Holding serve

With USI suffering its first men’s basketball loss at home on Thursday night — and a GLVC defeat, to boot — Saturday’s home game against Wisconsin-Parkside becomes overwhelmingly important for the Eagles if they are to stay in the hunt for the GLVC Tournament’s top seed. Or even a No. 2 seed.

With Parkside’s 75-70  win at Kentucky Wesleyan, coupled with USI’s loss to Lewis, the Rangers are now all alone in first place in the East Division — a team that was picked to finish sixth in the East by the league’s coaches before the season began. Parkside has almost no fan base — its home games are attended by maybe a few dozen people at the most — so it must get all its energy from itself. How this works I have no idea, but it does for Parkside.

Meanwhile, home losses in this conference are particularly awful. They force teams to have to win on the road or fall even farther behind. And winning on the road in the GLVC this season can seem almost impossible. So USI finds itself in a difficult situation with six games left in the regular season. It now really needs to win at UIndy next week, at Saint Joseph’s, at Bellarmine — and on and on. No wonder USI coach Rodney Watson — usually upbeat after losses, always optimistic — seemed somewhat worried after the Lewis loss (although he never actually came out and said he was worried).

USI’s best hope is that everybody continues to beat everybody else, winning games nobody expects to win. It should make for a free-for-all at the GLVC Tournament at the Ford Center.

Keep an eye on Drury

Drury is in the GLVC’s West Division and is not on USI’s men’s basketball schedule this season, which is probably a good thing for Drury. It leads the West heading into tonight’s home game against Missouri-St. Louis with a 9-2 record and has won its last seven games. After tonight, it hosts Maryville on Saturday. If it beats both of those teams, Drury is well on its way to earning the top seed in the GLVC Tournament at the Ford Center because USI, Wisconsin-Parkside, Bellarmine, Indianapolis and Kentucky Wesleyan are in the process of beating each other up in the East. USI has beaten Drury four out of five times since Rodney Watson became the Eagles’ head coach. The only loss, of course, was by a point in the first round of the Midwest Regional at Bellarmine in 2011.

UPDATE: Drury cruised past UMSL 90-75 on Thursday night.

Keith DeWitt, Player of the Week in the GLVC

Not surprised by this, of course. The USI senior center had a pair of games last week that were foreshadowed early in the season, before he hurt a knee, underwent surgery and sat out for about three weeks. He averaged 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, and 3.5 assists in wins over No. 6 Bellarmine and McKendree last week. He shot 71.4 percent (15-for-21) from the field and 66.6 percent from the line (8-for-12).  The back-to-back double-doubles were his third and fourth of the season. Of those two games, the most impressive was his effort against Bellarmine, when he scored 18 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out four assists, shot 75 percent from the field (6-for-8) and was 6-for-6 from the foul line.To really get a feel of how DeWitt plays the game, take a look at this photograph that USI posted with its announcement of his GLVC award. I don’t think I’d want to be a member of the opposition when he gets that look in his eyes.

If DeWitt plays like that the rest of the season, USI will be an extremely difficult team to beat. But he won’t be able to do it alone. The Eagles’ opponents, now that they’ve seen that the original DeWitt has returned, will concentrate more on stopping him. That will open up scoring for other USI players, especially inside. Now we’ll see if a healthy Taylor Wischmeier continues his play from Saturday at McKendree (18 points) and if forward Manny Ogunfolu can find his groove. Since Aaron Nelson’s season-ending knee injury, USI has won three of its last four games, three in a row of late. The Eagles also won when DeWitt was sidelined, with Nelson taking his place. Only briefly were they together in the lineup at the same time.

I think it will work out. Wischmeier is a much different player than Nelson, but is much more mobile. He’s a better fit with USI’s running style after spending two years in it. That’s the other thing about Wischmeier: experience. He’s been through this twice already; he knows what’s coming up, the challenges ahead. Do not be surprised if he becomes even better than he was early in the season. But there should be no surprises for him in the weeks ahead — only for opponents.

Wisch upon a star

Taylor Wischmeier scored 18 points against McKendree on Saturday, the highest number of points he’s scored in a game since Dec. 8, when he totaled 19 against Notre Dame College. Granted, he got 18 against an extremely undersized team. But regaining confidence in one’s shot and moves around the basket can’t be over-emphasized. Maybe this will be the game he can say he resurrected his game. USI needs him to return to the form he showed when he was averaging 18.2 points per game and shooting 63.9 percent (39-for-61) from the field over the first five games. Then he broke his thumb and hasn’t been the same since.

‘Hoosiers’ was wrong

Remember that scene in the great basketball flick “Hoosiers” where the Hickory team walks into an empty Butler Fieldhouse for the state finals for the first time and Gene Hackman, as the coach, has his players measure the height of the basket? His point is that the dimensions are exactly the same as the dimensions of Hickory’s home court. Well, technically that’s true, but it’s not nearly that simple. Every court’s shooting background is different, not to mention the tension of the rims, the liveliness or deadness of the floor, stuff like that. The point of this is that USI did not practice at McKendree before Saturday’s game. In fact, it did its shootaround back at USI before the team climbed on the bus to leave for Lebanon, Ill. I can completely understand why this was done — the trip was only a little more than two hours, letting your players spend the previous night in their own beds is always a good idea, not spending money when you don’t have to is a good idea (especially in Division II) and, let’s admit it, McKendree wasn’t going to be the most dangerous opponent on the USI schedule. But it took the Eagles an entire half to find their shooting eye, taking 41 shots in the first 20 minutes alone (while hitting only 17). They also had to get used to the nature of the gym. It was tiny, but the crowd was right on top of the game. From the video feed I was watching the place looked more like a middle school gym than even a high school gym. It was just very different from the PAC or anywhere else USI has played (with the exception of Maryville, which has a similar gym). Not that you can simulate a game in there during practice, but still, the facility was extremely unusual.

