Links from UE’s 72-46 win over Alabama A&M, the Aces’ fourth straight victory:
—UE got senior Colt Ryan back from his hip pointer injury at just the right time. That’s not to say the Aces needed Ryan to beat Alabama A&M on Monday, but they had to show they can play better with him in the rotation before heading to Colorado State, which is 5-0 and receiving votes in national polls. That seems funny to say, yes, but against Notre Dame and for the first seven minutes of the Buffalo game, before Ryan left with the injury, UE’s offense wasn’t clicking. And going back to the exhibition games, the Aces were still relying too much on their star senior to create and score. With him out, four players reached double figures in the Yale win, and all nine players who played in the Tennessee Tech game scored. That number jumped to 12 with Ryan on the floor Monday, and the scoring remained balanced as it was with him out.
—I received a voicemail about two weeks ago, in response to this story I wrote about freshman Egidijus Mockevicius, asking if the freshman big man from Lithuania actually knew how to play basketball. The story cited improvement, but the only thing consistent about Mockevicius’ play at that point was his foul trouble. During UE’s current four-game winning streak, Mockevicius has started three games. He doesn’t play a whole lot of minutes — 16 on Monday against Alabama A&M — but Mockevicius fills the stat sheet, screams in communication with his teammates and was rewarded with a pair of two-handed, breakaway dunks against the Bulldogs. Just a freshman, Mockevicius definitely seems the Aces’ long-term solution at center now.
—Another freshman the Aces are fortunate to have? D.J. Balentine. He most likely won’t crack the starting lineup this season with veterans Troy Taylor and Ned Cox getting the most play at guard, but Balentine figures to be a mainstay starter from sophomore year on. Balentine is one of the few players on UE’s roster who can instantly create for himself rather than using screens. It’s not a stat that’s kept, but if it was, Balentine probably makes more of his shots — he’s 19 of 45 (42.2 percent) this season — off the dribble than from catch-and-shoot, as Cox, Jordan Jahr and most other players not named Colt Ryan tend to do for the Aces.
—The Aces’ other Lithuanian big man, sophomore Rokas Cesnulevicius, saw his first minutes Monday and quickly showcased why it took him until the sixth game to play. Cesnulevicius fouled on a rebound with an Alabama A&M player at the line to pick up a whistle before he’d logged a second on the floor. Coach Marty Simmons’ response from the bench: “What did I tell you?” Not to do that. Cesnulevicius left after 45 seconds when he picked up another foul, though he came back to play four more minutes in the second half and finished with five rebounds. It’s key to remember Cesnulevicius didn’t have much of the summer to improve after being involved in an all-terrain vehicle crash that required him to have jaw surgery and spend time in the hospital.
—Much has been said already about UE’s improved defense, but here’s another bit to ponder. With Denver Holmes gone, the Aces have still in all lost more (scoring-wise) from last season than they’ve gained from freshmen this season. Yes, Mockevicius was supposed to be the guy to turn things around with a true inside presence, but he’s still only playing 13.7 minutes per game. These is the same players who could barely stay better than 300th last season in scoring defense now fielding a top 10 defense. How? Plain hard work, and what seems to be a great job by new assistant Geoff Alexander, who primarily works with the Aces’ post players.