Season over, time for spring workouts

They’re not practices, really. More like tutorials. Players work on portions of their game, individually and with a coach. I know the season is long, but this seems like a breather without completely leaving the game behind. At least, that’s how I think USI coach Rodney Watson thinks of these spring workouts. So here are some notes and quotes from Watson himself, ahead of the workouts that will get going very soon:

“This is the time you can work on things that really need work. Unlike Division I, you can’t have court time (coaches working with players) over the summer. So now is the time.”

“In the spring, the kids need to work on, like (shooting) follow through … When they come back in the fall, we don’t want them to come back having to make major adjustments. In this case, they can go home and work on it there.”

“This is the time we do videotaping (of their shooting form) … Not a lot of team stuff … Maybe work on going the opposite direction in ball handling. Now is the time to give them three weeks of repetitive tweaking. They can go home and work on it in May and June.”

On Lawrence Thomas not getting any respect

Not sure why USI point guard Lawrence Thomas was shut out of every postseason award. He did exactly what a point guard is supposed to do statistically. He was a generally reliable scorer, averaging 10.4 points per game; he averaged 3.9 assists per game; and he averaged just 1.4 turnovers per game. That last figure is the most important for a point guard. You average more than twice as many assists as turnovers, you’re considered successful. He bettered that average.

One more thing: he won a few games for USI this season. All 5-foot-9 of him. Recall the end of the regular-season home game against Maryville when he scored four points in the final four seconds to secure a 64-61 victory — including grabbing his own missed free throw with eight seconds left and pushing it back in for a basket. Also recall the end of the home game against Lake Erie in November when Thomas drained a 3-pointer at the final buzzer to give USI a 90-89 victory. And don’t forget that Thomas was the USI player who put up a 3-point shot at the end of overtime at Bellarmine, a shot that glanced off the rim and ended up being tipped in by junior guard Gavin Schumann to give the Eagles their first victory at Bellarmine in seven games. And LT scored 23 points — with 19 coming in the second half when he went 4-for-4 from 3-point range — during USI’s 86-73 win over Bellarmine in the championship game of the GLVC Tournament at the Ford Center.

Well, there is one honor Thomas has received. He and senior teammate Aaron Nelson will play in the Reese’s/NCAA Division II All-Star Game at the Ford Center on Friday night. Nelson, with his 19.3 points and 12.7 rebounds per game, has already been named to two all-region first teams, won All-Midwest Region Player of the Year and was chosen GLVC Co-Player of the Year (still scratching my head over that one). He should also be a shoo-in to be named an all-American.

Sure, Thomas could have been more vocal. He’s naturally quiet and always said his style was to lead by example. More than once I thought he should have gotten in a teammate’s face to get that player to straighten up. He also all but disappeared from a couple of games (zero points and zero field-goal attempts in the home game against Saint Joseph’s; one point while going 0-for-7 from the field in the only home loss of the season, against Drury, although he did pass out five assists and had two steals while turning the ball over only once).

That doesn’t mean he should have been left off every single postseason squad, including the all-GLVC team (still not sure how that happened; was he so quiet that the coaches never noticed him — even when he was beating them?). He played for USI the past five years, even when he was not playing in games because he was a medical redshirt after his freshman season. USI fans can honor him one more time with their presence at Friday’s night’s7 o’clock all-star game. One of the better point guards in USI history deserves at least that much.


Rodney Watson revisits the season

Four days after USI’s men’s basketball season went up in smoke in a loss to Michigan Tech in the first game of the NCAA Midwest Regional, Eagles coach Rodney Watson still seems a bit stunned. When I talked to him for my season wrapup/look-ahead story, I asked him how disappointed he was at the ending and here’s what he said (with the help of some editing to get it to make sense):

“It’s disappointing. It was an odd season. When we were putting together a really nice season, it never seemed like we could settle in. Then we played so extraordinarily well in the conference tournament (which USI won for its second GLVC title in three years). We finally had seemed to settle in.”

Then came the loss to Michigan Tech at Drury in Springfield, Mo.

“It was a really good college game. And our guys played their hearts out. We played fearless, not tight, not overly loose. My frustration was I didn’t want to get on that bus at 4 o’clock and come home. The other thing was we put a lot into this. We were 12-2 the last four years the first week of March and 1-4 in the second week. Does that put a brick on our shoulders? I’m not gonna kid you — it does. We’re playing good teams and you hope that maybe you get over that hump.”

Now the season is over and USI will begin spring workouts shortly, in April.

