Updates on Kyle Freeland, Mislav Brzoja and a UE men’s basketball target

Some news and notes regarding University of Evansville athletics:

— Former UE left-hander and 2014 MLB first-round draft pick Kyle Freeland made his second professional start Monday night for the Grand Junction (Colorado) Rockies, Colorado’s Rookie League affiliate.

Freeland tossed three innings, allowing four hits and one earned run while striking out two. In his first appearance, Freeland pitched two scoreless innings, so his ERA is currently a solid 1.80.

Mislav Brzoja, a 6-4 guard who has three season of eligibility remaining with the Aces beginning with 2014-15, is midway through the European Championships playing for Croatia’s U20 national team.

Through five games in which Croatia has gone 2-3, the Villanova transfer is averaging 30 minutes, 9.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists. Brzoja is also tied for the team high with 3.4 turnovers per game.

Although Brzoja is not currently working out on campus like many of his UE teammates, playing in a structured environment (and for 30 minutes per game) against quality competition is a productive use of his summer. And Aces fans probably like those rebounding numbers considering UE finished second-to-last in rebounding margin last year in the Missouri Valley Conference (minus-2.1).

The U20 European Championships are being held in Crete, Greece.

— This tweet from Wednesday lists Evansville among four Division I schools that have offered scholarships to Class of 2015 forward Dean Wade.

The 6-foot-8 Wade averaged 22.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.7 blocks during his junior season for St. John (Kansas) High School. His team finished 26-0 and won the Class 2A state title.

Here is a video of Wade dunking in the state championship game that is pretty entertaining for three reasons: 1) it’s a nice move; 2) the commentator cackles like a madman; and 3) Wade gets knocked over awkwardly by the guy taking the ball out of bounds.

Wade is listed as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com.

ESPN analyst lauds UE men’s basketball commit’s physical play

On Thursday night, ESPN recruiting analyst Reggie Rankin tweeted about 6-foot-9 class of 2015 power forward Dainius Chatkevicius, linking him to Evansville and lauding his physical play and willingness to do the dirty work to help his team.

This is the first I’ve heard of Chatkevicius; in fact, if you Google “Chatkevicius Evansville,” you won’t find anything other than the tweet that links the 245-pound forward to UE.

While it’s often tough to find much on European players — Chatkevicius is from Lithuania — I was able to dig up a few tidbits about him.

  • The 19-year-old (born July 9, 1995) played sparingly on his country’s U18 national team last year during the European Championships. He averaged 10.6 minutes in nine games, recording 2.3 points and 1.3 rebounds per contest. He had a high of six points in a 74-70 win over Serbia.
  • He plays high school ball in the States at West Oaks Academy in Orlando, Florida, and with a respected AAU program in Florida Elite.

 

The recruitment of Chatkevicius continues UE head coach Marty Simmons’ trend of going after European players, and Lithuanians in particular. Starting big man Egidijus Mockevicius is from Lithuania, and so is Rokas Cesnulevicius — who was granted a medical exemption this spring due to injury. Cesnulevicius will no longer play for the Aces but retained his scholarship and will remain with the team in an off-the-court capacity.

Another European, 6-4 Mislav Brzoja from Croatia, is expected to contribute this year after sitting out last season following his transfer from Villanova. Sergej Vucetic, a 7-foot-1 center from Serbia, will sit out this season after transferring from Nebraska.

Simmons discusses personnel, areas to improve

During Marty Simmons’ segment of the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball coaches’ conference call Tuesday, the University of Evansville head coach discussed some of his players and key areas he’d like to see the Aces improve this season.

Full audio for the entire conference call can be found here. Below are the highlights from Simmons’ segment:

On shooting guard D.J. Balentine, the MVC’s leading scorer last season, and Balentine’s continued improvement: “He certainly had an outstanding season for us, but I think he’s a real driven young man (and) wants to get better defensively, rebounding. He did a terrific job of getting to the free-throw line. Just the overall leadership, he’s not on the floor as vocal as he his off the floor, but he’s just taking the role as more of a leader.”