I don’t know. Saving money is pretty much the entire reason for being in D-II (that’s why teams stay in their own regions in the NCAA Tournament instead of being sent around the country to balance out the talent). But sometimes I think it can screw up a team. If USI had lost this game — and there was a distinct possibility until several minutes into the second half — I’m not sure the Eagles would have recovered.

No pressure

Anybody wondering why McKendree wasn’t fouling USI late in their men’s basketball game on Saturday, USI coach Rodney Watson has an answer: McKendree can’t press. “McKendree couldn’t change tempo,” he said after his team’s 78-68 road victory. “They’re not a trapping team, not a pressing team. So with a four-possession lead we had to be smart and get long possessions.”

Why press then?

Those of us at the USI-Bellarmine men’s basketball game on Thursday night should have been surprised to see the Knights pressing USI in the final seconds of the game. The Eagles had it all sown up, so why the press? My guess is that Bellarmine coach Scotty Davenport wanted to get his team above 50 points. Not scoring 50 points in a game is pretty embarrassing, I guess, especially for a team used to scoring more than 70 a contest.Turns out that Bellarmine hadn’t been held to that low a point total in almost three years. Still, a press against USI’s end-of-the-bench subs seemed pretty petty. Then again, USI coach Rodney Watson probably was grateful. Those subs got to work against something they would rarely see in a game.

Inside help needed

USI’s easy men’s basketball victory over Bellarmine on Thursday night masked a continuing problem for the Eagles since the season-ending injury to Aaron Nelson — a lack of scoring and rebounding from the Eagles’ forwards. Keith DeWitt had a monster game, of course, scoring 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds and going 6-for-8 from the field. But USI got little from his teammates in the paint. Taylor Wischmeier did score eight points but pulled down just one rebound. Manny Ogunfolu did not score and had one rebound. Austin Davis, playing more inside than in the past, also did not score and finished with two rebounds. So, in 55 total minutes of playing time, inside players not named DeWitt scored eight points, totaled four rebounds and went 4-for-10 from the field. Orlando Rutledge had six boards, but that’s not really his job. Lawrence Thomas, USI’s 5-9 point guard, had four rebounds. If DeWitt has an off night, it could get ugly.

Playing the spread

Have been so busy with other stuff I haven’t had time to blog about Thursday night’s dominant USI men’s basketball victory over Bellarmine. But there was one point in the second half when the Eagles went to what looked like a four-corners offense. They spread the floor and passed the ball around Bellarmine’s defense, forcing the Knights to come out and guard them. It used up a lot of clock, which turned out to be the point — in the end, the game took only an hour and a half to play compared to most college games, which take two hours to play. “They weren’t pressuring us hard, so why take quick shots?” asked USI coach Rodney Watson afterward. “Make them guard. And they were working pretty hard to get their shots.” USI’s defense got out on every 3-point shooter for the last three-fourths of the game — a first this season. Bellarmine never got an open look the entire second half, that I can recall.

Anna Hackert’s amazing run

The sophomore on the USI women’s basketball team has been named Player of the Month by the Women’s Division II Bulletin, and she deserves every bit of that accolade. Over the last nine games, all in January, she’s averaged a double-double, with 16.9 points and 10.9 rebounds. She’s also shooting 53 percent from the field and has registered five double-doubles in points and rebounds, including four in a row and seven for the season.

Somebody asked me the other day if she could wind up being selected as the national player of the year, and I said it really depends on what USI does in the postseason, especially how deep they go in the NCAA Tournament (if they get in, of course). That said, I think she’s well on her way to being named a D-II all-American if she keeps this up. And she just keeps getting better and better. Why, over the last three games — which the Eagles have lost — she’s averaged 17.3 points and 13.7 rebounds. That includes the career-high 20 rebounds she pulled down against Kentucky Wesleyan.

I can’t remember a women’s player at USI who’s been this effective since the last time I covered the Eagles more than 10 years ago. The only player who was similar from that period was all-American Eileen Weber, who also stood over 6 feet. But she was more of a slasher and shooter while Hackert is a muscle-it-up, take-over-the-entire-space-under-the-basket bruiser. One thing they have in common is an extremely soft touch around the basket.

I recall lots of people declaring that coach Rick Stein got a steal when he signed Hackert out of Memorial High School. She would have been the star player on any other team, but she was second to Mallory Ladd on the Tigers’ roster — and Ladd went on to finish second for the Miss Basketball award, play on the Indiana All-Star Team and is now starring at the University of Evansville. And USI fans get to enjoy Hackert for two more years.