Aaron Nelson: Only half player of the year?

One of the best players ever in a single season in GLVC history is only good enough to share Player of the Year? You’ve got to be kidding me.

I’ve seen Aaron Nelson in every game this season. I’ve also seen every other team USI has played this season, either in person or on video. But I have not seen one single solitary player come close to what he’s done — a player who’s pounded on every game under the basket and still puts together 22 double-doubles in points and rebounds. Heck, in my 34 years covering sports I have NEVER seen a performance by a post player like Nelson, at least not in the college game.

Frankly, this is worse than a joke. It’s an embarrassment for the league. What were the coaches thinking who voted on this award? Mike Carlson, a 6-foot-9 Truman State senior who shared the honor with Nelson, is a fine player. But he’s no Aaron Nelson. Carlson averaged 21.3 points and 7.2 rebounds and scored 30 points or more six times. Wonderful. But that’s not even in the same ballpark with a player who has 22 double-doubles, averaging 19.8 points and a national best 13.2 rebounds.

By the way, Carlson — an inch taller than Nelson but 50 pounds lighter — managed to score 15 points against USI, on Truman State’s home court no less (Truman won, 71-68, in overtime). He was 6-for-12 from the field, with nine rebounds, one assist and four turnovers. And Aaron Nelson in that game? He had 14 points and 16 rebounds, was 7-for-12 from the field and passed out four assists while blocking two shots.

But if you wanted to make your own comparisons, you won’t be able to. Truman State lost its first-round game on Sunday, so it will not be at the Ford Center when the men’s quarterfinals start on Friday. And who did the Bulldogs lose to? Illinois Springfield, which won 78-72 but has lost more games than it has won this season and barely made it into the tournament as the 12 seed. The PrairieStars’ reward is to play top seed and defending national champion Drury at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.

Meanwhile, Aaron Nelson just keeps plugging along. He led USI to a come-from-behind win against bitter rival Bellarmine at the PAC last Thursday night — and a season sweep of the Knights — by scoring the last five points of the game in a three-point win. Then he scored 10 of his 22 points over the final 6:45 to help USI beat Maryville in the first round of the tournament at the PAC on Sunday.

One person who knows a lot about stuff like this speculated to me that perhaps the coaches voted along East-West division lines. Really? In a year when every team played every other team in the conference at least once? I don’t buy that.

I think it was personal. Some coaches, for whatever reason, do not like Aaron Nelson. Maybe it was his two-game suspension for a violation of team rules (fair enough, but that has nothing to do with his play on the court now does it?). Maybe it’s just the way Nelson dominates everybody under the basket — that is, the thinking goes, he’s not really been tested (yeah, believe it or not, I’ve heard that excuse in years past for not voting a player a major hoops award). Whatever the reason, not making Nelson the sole Player of the Year in the GLVC is one of the strangest, oddest, goofiest decisions I’ve ever witnessed. Guess there’s only one thing Nelson can do — lead USI to the GLVC Tournament championship and win the tourney’s most valuable player award.

UPDATE: Aaron Nelson himself has a theory about what happened. “They don’t like Southern Indiana,” he said.

Rodney Watson on his USI seniors

Thursday night is Senior Night at the PAC as USI’s men’s basketball team plays its final regular-season home game, taking  on Bellarmine. The following are Eagles coach Rodney Watson’s thoughts about his senior class:

On point guard Lawrence Thomas – A five-year guy who’s been through everything we’ve been through. He’s part of our foundation. His role has been so unique because the ball has been in his hands three years in a row and he has to make so many decisions all the time. He’s a senior in the full sense of the word. He’s really produced and taken things seriously. He’s serious about his school work and is the kind of young man we want to turn out here.

On forward Taylor Wischmeier – “Wisch” came here under different circumstances. We usually red shirt our freshmen. He came in a year when our numbers were down (in the post) and we needed him to gain some experience as a freshman, and we’ve been leaning on him a long time. We’ve been leaning on him since he stepped on campus. He takes care of his business off the court, in the classroom and is steady on the court and has been a good teammate.