On Mislav Brzoja, a 6-foot-4 Villanova transfer who will be eligible to play this season after sitting out the 2013-14 campagin. Brzoja is currently in Croatia playing for his country’s U-20 national team: “He’s really a good all-around player, a good versatile player, can play anywhere from 1-4, shoots the 3, good passer; a strong, athletic kid who has a lot of experience.”

On Willie Wiley, a 6-7 junior-college transfer from Vincennes University: “We have not been a good offensive rebounding team and he adds to that with his length. He’s got good hands and he comes from a program that’s had a lot of success. … He’s a terrific kid and someone who wants to be really good. I think he’s gonna bring a different dimension to our basketball team.”

On Taylor Stafford, a combo guard who transferred from Eastern Arizona College: “He can shoot the 3 off the catch, off the dribble. He’s really quick, really athletic, someone that has a terrific attitude and wants to be good.”

On trying to develop leaders on last season’s young team, and continuing that process this year: “We certainly tried to cultivate it. We have a small group of young men that we meet with weekly, just talking about it and encouraging it in different ways, but certainly addressing it. It’s not an easy thing. We probably don’t have any natural leaders; we’ve got a lot of guys that certainly can lead by example, but (not) the voiceful, emotional type of leader that I think’s important for teams to have. We’ll continue to work on that, but I think somebody will certainly come forward.”

On what Simmons would like to see the Aces improve from last season, when they finished 14-19:  “We’ve just gotta have a better mentality; we’ve gotta be harder-nosed, and that includes rebounding. That starts with the head coach, down through the staff and to the players. We’ve gotta be harder to score against.”

“Offensively, just being a more consistent shooting basketball team. I think at times, we shot the ball very well. Other times we didn’t. We’ve worked really hard here in the offseason. Guys are getting tons of shots up. I think that’s an area that will be better for us than in the past.”

“Being stronger with the basketball, not turning it over.”

A chat with Marty Simmons

I met University of Evansville men’s basketball coach Marty Simmons Thursday, and it didn’t take long for us to start chatting about next season.

The discussion centered around the Aces’ junior college transfers — 6-foot-1 combo guard Taylor Stafford and 6-7 power forward Willie Wiley — but Simmons also touched on other topics, including how star guard D.J. Balentine informed him that 6-10 center Egidijus Mockevicius has been drilling 3-pointers in workouts. Simmons laughed when he said this, so don’t expect Mackevicius to abandon the low post and start hoisting treys this season.

Anyway, here is what Simmons had to say:

On Wiley: “He’s long and he’s got shot-blocking ability. The neat thing is he has the ability to step out and make perimeter jump shots, but we think one of his greatest assets is the glass. He’s got big hands, he’s long and he’s athletic. He’ll not only help us on the defensive glass, but give us something that we’ve lacked in an offensive rebounding threat.”

On Stafford: “He’s kind of an Energizer bunny. He’s got a high motor and he loves basketball. He can score. He’s a good shooter, elevates on his jumper.”

We talked about how UE brings back everyone who contributed at the end of last season (Ryan Sawvell was a key piece before transferring mid-season), and where the transfers would fit in.

Simmons: “When you have a bunch of guys back, it’s always interesting to see how the new guys (fit). They both have good personalities and are both big team guys. I think they both bring some qualities that maybe we didn’t have.”

“I just think from a depth standpoint, going into it, this is our best group. We feel like we’ve got a lot of versatility, a lot of flexibility. We can play big, we can play small, we’ve got some athletic teams we can put out there, got some guys that can shoot the ball. The neat part’s gonna be the competition — we’re going to have more competition in practice every day than I think we’ve ever had here.”

The players are lifting weights and conditioning this summer in addition to the allotted two hours of individual instruction per week with the coaching staff.