“What stinks is you start your whole individual workouts again and go through the summer and go through the fall and in the blink of an eye, after you’ve worked so hard to get invited to the party and you want to stay for a long time, it’s over. (There’s) probably a little bit of luck involved, but here’s where a few little things add up and they matter. At the end of the day I’m saying, hey, this was the game: to go 14 of 25 at the free-throw line. At the end of the day, there was very little satisfaction with the way it ended.”

He keeps being reminded of it, too. Such as when Watson’s out recruiting, people tell him how amazed they are when they hear the team ended up 25-6. But he knows better.

“They’re saying, ‘Wow, what a great season.’ But we work at a place where the expectations are high. At least, the way we are wired, that’s how you want it. Now you retool all over again and hope to get a spot at the party. Certainly, it’s not satisfying, I tell you that. We’re appreciative of everything the kids did. It’s just (that) the way it ended wasn’t satisfying. This is not what you want.”

Bits and pieces, notes and quotes

Emptying the notebook from the past week turns up a lot of stuff on USI men’s basketball that didn’t really fit in a complete story or made that story much too long but is still interesting. So here goes:

– USI coach Rodney Watson on the time it took for his team to turn around its season and play consistently in-your-face hoops for 40 minutes: “It’s kind of like baking a cake. You take it out of the oven after 15 minutes, that won’t work for you.”

– Point guard Lawrence Thomas on the turnaround: “Better late than never. Coach puts a lot of ownership on us. I think our seniors have done a really good job of accepting our roles.”

– Thomas on fellow senior Ben Jones and his becoming a consistently deadly 3-point shooter off the bench in the GLVC tournament: “He has my utmost respect. It’s not long (after the start) when he gets in a game and then has the moxie to hit those shots. I don’t know if I could do that.  Then he gets to guard the best player on the other team and has to hit shots. He could have shut down (after losing his starting job). He didn’t. He did the opposite.”

– USI assistant coaches Blake Woodard and Stetson Hairston on sophomore redshirt guard Bobo Drummond, who kept burying 3-pointers at Wednesday’s practice while playing on the scout team that was running Michigan Tech’s offense: “Glad we have him for three more years.”

– Senior Aaron Nelson, USI’s starting center and leading scorer and rebounder, after being named All-Midwest Region Player of the Year by the region’s sports information directors: “So far I couldn’t picture a better season after coming off an ACL injury (the middle of last season). The other guys are keeping me going.”

– Watson on Nelson’s getting the honor: “The other key element to this is he’s on a good team. Not only does he make his teammates better, but his teammates make him better. When you’re on a good team, everybody makes everybody better.”

– Senior Orlando Rutledge, on his defense against Bellarmine’s Keisten Jones in the title game of the GLVC tournament, in which Jones was just 1-for-3 from 3-point range and never consistently was able to drive to the rim: “He’s a shooter and coach (Watson) told me to take away his sight by getting my elbows right in front of his eyes, where he can’t see. But he’s the toughest to guard in the league.”



Another record for Aaron Nelson

Forgot about this in all the details about USI’s beating Lewis yesterday: USI’s Aaron Nelson broke the single-season school record for rebounds. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, of course. His 11 rebounds on Friday gave him 340 for the season, breaking the mark of 332 set by all-American and GLVC Player of the Year Chris Thompson during the 2005-06 season. I don’t remember Thompson; I wasn’t covering USI at the time and wasn’t paying close attention (hey, I was loaded up with local high school sports that year — eight schools in the SIAC. OK, so call me a waaaaaaambulance). Anyway, USI SID Ray Simmons remembers Thompson as a 6-5, 6-6 wide body who just dominated around the basket that season following a so-so junior year after transferring to USI from a junior college. Can’t do anything about it now, but one can dream of what Nelson would have accomplished — and USI, by extension — if he had stayed healthy last season. Then again, Nelson and Keith DeWitt together might have wound fighting for the the ball in the post.  But it would have been a nice problem for the Eagles to have.

Who are you and what have you done with USI’s basketball team?

I think that’s what USI coach Rodney Watson may be thinking right now, but gratefully. After the Eagles deconstructed Lewis on Friday, winning 92-74 in the GLVC tourney quarterfinals, he seemed as bewildered as I did. We’ve all been watching. This is the same USI team that, for most of the season, couldn’t make up its mind whether to be serious or not. An outstanding game would be followed by a horrible game and vice versa. Now the Eagles have won seven of their last eight games.