On center Aaron Nelson – He came in as a guy that had enormous talent and we saw it right away. It took him awhile to get going. But in the Philander Smith game, he took off in November (2012). And when Keith (DeWitt, last season’s post player) got hurt and was out for a month, Aaron continued to flourish. Then, as fate would have it on Jan. 20 (2013), Aaron got that (season-ending) knee injury. With a lot of guys going into their fourth year of college, it would have been easy for him to say, “These are the cards I’ve been dealt and things haven’t gone my way, so I’ll go do something else.” But he had surgery and rehab and came back. And to go and get all those double-doubles (in points and rebounds), I’m not gonna say that (record) will stand as long as Joe DiMaggio’s hit record, but there will be comparisons to it. It took 20 years to break the (USI double-doubles) record. The thing that we forget as fans and a lot of times as coaches is that all of his baskets and rebounds are coming under duress. He never gets a clean look.

On forward Orlando Rutledge – A very talented player. A guy that kind of changed his body language, which is kind of hard to do. He’s very quiet natured. To figure him out you had to look at him. This year, coming off the academic (suspension) situation (first semester), that first month was really tough. Instead of just giving up, he stayed with it. The big thing is he became more stoic, with less expression on his face. His expressions were so complicated to figure out. He was not a guy of words but a guy of expressions. Once he limited his expressions, his teammates and coaches found out how to play with him. Right now he’s playing about as well as anybody in this league.

On forward Manny Ogunfolu – Manny has been in an unusual situation also. It took him a year to figure out what was happening and he had a really good off-season and turned himself into a really good jump shooter. Then he tweaked his knee and he’s just now getting it back. The great thing about Manny is he’s a gentleman. I know he’s been disappointed in how we’ve played him up and down. But school has been really important to him and he graduates this spring. He’s a guy you know that four years from now he’s going to be just fine.

On guard Ben Jones – He’s a third-year guy who we really wish we could have gotten him out of high school. We really regret not having the opportunity to redshirt him. He’s hard working on the court and every bit as hard working off the court. He’s an absolute gentleman, a first class individual. He’s somebody who will also graduate this spring and go on and be an instant success. I’m anxious to follow him his whole life.

On center Chuck Jones – He showed up on our doorstep and kind of sacred me when he walked in. He didn’t know what he wanted. The first year unfortunately he had that (shouilder) injury. He took to rehab and worked so hard this summer and was not disappointed in any respect. We saw what he could do this summer once he rehabbed, and he’s proven it. Whether he’s coming off the bench or starting a game, he’s been a real factor in this 20-win season, He’s given us real depth in the post. He’s a gentleman and fun to coach. He takes what you say and takes it even further. He’s living proof that hard work pays off and his whole life will embody that.

On guard DeAndre McCamey – There’s a guy who got hurt early in his junior year  and then it didn’t’ seem like rehab went quite as smoothly as the others’ did. We were so void of a backup ball handler and that was his mission to be a backup ball handler to LT (Lawrence Thomas). He then hurt his ACL early in January. He had some good games up and some down. But his legacy is not what he did on the court, but being a good teammate. He could have been swallowed in a pity party. He’s been a good roommate and a good teammate. He takes school very seriously. He’s appreciated USI and what it’s done for him and he’ll take it and be very, very successful.

Rick Stein on his USI seniors

Thursday night is Senior Night at the PAC as USI’s women’s basketball team plays its final regular-season home game, taking  on Bellarmine. The following are Eagles coach Rick Stein’s thoughts about his senior class:

On guard Stephanie Carpenter – It’s been so fun to just watch her really develop as a player and as a leader. Her game has just continued to grow over the last four years. One of the things she’s done is she’s put the time and effort into it. She has been a three-year starter for us, basically. She could have rested on the skills she had, but she made herself better. She made herself a better basketball player and a better overall player. Her competitive nature drives a lot of that. She wants to win everything. She wants to win every drill, every competition. We’re talking about a player who’s (USI’s) leader in all-time 3-pointers made and who’s closing in on a thousand points. And she’s done that in just three years because she was playing behind two really great players her freshman year in Ellen Young and Amie Newhart.