 

 

Analyzing the outlook of UE men’s basketball

At the end of the 2013-14 season, I wrote a season recap with a few graphs outlining the outlook for the UE men’s basketball team next season. I had no idea how much it would change during the offseason.

Three signees and a transfer later, the Aces, on paper, look like a completely different team heading into the 2014-15 season. UE snagged two JUCO All-Americans in Taylor Stafford and Willie Wiley but lost freshman sharpshooter Tyler Ptacek. With Ryan Sawvell’s available scholarship and Ptacek leaving, it seemed like the two scholarships were filled with the JUCO signees.

Until this week.

UE announced yesterday that Rokas Cesnulevicius was granted a medical exemption, which freed up another scholarship. (Medical exemptions allow the player to keep the scholarship, but it does not count against the team scholarship numbers regulated by the NCAA). Most figured Cesnulevicius, who did not play last season due to injury, would be granted a redshirt, so the medical exemption that will end his collegiate career came as a surprise. But that meant another scholarship was available.

Today, the Aces announced a third signee, Sergej Vucetic from Nebraska, filling that third open scholarship.

This last signee seems to be it for this year: three players gained, two lost, and the third done with his collegiate playing career.

Here’s what it will look like class-by-class in 2014-15:

Freshmen: none
Sophomores: Duane Gibson, Jaylon Brown, Christian Benzon, Blake Simmons, David Howard (RS soph), Sergej Vucetic*
Juniors: Taylor Stafford, D.J. Balentine, Adam Wing, Mislav Brzoja, Mike Leazer, Willie Wiley, Egidijus Mockevicius
Senior: Jaylon Moore
*Vucetic will sit out in 2014-15, but will have two years of eligibility left, therefore part of the class of 2017

Now comes the fun part: re-predicting what UE will look like in the upcoming season. Stafford and Wiley will be able to play immediately, which will give the Aces more options, and in two years, the addition of Vucetic (and potentially any incoming 2015 freshmen) will just pad UE’s depth.

Here’s my take on next year’s Aces:

Stafford could possibly grab the starting point guard spot from Duane Gibson. Stafford is undersized, but he’s an excellent outside shooter, something Gibson and Jaylon Brown weren’t able to develop last season. Stafford’s 40.2 3-point percentage is outrageous and was NJCAA’s fourth-leading scorer with 25 points per game. Stafford said he prefers point guard, but he also plays well off the ball (think D.J. Balentine-esque). If Stafford’s experience and scoring trumps Gibson’s ball-handling and decision-making, that makes the point guard spot a three-man rotation with Stafford, Gibson and Brown. Minutes will be competitive in the backcourt.

UE will immediately go big. At 6-foot-7, 215 pounds, Wiley is a more athletic and stronger Ryan Sawvell and has comparative size to Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early (Early is 6-foot-7, 207). He’s also more dominant on the boards than Sawvell was, averaging 8.3 rebounds per game last season at Vincennes. Add him to 6-foot-10 Egidijus Mockevicius and the Aces may not have to worry about being outrebounded as much — they lost the rebounding battle 16 times this season.

But the Aces will have ample opportunity to go both big or small. UE can have a tall, rebound-happy frontcourt with Wiley and Mockevicius, but can also go smaller with a combination of David Howard (6-foot-8), Jaylon Moore (6-foot-7), and Blake Simmons (6-foot-5). The Aces don’t have a big backcourt to begin with, but add 6-foot-4 Mislav Brzoja and 6-foot-4 Adam Wing into the mix at the ’3′ and that’s a significantly taller lineup than last year. It’s easy to see UE going small, though: Jaylon Brown is 6-foot-0, Stafford is 6-foot-1, Balentine is 6-foot-2, Duane Gibson is 6-foot-3. Throw three of them in with Simmons and Moore/Wiley and you’ve got a quicker, smaller Aces lineup.

