in how we rebounded.”
— Watson and USI will sorely miss Kenyon Smith, one of the best defensive players in school history. In each of the past two years the 5-11 Smith led the team in steals (58 this year, 52 last year). But he was even more impressive in how he disrupted an opponent’s offense and, specifically, it’s top scorer. Reading the box score after a game one could often figure out who Smith had been guarding — the player with only a few shots, fewer baskets and very few points. “You don’t get many guys who are great defenders,” said Watson. “He was a huge factor. He not only was known as a great defender, he was by far the hardest worker in our program in every aspect of the game.”
— Remember that only three players on the USI team had had extensive experience under Watson’s system before 2012-13. Point guard Lawrence Thomas, who was starting his fourth year on the team, and forwards Taylor Wischmeier and Austin Davis, who were starting their third year, “were really the only three who knew what we were talking about when we started the season,” said Watson. “Other guys didn’t understand our league and our personality. We were really starting from scratch. But they picked up what we wanted to accomplish.”
The result was a 23-8 season, a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional and Watson’s first victory in the NCAA tournament — modest accomplishments considering USI’s long history of success. But they were building blocks. It will be interesting to see how high the team climbs in Watson’s fifth year as head coach.