On forward Nicole Hazemi – For Nicole to finish her career playing her best basketball is just awesome. She’s a young lady that has always come in here ready to go. I can’t remember a year when she came in and I said, “You didn’t do anything this summer.” She was always prepared to go. What we see … is her knowledge of the game just really has grown. Right now, she’s playing like a senior. She’s always been able to find the basket. Some people look at her shot and say, “I don’t know, wow.” But she has always been able to find the basket. She has always been able to make her teammates better with her play. She’s excelling on both ends of the court.

On point guard Ariel Barnes – Sometimes players’ roles change a little bit. With Ariel, we have depth at that point guard spot. One of the things “AB” has shown especially in this last month is she’s always been ready when push comes to shove. We need to really step up our game and I think our senior class has really been at the front of that. Ariel has been right there at the front of it also. She’s doing everything she can possibly do right now … in a lot of different ways behind the scenes, like the work she is doing to get our team ready to play before games and after games. She’s showing that senior leadership we need from her.

On guard/forward/center Jessica Parker – Jess I think  is kind of that X-factor player for us. She can play the better part of four positions. We have played her at the 2, 3, 4 and 5 this year and she has stepped up offensively and defensively. She’s a strong player and a quick player. She’s been able to do some things I’m not sure anybody else can because she can go to other positions. She was slowed by injuries a little. I think she’s had a great year. For us to have success going into the Bellarmine game on Thursday and the conference tournament and beyond, Jessica is gonna be a factor in all of it.

On guard Aubrey Minix – She’s a player that has overcome so many injuries. Since she walked in here she’s been battling something. She just came off hip surgery last spring. She goes through a lot of rehab and a lot of taping before practice and before every game. There are not too many days when she is not in pain. But with the commitment level she has, she wants to help in any way she can. She played seven minutes at St. Joe and had two assists for us. She’s player who, when her name is called, will do anything she can to help the team.

For USI women, it should be home sweet home

Expect the USI women’s basketball team to play a home game in the first round of the GLVC Tournament, probably on Sunday. If the Eagles win, they’ll advance to the quarterfinals, which will start Thursday at the Ford Center. And USI has a good shot at winning no matter which team it hosts.

At this point, Drury most likely will be the No. 1 seed and Lewis No. 2. Quincy probably will be No. 3 and either Indianapolis or Missouri-St. Louis will probably be the No. 4 seed. I think the Eagles are going to end up No. 6, which means they will probably host a team not only with a losing record but a team they have already defeated, maybe William Jewell or Missouri-S&T.

If USI beats visiting Bellarmine on Thursday night, the Eagles will enter the tournament on a four-game winning streak. That would tie its longest winning streak of the season (it started the season with four straight victories, but all were easy double-digit wins).

The key, I think, has been the much improved play of senior guard Stephanie Carpenter, who has averaged 17.8 points per game — and 51.2 percent (20-for-39) from 3-point range — over her last five games. The only concern came during USI’s last game, when she scored just eight points, going 1-for-5 from 3-point range. For the Eagles to advance far into the GLVC tourney — never mind the NCAA Tournament — they need Carpenter hitting shots from long range. It negates a lot of the double- and triple-teaming on the GLVC’s leading scorer, Anna Hackert. Besides, it’s how USI is designed to play the game, inside-out.

What went wrong

Talking to USI basketball coach Rodney Watson can be revealing or concealing. It just depends on what he wants to talk about when you ask him questions. But he seemed to open up when I pointed out on Friday — the day after the Eagles’ 92-67 dismantling by No. 4 Indianapolis — that his USI team has been wildly inconsistent this season.

“I think … it really comes down to matchups both on offense and defense,” he said. “Look at our games and especially our league play. Nearly every team in our league is different.” But there are teams the Eagles play well against, one of them being Indianapolis. Until Thursday night, USI had won four straight against the Greyhounds. In fact, USI handed them their last loss (UIndy has since won 10 in a row).