In 2015-16, UE will have even more options. That’s when Vucetic will be eligible and the Aces will lose just Jaylon Moore to graduation, and I think you can see where I’m going with this. The frontcourt will be Vucetic, Mockevicius, Wiley, Howard and the backcourt will be stacked with Stafford, Gibson, Brown, Balentine, Wing, Brzoja, and Christian Benzon. And that’s not even including any 2015 freshmen that UE signs.

The Morning After: Illinois State

Now that we’ve all had 14 hours to digest the game, here we go.

Stories from last night’s OT thriller:

–Courier & Press: http://bit.ly/MOJGQ5
–Bloomington Pantagraph: http://bit.ly/1gv54EC

Some observations:

–An hour or so earlier, Indiana blew an 11-point lead at home to Penn State and lost the game. When Illinois State started creeping back in the game, the thought that UE could collapse like the Hoosiers crossed my mind. After Nick Zeisloft hit his fourth 3-pointer of the night to give the Redbirds their first (and eventually only) lead of the night, what impressed me most was how the Aces kept attacking. The refs were calling the game tight all night and D.J. Balentine recognized that, getting to the line twice in the final minute of regulation to give the Aces the lead again. Luckily for the Aces, they didn’t end up like the Hoosiers.

–Speaking of free throws, 56 attempts is ridiculous. The last time UE attempted 50+ free throws was against Norfolk State in 2010. In the four-game slump, head coach Marty Simmons stressed the importance of the team continuing to play aggressively and getting to the basket. That came in flurries last night. Between the 15:39 and 8:15 marks of the second half, 16 of UE’s 20 points came from the foul line. Yes, it makes the game slower but it also puts the other team in foul trouble. Four Illinois State players fouled out, including its three top scorers, thinning the bench and forcing inexperienced players to perform in clutch situations.

–More about free throws: D.J. Balentine and Jaylon Brown. Brown is a 44 percent shot from the foul line on the season and he came up huge for the Aces, hitting all four of his shots to seal the game. Duane Gibson fouled out at the end of regulation, which essentially gave Brown his “time to shine,” and Balentine went 20-for-25, tying the single-game record for most made free throws.

–The first 20ish minutes of the game were exactly how the Aces played at the very beginning of the season. They were confident — surprisingly so, seeing how they played their past four games — aggressive, persistent on the glass. That’s how they started out 5-0, and that’s how Simmons has been urging his team to play the entirety of the MVC season. We saw glimpses of it — at Southern Illinois, against Bradley, at times at Missouri State and Illinois State — and we saw a full half of it last night.

Some quotes:

–Balentine on whether UE was prepared for Illinois State’s switch to man-to-man defense: “Not really. We played against man all the time. But for them, no. They haven’t played man all year in conference, so that’s what coach said at halftime, that we have to be prepared.”

–Balentine on if the 5:05 stretch without a FG was a concern: “Not really. We’re going to have those moments where we can’t hit anything. That’s where we have to attack and get to the FT line. That’s the main thing—if shots arent’ falling, get to the bucket.”

–Simmons’ initial thoughts: “Really proud of our team. There are so many times during the last five minutes and during the overtime where it looked like we were ready to break. Lots of frustration, a lot of disappointment, guys weren’t feeling confident. For them to bond together and to fight through it and make good play after good play to win the game, I’m proud of them. They deserve it.”

And some #statnuggets:

– UE’s 104 points marked the most since scoring 115 at Hawaii-Hilo on Nov. 28, 1998 and was the most versus a Division I opponent since taking a 110-64 win over South Alabama on Dec. 14, 1994.

–It was the most against a conference opponent since taking a 115-104 road win at Loyola on in 1989 and was the highest home conference output since a 109-83 win over Dayton that same season. Of significance in that game was Scott Haffner’s school record of 65 points.

–The most free throw attempts UE had all season prior to last night was 39 against Miami (Ohio).

