Chancellor Dugan returns to USI on Thursday night, but this time as the coach of the Bellarmine women’s basketball team. The former USI coach can’t wait. Actually, she’d rather not have to meet her former assistant, USI head coach Rick Stein. But that’s the subject of my latest column here. Instead,let’s get into why she left Division I to return to Division II.
One reason: she quit her job. Actually, she was pushed out of her job when the president and acting athletic director at Florida Atlantic offered her a one-year contract when she wanted a three-year deal. Granted, she did not have a winning record at FAU. But I think she was also relieved she was leaving, which seems to be another reason for her exit.
“Florida is nice — for the first couple of years,” she said. “Then it’s the same every day. You get tired of it.”
Then, when she took her job in Louisville with Bellarmine, Floridians thought she was nuts.
“When they found out I was going back north, they were saying, ‘Oh gosh, you’re gonna freeze up there. It’s cold!’ But I just like the change of seasons. I like that basketball is number one in the state of Kentucky. It matters to people. In Florida, everybody knows everything about football. In Kentucky, everybody knows everything about basketball.”
Looking at the USI women’s basketball team’s last three games — all losses — one stat leaps out: the team has shot an almost microscopic 17.3 percent (9-for-52) from 3-point range. The Eagles went 4-for-21 at Kentucky Wesleyan, 4-for-18 at Wisconsin-Parkside and 1-for-13 at Lewis. When all you can hit are shots from inside the arc, opponents are going to pack their defenses around the basket and make life much, much more difficult for the likes of Anna Hackert, Mary O’Keefe, Cayla Herbst and Nicole Hazemi. And the player who appears to be having the most trouble shooting from downtown is junior Stephanie Carpenter. Over her last four games she’s hit just four of 25 3-point attempts, an average of 16 percent. She only shot three against Lewis (and missed all of them), equaling her 2012-13 season low for fewest 3-point shots in a game. For the season Carpenter is still averaging 36 percent. But she hasn’t sunk more than two in a game since she buried a season-high five against Saint Joseph’s. By the way, she’s shooting just 26.8 percent overall (11-for-41) from the field over her last four games.
Column on Lawrence “LT” Thomas and his playing through pain is here. Also want to point out that I had some goofy idea that he had been having trouble hitting 3-pointers this season and said as much to him after Saturday’s USI men’s basketball victory at Lewis. He sounded somewhat puzzled in his response, so I checked and, sure enough, he’s shooting over 43 percent this season. I guess what I meant was he has been shooting so little from beyond the arc. He’s still averaging just 2.2 3-point attempts per game even after Saturday’s seven shots from downtown.
What may be more important is USI needs him to keep scoring, especially with the loss of forward Aaron Nelson (11.9 points per game) with a season-ending knee injury. The Eagles are going to need more outside shooting to open up the inside for Keith DeWitt and Taylor Wischmeier (and Manny Ogunfolu, if he can find his shooting touch). It’s even more important since there are nothing but GLVC games from here on out and USI needs as many wins as it can get in order to get a high seed in the conference tournament, which takes place at the Ford Center this year. So far, USI is undefeated (10-0) on its home floor, with all three of its losses coming on the road, one on a neutral court. Coach Rodney Watson knows the deal. “Take care of the home court and be solid on the road,” he said. “There’s no help in January (and, I’m sure he also meant, February). You take care of your own business.”
Ben Jones, that is. Coach Rodney Watson gave a shout-out to his USI basketball team’s backup guard for what he did coming off the bench, particularly in the first half, at Lewis on Saturday. “Our unsung hero was Ben Jones,” said Watson. “He had 14 huge minutes.”
What made Jones play big? A 3-pointer he drained at the very end of the first half to put the Eagles ahead 43-26 by halftime, for one. His defense, for another. He helped keep Lewis’ David Bryant in check in the first half, limiting him to five points. Bryant finished with 18.
After Saturday’s games, there are now only three teams tied for first place in the GLVC East Division in men’s basketball: USI, Bellarmine and Wisconsin-Parkside, all at 7-2 in the conference. Bellarmine beat Indianapolis 77-68 on the road and Parkside topped visiting Kentucky Wesleyan — handing the Panthers their third-straight loss — 60-59. The number at the top of the heap will be reduced by at least one after Thursday night. That’s when USI hosts Bellarmine at 7:30 at the PAC.