So what happened Thursday night? “We just didn’t match up with their intensity,” said Watson. “They stole 17 points off transition (fast break) in the first half against us. We were too often the eighth, ninth and 10th man down the floor on the defensive end. That’s the part that can’t happen.”

The other problem for USI was poor shooting, the result of not running the team’s half-court offense properly. That means the Eagles weren’t getting the ball inside enough to leading scorer and rebounder Aaron Nelson or, when he was double- and triple-teamed, getting the ball to the open shooters. “We weren’t making shots, so we never could get in a half-court game,” said Watson. “We have to have a half-court game.”

Think about that for a moment. USI used to be known as a run-and-gun team, one that tried to push the ball as quickly as possible up and down the court. Now it’s game is better suited to working for the best shot. Sure, it can still run, and it’s still quick. But most of that effort takes place in the half court instead of the full court.

My suggestion, for what little it’s worth: Run more. Opponents have been finding ways to close off USI’s half-court openings for the past couple of years no matter how talented its players. Open up the game just a tad more and, suddenly, the opposition will have something else to deal with. And why not press more, trap more, force your players to be more active on defense? Orlando Rutledge has admitted how his offense gets much, much better when he’s playing active defense; in fact, his highest point totals this season have come when he’s been shutting down an opposing team’s star player. Of course, it’s easier said than done. First you have to have the players willing to play that hard on defense ALL THE TIME. And the only way it will work is if they do that, and I’m not sure how you make that happen. Anyway, it’s an idea.

Drury No. 1

It’s over. Drury has not only secured the top seed in the GLVC men’s basketball tournament, it probably has locked up the No. 1 seed in the NCAA D-II Midwest Region, which means we’ll be returning to Springfield, Mo., in March. When the Panthers beat both Wisconsin-Parkside 54-52 at home on Thursday and Lewis 56-53 at home on Saturday — and with three regular-season games left against the likes of William Jewell, Rockhurst and Missouri S&T — the battle now is for the rest of the seedings. Figure Indianapolis, regardless what USI does to them on Thursday night on the road, will get the No. 2 seed, with Parkside No. 3 and Lewis No. 4. Then again, if UIndy loses at home to both USI and Bellarmine this week — and don’t rule that out — the Eagles have a shot at the No. 4 seed, I think. OK, it’s hard to tell for sure with all the tie-breakers the conference has, but I have to believe it’s distinctly within the realm of possibility, especially in this crazy season in the GLVC. Well, except for the Drury steamroller. Then again, the Panthers haven’t been winning by much on the road. They beat Missouri-St. Louis by just three and Maryville by the same number of points in two road games, escaped with a five-point overtime win at Quincy, won by just four at McKendree — and lost at Bellarmine by eight, their only loss of the season. And remember that USI pushed them pretty hard at the PAC before the Eagles lost by eight.

This is all about momentum, and USI could be about to keep it going. Aaron Nelson returns after his two-game suspension (and two USI victories). I’ve got to believe he wants to redeem himself for letting his teammates down. If he becomes even more of a monster than he has been this season (remember: 18 double-doubles in points and rebounds), I’d hate to be the Eagles’ final three regular-season opponents. And if USI goes into the GLVC Tournament on a five-game winning streak, I would put up the Eagles as a solid favorite to win the GLVC title at the Ford Center.

Which USI team will it be this week?

I give up. I can no longer figure out this season’s USI men’s basketball team.

The past weekend was simply more of the same. The Eagles lose in overtime at Truman State on Thursday after blowing a 17-point first-half lead. Then they win at Quincy on Saturday after building a 26-point halftime lead, let the margin slip to 11 points in the second half, then win by 27.

I give up because this keeps happening. Remember this team beating Indianapolis at home and Bellarmine on the road, back to back, then losing back-to-back games the next week on the road — in double digits each time, no less — to Lewis and Wisconsin-Parkside?

I give up trying to understand a team that can hit 37 of 44 free throws in one game (UIndy) and six of 12 free throws in another (Truman State).