–The Aces had three players in double figures after just the first half: Balentine, Blake Simmons and Egidijus Mockevicius. At the end of the game, UE still had three players in double figures.

The Morning After: Bradley

The 6-foot-0 freshman guard got his first start Sunday vs. Bradley.

The 6-foot-0 freshman guard got his first start Sunday vs. Bradley.

Stories from Sunday’s 66-60 win over Bradley:

–Courier & Press: http://bit.ly/L2qtt8
–Peoria Journal Star: http://bit.ly/1f6Ea3u

Some observations:

–UE whipped out the pick and roll in early possessions and played stifling defense in the first half of the game. I was really impressed with how the Aces (especially Adam Wing and Egidijus Mockevicius) hedged ball screens        to keep Walt Lemon Jr. from going off and how well Mockevicius recovered in the paint to prevent easy looks inside. Bradley head coach Geno Ford said the first 20 minutes is what sealed the Braves’ fate despite his team’s comeback in the second half, and he’s right. UE took an early lead, held onto it, and didn’t crumble under pressure late in the game — signs of a maturing team.

–I expected a bit of the game to be a D.J. Balentine-Walt Lemon Jr. showdown — Lemon Jr. guarded Balentine at the beginning of the game — but UE did a fantastic job shutting down the Bradley guard in the first half. Jaylon Brown was tasked with guarding Lemon Jr. from the opening tip, as Brown got his first career start, and his athleticism really showed as he kept up with Lemon Jr. Hedging screens also helped contain Lemon, as hedging screens prevented him from driving to the basket after separation from his defender.

–The biggest takeaway from the game isn’t how any one individual played; it’s how the team played as a whole. I remember tweeting midway through the first half that this may be the best team basketball the Aces have played all season, and I stand by that. After stringing together five solid games in the conference, even if two of them are losses, UE seems to be gelling again. And at the right time: the Aces have road trips to Northern Iowa and Wichita State on the schedule this week.

Some quotes:

–UE head coach Marty Simmons on Balentine’s 3-pointer with a minute to play: “It certainly gave us a big boost. No doubt. Shot clock’s winding down, ball fake, bam. He was ready to shoot. He shot with confidence, but our ability to get a stop on the next possession was the key possession to me. At times throughout this season we’d score big baskets but we haven’t been able to go down at the other end and make a stop.”

–Balentine on the first half: “I think we played solid defense at the beginning. We held Walt’s penetration down a lot and we tried to take their bigs out of the game early. For the most part, we were clicking.”

–Bradley head coach Geno Ford on the Braves’ good second half run: “We did enough good things in the second half to win, but when you’re coming from 10 down it makes it tougher.”

MVC Monday: Shockers up, Bulldogs down

mvclogo-Wichita State is one of three undefeated teams left in the nation, and there’s speculation the Shockers could remain unbeaten for a while. They had a scare at Missouri State, but looking at their upcoming schedule, it doesn’t seem like Wichita State will be dropping a game any time soon.

–Seth Tuttle was named MVC Player of the Week this week after posting a career-high 24 points in a win over SIU and followed it up with 21 points against Missouri State. And in his first career start with the Bears, Ron Mvouika scored a career-high 28 points, earning him MVC Newcomer of the Week honors.

–The Indiana State-Wichita State matchup on Saturday featured two 5-0 teams in the conference since 2008.

Standings:

1. Wichita State (6-0, 19-0): Not much needs to be said about one of the best teams in the country, but every Valley team will have their home game against the No. 4 team in the country circled on their calendars. The Shockers are getting offense from anybody and everybody on their team, including sensational, surprising guard Fred VanVleet.

2. Indiana State (5-1, 14-4): Despite a tough loss to the Shockers, the Sycamores are still the second best team in the conference. ISU gets to play Wichita State at home, which is probably the biggest chance the Shockers will be upset.