USI’s victory at Lewis on Saturday was the first this season by the Eagles when they were outrebounded. Lewis owned the boards, 35-29. In fact, 29 rebounds was USI’s lowest total in any game this season, well below its season average of 42.9 per contest. But when he was asked about this, USI coach Rodney Watson credited his team’s 60 percent first-half shooting and Lewis’ inability to get the foul line in the second half. Still, this seemed to belie the coach’s belief that pulling down more rebounds than your opponent is the key to winning, especially for the Eagles.
Or maybe this was a special case. Watson was most happy with one number: USI’s nine turnovers. That made a big difference against a team as aggressive offensively as Lewis. That number was 10 fewer than USI committed in the loss at Wisconsin-Parkside on Thursday night. Whatever he and his assistants came up with in practice on Friday did the trick on Saturday. “We gave ourselves a chance to get to the foul line and a chance to score, to just stay in the game,” said Watson. “Good teams have to get good shots.”
Wonder when the last time five teams were tied for first place in GLVC men’s basketball? That’s the case in the East Division. Bellarmine, Indianapolis, Kentucky Wesleyan, USI and Wisconsin-Parkside are all 6-2 heading into Saturday’s round of games. Biggest games are Kentucky Wesleyan at Parkside and Bellarmine at Indianapolis. And USI at Lewis isn’t too shabby, either; Lewis is right behind that group, at 5-3.
With everybody beating everybody in GLVC men’s basketball so far, the GLVC Tournament scheduled for the Ford Center in March may be a toss-up, which would make for a much more interesting postseason. The only problem with that is that a school from the other big conference in the Midwest Region, the GLIAC, will probably end up hosting the Midwest Regional. A glance at the standings in the GLIAC (it stands for Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) shows that’s a distinct possibility. As of Friday, Wayne State is on top at 11-1, followed by Grand Valley State at 11-2. The next closest teams are Findlay and Michigan Tech, both at 9-4. Wayne State is near Detroit. Grand Valley State is located on the far western edge of Michigan. Both are long road trips for USI, although not nearly as bad as driving to the Upper Peninsula where Michigan Tech (9-4) and Northern Michigan (3-10) are located. Knowing what the people who put out the region rankings are like (the first rankings don’t come out until Feb. 20, by the way) the GLVC probably isn’t going to get the No. 1 seed in the end, unless there is a sudden reversal of fortune in the GLIAC.
I brought up something on Friday that coach Rodney Watson mentioned Thursday night after his USI men’s basketball team lost at Wisconsin-Parkside: what are the adjustments you’re going to make to make up for the absence of big man Aaron Nelson, now out with season-ending knee injury?
He went off — not in anger, but what sounded like exasperation.
“Every team has guys who have hot nights or get in foul trouble,” he said. “You always have changes. You are always adjusting.”
But this is a big adjustment — making up for a 6-foot-8, 249-pound hole in your inside game. Keith DeWitt, at 6-10, 220 pounds, and Taylor Wischmeier, at 6-8, 220 pounds, won’t be mistaken for Aaron Nelson. So USI will have to change how it attacks the basket and gets rebounds. But there’s some precedent for that. When DeWitt hurt his knee and sat for more than three weeks at the start of the season, Nelson suddenly found himself thrust into the starting lineup; he had been coming off the bench behind Wischmeier, who at the time was averaging around 20 points per game. Now the situation is reversed and Wischmeier has to rediscover what made him great in November and early December.
Whatever Watson and his assistant coaches come up with, they’re overall philosophy will not change. “It’s about layups and free throws,” Watson said Thursday night. But he’s said this all the time this year and last year and the year before that. The easy baskets underneath the hoop, the uncontested shots at the foul line — sink a lot of those and it’s a safe bet few teams will beat you.
Maybe USI’s men’s basketball team should be, or at least the student managers who pack the team’s uniforms for a road trip should be. So far this season the Eagles are 0-3 wearing their blue road uniforms. Play-by-play radio announcer Dan Egierski pointed out before the game at Wisconsin-Parkside tipped off on Thursday night that maybe coach Rodney Watson isn’t superstitious. But maybe now he is after his team lost to Parkside.
“We have to get rid of those,” he said, only half-jokingly, when I asked him about those losses in blue. “I’ll tell you what — when those managers pulled out the blue uniforms I should have told them, ‘You need to check with me first before you pack those.’ ”
Then he laughed.
I’ll bet USI is wearing its red road unis on Saturday.