I. Give. Up. Why, I’m even getting paranoid. When I talked to coach Rodney Watson after his team beat Quincy by 27 on Saturday (two days after losing in overtime at Truman State, the team that overcame the 17-point deficit), he concluded the interview by saying, “Our guys are playing hard — they are playing hard!” which I guess was a reference to my blog post on Friday accusing some of the Eagles of not playing hard all the time.

Well, I still believe that’s true, at least sometimes. And he seemed to admit as much right before he insisted his team was playing hard. “We talked for two days about it being a two-hour game,” he told me after Saturday’s win. That sounds to me like a plea for concerted, all-out, never-give-up, two-halves effort — which implies that it hasn’t always been there. “We definitely played two hours (on Saturday),” he said.

I completely and utterly agree with him on that. If USI keeps playing with that much energy the rest of the season, it will be hoisting a national championship trophy on national TV at the Ford Center by the end of March.

What’s wrong, latest edition

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.

 

Poor Bellarmine

And I mean that sympathetically. The Knights have been and remain a noble and most challenging opponent for USI, a great rivalry that essentially has replaced the rivalry the Eagles had with Kentucky Wesleyan once the Panthers left the GLVC for the G-MAC. But Bellarmine is struggling now. For all of USI’s recent struggles, the Knights are far worse off. They’ve lost four of their last five games, including three in a row (one of them last Monday at home to USI by two points in overtime). Bellarmine’s web site only has stats going back to the 2008-09 season, but at no time from then to now have the Knights ever lost three consecutive games or four of five. It will be most interesting to see how Bellarmine responds to being 5-4 in the conference — and 1-4 in the East Division.

And yet, the Knights have lost those four games by an average of just 3.5 points; the worst loss was the 76-68 defeat at Lewis on Saturday (speaking of close games, Bellarmine was 2-5 last season in games decided by five or fewer points and still reached the title game of the NCAA D-II Midwest Regional at Drury — and lost by just six points to the Panthers, who went on to win the national championship). Furthermore, Bellarmine is only one game behind USI, which is 6-3 in league games. Keep that in mind. The two teams meet again, in the final regular-season contest for both, at the Physical Activities Center on Thursday night, Feb. 27.

Here we go again …

USI gets two big wins, beating ranked teams Indianapolis and Bellarmine — the latter on the road for the first time in years — back to back. Then it travels to Lewis and Wisconsin-Parkside and not only loses twice but by double digits each time.

Sound familiar?

A year ago, in early February, USI had won three games in a row, beating Lewis on the road and stomping all over Bellarmine at home while also topping a lesser opponent in McKendree. Then the Eagles lost back-to-back home games, on Feb. 7 and 9, to Parkside and Lewis. The season suddenly seemed to plunge from “how good can this team be?” to “how much worse will it get?”

USI may be heading into this same situation again. Recall that after the Lewis and Parkside losses in 2012-13, the Eagles went on to pound UIndy and Saint Joseph’s on the road, regressed and lost badly at Bellarmine, then rebounded and won their last two games of the regular season by large margins at home over McKendree and Kentucky Wesleyan. Then they beat Lewis and Parkside in their first two games in the GLVC Tournament at the Ford Center and almost beat eventual national champion Drury in the title game (recall that USI led 65-64 with 1:50 left).

This week, USI hosts Illinois Springfield and McKendree, two teams with a combined record of 10-26 and a combined league mark of just 3-15. So the Eagles have a really good shot at getting back some of the momentum they lost on Thursday and Saturday. After UIS and McKendree, USI travels to Truman State and Quincy, two potentially difficult games but definitely winnable.

I still think this season’s team is a better squad overall that last season’s — much deeper, more talent, better height, length and quickness. But it’s a collection of interwoven parts. If one of those parts doesn’t function properly or vanishes (see Manny Ogunfolu’s absence the past four games because of a bad knee), things start to break down.

Coach Rodney Watson said Ogunfolu is supposed to be back to practicing this week. Things might be about to return to what has been normal this season. That is, winning consistently.