But I think it really started with the victory over Bellarmine at home in the season finale on Feb. 27. USI fell behind by 16 points — and came back and won. The Eagles have been relentless ever since. It had trouble with Maryville, but the Saints — with their Princeton offense and matchup zone, two schemes few teams employ — often give everybody fits. And USI won anyway. Then it blasted Lewis with a performance that began with the eeriest pregame warmup I’ve ever witnessed — total silence except for the ball hitting the floor and the rim.

I tried to drag out of Lawrence Thomas, Aaron Nelson, Gavin Schumann and Taylor Wischmeier what was up with the warmup, but didn’t get a definite response. Maybe it’s not something that can be put into words. But a guy like Schumann, who sometimes seems happy go lucky, looked positively grim on Friday. He even shouted at his teammates about getting in a particular defense near the end of the game. This is the same Gavin Schumann who doesn’t seem to utter a word during a game (not that it matters when you’re as good a defensive player as he is). And when he gets his offensive game going — swooping in for layups, rebounds, tip-ins or suddenly zipping passes out to wide-open teammates on the wing or under the hoop — he gives opponents whiplash.

Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY,  on this team was locked in to beating Lewis. Now comes the hard part — Drury, the only team to beat USI at the PAC this season, winning by eight points. If the Eagles play like they did on Friday on Saturday, Drury is toast. And if they go on to win the GLVC tournament title, I’m not sure who can stop them all the way to the Elite Eight.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Enjoy the moment, USI fans. Listen to Rodney Watson.

“This was fun,” he said after the Lewis win. “These guys were fun to coach today.”

I can’t recall him ever saying that. It has to be a good sign, right?

Rodney Watson on Aaron Nelson

The All-Great Lakes Valley Conference men’s basketball team for 2013-14 features two USI players: senior center Aaron Nelson (co-player of the year, first team) and junior guard Gavin Schumann (all-defensive team). Nelson became the ninth USI player chosen for the honor and first since Jamar Smith in 2010. Following are coach Rodney Watson’s thoughts on Nelson:

Senior center Aaron Nelson, who averages 19.8 points, 13.2 rebounds and has produced 22 double-doubles in points and rebounds this season – Just start with the sheer numbers. It’s hard to score double figures in a college game, let alone double figures in every game. I heard (former Indiana University) coach (Bob) Knight say, ‘Give me a guy who gets you 15 points every night and you can have the guy who gets 20 points one night and five the next.’ We’re talking about a guy you can count on. It’s remarkable how consistent he’s been. That for me should be one of the criteria for player of the year. I mean, 14 rebounds a game? The rebounding is just, man oh man … A lot of times in this league you have a guy who’s a great rebounder but not a great scorer. And certainly in this league there a lot of great scorers. With him, you’re not talking 10 (points) and 10 (rebounds) but 20 and 14. Those are incredible numbers. But here is what I thought is remarkable is the consecutive streak of double-doubles. That’s Joe DiMaggio stuff. Chris Bowles being the last guy at this school to do that (18 years ago) — I don’t think there’s ever been any other guy … A Chris Bowles comes along today, he’s in the Big Ten or the SEC or the ACC. Aaron is three games short of a double double (for the season) –  that’s not going to be easily replaced, I can tell you that.

Rick Stein on Hackert, Carpenter, Miller

The All-Great Lakes Valley Conference women’s basketball team for 2013-14 features three USI players: juniors Anna Hackert (first team, all-defensive team) and Autumn Miller (all-defensive team) and senior Stephanie Carpenter (second team). Following is coach Rick Stein’s thoughts on their selection:

Junior forward Anna Hackert – What a great accomplishment for Anna. Her numbers just keep rising every year. Since she’s been here, so have our win totals. We’ve gotten more overall wins this year (19), more conference wins (12), a higher finish in the East. I think one of the biggest smiles on Anna’s face was (being named to) that all-defensive team. Anna’s all about winning. She’s gonna do whatever she can to help our team win.

Junior guard Autumn Miller (first year on the team) – A lot of times a new player doesn’t get seen as much because they haven’t been around the league two, three, four years. I’m obviously proud of her. It’s awesome to see her name on that list. When Autumn is dialed in defensively, we are definitely a much better defensive team. Not only has she helped us be a good defensive team but she’s helped us be a great defensive team.

Senior guard Stephanie Carpenter (USI’s career record holder for 3-pointers made) – Her career here has obviously been an outstanding one. She’s our No. 1 3-point shooter. Her work ethic is second to none. She’s such a competitor. Over the last month of play she’s gone from being a really good player to one who has elevated her game more. On this five-game winning streak, she’s in the middle of some of the best basketball she’s ever played. That’s not just shooting the ball, that’s basketball.

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.