Rodney Watson didn’t have a lot to say Friday afternoon when I talked to him for my advance on USI’s next game, at Quincy on Saturday. Mostly, he sounded like he wanted to get off the phone.
Can’t say I blame him. When your team blows a 17-point first-half lead and loses in overtime on the road, like USI did Thursday night at Truman State, it’s not only difficult to think about the future, it’s quite possible one dreads thinking about the future. All the questions I keep asking him after another Screaming Eagles loss he really can’t answer because I think he’s just as mystified as I am that this team could lose at all.
Seriously. They have one of the best players in NCAA Division II in Aaron Nelson, a point guard in Lawrence Thomas who has scored in double digits in each of his last seven games, a forward in Orlando Rutledge who has shown himself very recently as being fully capable of averaging far more than he did last season when he led the team in scoring and one of the quickest, most athletic guards in USI history in Gavin Schumann. And that doesn’t even take into account senior Taylor Wischmeier and redshirt junior Austin Davis, who are both in their fourth year on this team and should know more than anybody (other than Thomas) what Watson expects.
And yet this team has lost four games — with three of those defeats in its last five games. What gives?
I think it’s a lack of effort. Make that a lack of CONSISTENT effort. Gene Keady, the longtime coach at Purdue, often would scowl out at us reporters after a Boilermakers loss and growl, “Can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want to play HARD!” The talent to win was there, but the effort wasn’t.
I’m not saying that every USI player fails to give his best every game. It’s more like one or two here and there, and it’s not always the same players. But something inside them snaps or falls away or vanishes. Or their brain gets tired. Or they start day dreaming, thinking about the post-game meal. Then, when their fortune reverses, they panic.
Whatever it is, a lack of consistent effort has to be a major reason why this team not only can’t hold a big lead, but can’t keep increasing that lead. It’s a brutal image, but putting your foot on an opponent’s neck and continually pressing until you squash that neck is how you win. It’s also how you intimidate future opponents. Just the opposite occurs when you fail to squash that neck. Fear is replaced by hope which is eventually replaced by contempt.