3. Illinois State (4-2, 11-7): The Redbirds have opened MVC play on their best streak since 2009-10 when they also started 4-2. And they welcome Wichita State to Redbird Arena this week to enact revenge on a 19-point loss a week and a half earlier.

4. Northern Iowa (4-2, 10-8): A surprising loss to Southern Illinois is the only negative for the Panthers so far. UNI has scored at least 76 points in every MVC win and has led by double digits in each of the six games. Unfortunately for them, two of those leads disappeared and turned into losses.

5. Missouri State (2-4, 12-6): The Bears lost Marcus Marshall to a season-ending knee injury, but numerous players have stepped up on offense. Mvouika led the team in scoring in Missouri State’s last game while in the last three games, the Bears have had three different players lead the team in scoring.

6. Evansville (2-4, 9-10): UE is on the rise, winning two of its past three conference games and looks to be avoiding playing on Thursday in Saint Louis for now. But a tough road stretch in the Aces’ schedule looms.

7. Loyola (2-4, 7-11): The Ramblers are a perfect 7-0 when scoring at least 70 points and have two quality wins over Missouri State and Drake in the conference. Milton Doyle continues his impressive scoring average of 15.1 points per game.

8. Bradley (2-4, 7-12): The Braves haven’t won a road game all season and will get a chance to break that streak Sunday at Evansville. The conference road losing streak dates back to 2013, an 11-game drought, and it looks to continue as the surging Aces are one of the strongest home teams.

9. Southern Illinois (2-4, 6-13): The Salukis got a huge win over Northern Iowa last week, erasing a 17-point deficit en route to their 68-66 win. The last time SIU came back from a 17-point deficit? Last season vs. Wichita State.

10. Drake (1-5, 10-8): Just a couple weeks after being the Valley’s biggest surprise, the Bulldogs have fallen to the basement. Drake opened up the conference season with a convincing win over the Aces but have dropped five straight games. Doesn’t look like Ray Giacoletti’s squad is adjusting to the Valley yet, but there’s still plenty of basketball to be played.

The Morning After: Loyola

Stories from UE’s second MVC win over Loyola:

–Courier & Press: http://bit.ly/KsXgI3
–Chicago Sun Times: http://bit.ly/1hGGYqJ

Some observations:

–UE looks like it’s clicking, and the defense took major strides Saturday. Despite poor shooting and offensive execution by both teams, the Aces had numerous steals and great rebounding to not let Loyola break open the game. The biggest Rambler run was 10-0 to give them a nine-point lead, but it could’ve been worse — UE went 0-for-8 from the floor during the run.

–There were lots of big-time plays by inexperienced players on Saturday. Freshman guard Duane Gibson hit a turnaround jumper with less than two minutes to go to give UE a three-point lead. The Aces seemed stuck on offense and Gibson created for himself. UE turned around and forced Loyola to a shot clock violation and that pretty much sealed the game. Two big plays down the stretch that proved the Aces are improving.

–Sophomore center Egidijus Mockevicius was one of the most impactful players on the court Saturday. He had five rebounds, four blocks and three steals, poking his hands in like a guard instead of a 6-foot-10 post player. He altered so many Loyola plays, which don’t show up on the stat sheet, but gets noticed by the coaching staff.

Some quotes:

–Head coach Marty Simmons on the slow start: “They really defended us a lot like Northern Iowa, and we turned it over at the beginning of the game like Northern Iowa. The difference was we were able to get some stops. They extended the lead a little bit, but it never got out of hand. The end of the first half was probably as important as anything.”

–Freshman forward Blake Simmons on the offense: “As the game went on, our offense started clicking more, we started getting more open shots, I think we all came together in the second half and it helped us get this win. It was an ugly game, both teams weren’t making their shots.”

–Gibson on the slowness of the game: “The pace of the game was great. That’s the pace we wanted to play. We just have to make more shots and finish at the rim.”

MVC Monday: Shockers continue historic streak, sit at 17-0

mvclogo–Missouri State nearly upset then-No. 6 Wichita State Saturday night, but the Bears blew a 19-point lead in the 72-69 overtime loss. Now, the Shockers are one of only eight MVC teams to start a season 17-0 and moved up to No. 5 in this week’s AP poll.

–Jarmar Gulley from MSU is this week’s Player of the Week after averaging 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in the Bears’ two games. He cashed in on a career-high 14 rebounds in the loss to Wichita State, as well. Northern Iowa’s Wes Washpun is the Valley’s Newcomer of the Week as the Panthers won both conference games.

–Two MVC players are averaging at least 20 points per game this season: D.J. Balentine and SIU’s Desmar Jackson. The two went head-to-head Saturday, as Balentine put up a career-high 33 points while Jackson tallied 13.

Standings:

1. Wichita State (4-0, 17-0): The Shockers are bound to lose at some point, and it looked like Missouri State would be the one to do it. A 19-point comeback and a dominant overtime was enough for the league’s top team to come away with a win. It’ll take a full 40 minutes to beat these guys.

2. Indiana State (4-0, 13-3): The Sycamores have a tough week as they face Missouri State and Wichita State, but Greg Lansing’s team is the most likely to steal the Valley crown from the Shockers this season. Fun fact: Indiana State is the only team in the nation with five scorers in double figures who shoot at least 33 percent from beyond the arc.

3. Northern Iowa (3-1, 9-7): UNI is scoring at its highest rate since the 1986-87 season, as the Panthers average 71.8 points per game. Their 50.9 percent clip against Evansville was their highest road shooting percentage in two years.

4. Missouri State (2-2, 12-4): The Bears should get better from their collapse against Wichita State, and Indiana State and Northern Iowa should be on the lookout for a Missouri State team on a mission this week. What we also learned from the loss? Springfield is no easy place to play.

5. Illinois State (2-2, 9-7): The Redbirds’ defense is a force in the conference that held Wichita State to 11 points below its average and Loyola to a season-low field goal shooting percentage. How they’ll handle D.J. Balentine on Wednesday is another story.

6. Drake (1-3, 10-6): Ray Giacoletti’s squad that surprised many in the Valley is on a three-game losing streak. Richard Carter has strung together six 20-plus point games this season as a key to the Bulldogs’ offense.

7. Evansville (1-3, 8-9): The Aces’ win at Southern Illinois Saturday was the first in which the team shot under 50 percent from the field and won. Rebounding is also a telltale stat for UE, but it faces Illinois State’s defense in a midweek road test.

8. Loyola (1-3, 6-10): Milton Doyle is arguably the league’s best freshman, racking up 234 points in 16 games. He looks to be the first freshman to 500 points in a season since Doug McDermott three years ago.

9. Bradley (1-3, 6-11): The road isn’t getting any easier for the Braves. They wrap up a tough five-game stand with a trip to Wichita — Bradley’s currently on a seven-game road losing streak — before hosting Southern Illinois.

10. Southern Illinois (1-3, 5-12): The Salukis escaped the basement for just a game, but lost to Evansville Saturday and are back at the bottom. Marcus Fillyaw is out for a few weeks with a broken hand, but Jalen Pendleton has filled in nicely for the point guard.

The Morning After: Southern Illinois

Another career game for Balentine this season. The sophomore finished with 33 points.

Another career game for Balentine this season. The sophomore finished with 33 points.

Stories from UE’s first MVC win at SIU yesterday:

–Courier & Press: http://bit.ly/1do1ZqJ
–The Southern: http://bit.ly/1a0Tl0U

Some observations:

–The Aces looked a lot more loose, relaxed, and confident than they had since they started 5-0, and now with a conference win under their belt, that feeling will continue. D.J. Balentine looked like his typical self when looking to shoot and Egidijus Mockevicius was a force inside — 12 points and 10 rebounds is nothing to scoff at even if Balentine had 33 points — and had a key and-one in the final minutes of the game to preserve the lead. Blake Simmons had a solid performance and Duane Gibson and Adam Wing contributed when needed. It was a good effort by the five starters.

–That being said, UE still has a lot of work to do. Balentine can’t drop a career-high every night and the defense can’t take 10 minutes to adjust on the opposing team’s shooters. The Aces started out lead-footed and left open shooters in the beginning of the game, allowing Southern Illinois to go on an 11-0 run early.

–The bench was also absent from the game. With Jaylon Brown out with a concussion, UE played just four reserves and Tyler Ptacek was the only player off the bench with points.  Brown, when he’s in, Jaylon Moore and Christian Benzon typically score on energy plays, but I guess those aren’t needed when Balentine’s hitting six of his seven 3-pointers. Usually the bench is a factor, as I’m sure it will be moving forward.

–Gibson and Wing were very important in the final minutes of the game. The freshman was 6-for-6 down the stretch while Wing hit both of his free throws to maintain UE’s four-point lead. The Salukis had two 3-point plays in the final minute of the game in efforts to chip away at the lead point-by-point, and missed free throws would’ve kept SIU in the game longer than they were. Saturday was the first time we saw clutch free throw shooting in over a month — it’ll also do wonders for the team’s confidence from the line, as they’ve been struggling lately.

–Maybe bowling worked? We won’t know for sure until Wednesday. One game is a good start, but UE’s next game against Illinois State will be the true sign of whether or not the Aces are back to competing like they have shown.

Some quotes:

–Head coach Marty Simmons’ first thoughts about the win: “I’m just happy for the guys in the locker room. We’ve had a slow start here and those guys have hung in there and keep battling and they’re a good group and just glad to see them get a victory.”

–Wing on the Aces’ zone: “The zone was really good to us, they hit some big threes and we haven’t played zone all season. We had been planning for it the past two games but we just got so far behind that when we got in the zone they could just pick us apart.”

–SIU head coach Barry Hinson on scouting Balentine: “We obviously didn’t. Seriously, he had 33 points, so whatever we said didn’t work.”

The Morning After: Northern Iowa

Blake Simmons was the only Ace in double figures, scoring a career-high 16 points.

Blake Simmons was the only Ace in double figures, scoring a career-high 16 points.

Stories from UNI’s handling of Evansville:

–Courier & Press: http://bit.ly/1euJH3I
–Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier: http://bit.ly/1glxAaK

Some observations:

–That was probably the worst effort by the team all season. UE seemed deflated right from the start after UNI took an 11-point lead minutes into the game, and it all went downhill from there. The numbers weren’t bad — 40 percent from the field, 43 percent from beyond the arc (just 3-of-7 though), 30 points in the paint — but the effort just didn’t seem to be there. Fifteen turnovers is definitely high, and the Aces have done worse, but when passes into the lane are easily deflected or stolen or a player is stripped on a drive and nothing’s done to change it, that’s an issue.

–I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but missed layups keeps hurting UE. There’s no stat for missed layups, but there were several last night. Lots were off-balance shots or hit a bad angle off the glass. Of course it takes awareness to control your body and shot when a defender is contesting your shot and that happens, but that doesn’t happen every time. If I was a coach, though, I’d rather be seeing my players driving to the basket than taking long-range shots. A few more made layups is a simple fix that should bring more confidence back to the team.

–Starting off 0-3 in the conference is obviously not the way UE imagined to start, but losing those three games by an average of 24.7 points per game isn’t acceptable. The Aces play Southern Illinois in Carbondale this weekend, a manageable game, but the Valley schedule doesn’t get easier. UE still has to play Wichita State and Missouri State twice — two of the league’s top teams — and has to play Indiana State in Terre Haute after losing to the Sycamores by 28 last Saturday. With the Salukis’ win over Loyola last night, UE is the last team in the league. So far, no good news for the Aces. Things need to change.