Discovering your weaknesses

USI freshman guard Brett Benning recently found out that his defense is lacking during summer workouts and pickup games. In fact, he said it’s the biggest adjustment he’s found from high school to college. “They’re so much quicker down here,” he said. “It’s not only the first move but the second and third moves.”

Summer basketball

The best thing a college basketball program can do for its freshmen is get them on campus during the summer. Rodney Watson believes this thoroughly. “You don’t have a summer program, they (the freshmen) get down here and their first week in college is really long and by Labor Day they’re saying, ‘This isn’t for me,’ ” he said.

The freshmen aren’t just there to play hoops. They’ll take a summer class or two, which is another way to get them acclimated, but without all the pressure of a full load of classes. There’s also conditioning to consider. The college game is far more physical and quicker than the high school game. So new players can get into the shape they need to be in once preseason practice begins in October. Watson has seen that in Brett Benning, a 6-foot-5 freshman shooting guard who the coach expects to play right away. “I spoke to him … about conditioning and he said, ‘Man, I feel stronger than ever before,’ ” said Watson.

One more game

It’s come down to this: USI’s baseball team needs to win just one game to capture its second NCAA Division II national championship. But before it faces Colorado Mesa in that game on Saturday night, think back over this season and recall how remarkable it has been. This team has won 48 games of the 61 it has played. Yet, the most amazing stat may be that, among all those victories, the Screaming Eagles have won 15 one-run games. Successful teams don’t necessarily dominate opponents but they almost always manage to win the close games. And the only way to do that is with timely hitting and timely pitching — something USI has been doing all season.

It was on display again during the team’s 4-3 victory over Minnesota State on Friday. The Eagles trailed 3-0 when they suddenly strung together not only a series of hits but employed trickery with a steal of home — by catcher Ryan Bertram, no less — while another USI runner was stealing second (not surprised to see coach Tracy Archuleta pull that one out of his bag of tricks, something GLVC coaches would have been ready for but a move that nobody at Minnesota State had ever seen, I’m willing to wager). Then starting pitcher David Toth did his thing: struggling in the first inning by giving up three runs right off the bat, then settling down and keeping Minnesota State from scoring again. But the key moment was reliever Andrew Mercer replacing Toth with two runners on base and just one out and pitching out of the jam without a run scoring.

Survive and advance is all but a cliche nowadays. But there’s no other way to describe how the USI baseball team plays the game. Besides, it doesn’t matter how you win as long as you win, and the Eagles seem to know how to do that better than anyone else right now.

Johnnie Guy and Elly Rono

They’re separated by 16 years, but they’re together now in the USI men’s track & field record book. Johnnie Guy on Thursday night became the first USI runner since Ely Rono in 1998 to win the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Division II Outdoor National Track & Field Championships. Next up for Guy, who’s just a sophomore, is taking aim at Rono’s two other national championships, set in 1997-98: the indoor 5,000 meters and a cross country title. Guy could also add an outdoor 5,000 championship someday (maybe Saturday, when this year’s race will be contested).

Assuming he remains healthy, Guy could easily surpass Rono. By the way, Guy’s winning time of 29 minutes, 33.31 seconds isn’t anywhere close to the school record. That’s held, not by Rono (who ranks second), but by Dustin Emerick, at 28:33.35, set in 2012 at the Payton Jordan Invitational (Rono’s best time was 28:51.91 set at the 1998 Penn Relays). Guy’s time doesn’t even surpass his best: 29:29.67, set this year at the Hillsdale “Gina” Relays; it ranks fourth on USI’s all-time list. But then, the pace of Thursday night’s race apparently was slow, which wasn’t Guy’s fault and probably played to his strength, which involves gradually pulling away from the field starting around 7,000 meters.

That was an interesting part of Thursday night’s race. Apparently, nobody knew anything about Guy’s running strategy. USI coach Mike Hillyard, with Guy’s concurrence, had deliberately kept Guy from going all out until the nationals. So nobody ever saw exactly what he could do. “Nobody had their eye on me and thought I was capable of winning,” said Guy. “So when I went by them the guy who was leading at the time I didn’t think took it seriously.”

One more thing: the runner Guy beat for the title, another sophomore named Michael Biwott, is Kenyan. Thus another feather in the USI runner’s cap — defeating a competitor from the best distance running country in the world.

Ford Center losing GLVC basketball tournaments

The GLVC men’s and women’s basketball tournaments that have been played here at the Ford Center the past two years will not return next year. GLVC commissioner Jim Naumovich told me there’s a conflict with the dates the GLVC would need next year at the Ford Center. He said the Missouri Valley Conference is requiring that the University of Evansville women’s basketball team must have those dates open at the Ford Center for the Aces’ final regular-season home games. So the tournament probably will end up at one of two proposed sites: Family Arena in St. Charles,  Missouri, near St. Louis (ironically, the site of the MVC women’s tournament) or the Independence Events Center in Independence, Missouri, near Kansas City. Naumovich will present the proposals at the league meetings on May 20 and a decision where the GLVC tournaments will be played should be announced shortly after that.

Yes, the GLVC will miss the Ford Center. “It will be very, very difficult for us to duplicate all the Ford Center had to offer us,” said Naumovich. The best part, he said, may have been the Ford Center’s version of the “One Shining Moment” video highlights reel that was shown on the massive overhead scoreboard after the trophies were presented following the men’s and women’s championship games. Not even the NCAA (or CBS) did that following the NCAA Division II men’s national championship game this year.

It’s a shame the GLVC tourney won’t return next year, especially with the Division II men’s Elite Eight coming back to the Ford Center. At the very least the GLVC was a good run-through for the Elite Eight. But it was also a perfect fit for Evansville. It provided a relatively inexpensive ticket to people in the Tri-State to see great basketball. It also got more media coverage here than it will get anywhere else, especially in large media markets like Kansas City and St. Louis, where it will be a mere afterthought. On the other hand, with the GLVC having expanded deeply into Missouri — seven of the league’s 16 schools are located in that state — it only seems fair to host the tourney there for at least a couple of years.

But Evansville and the Ford Center is still the best fit. Let’s just hope the Evansville Sports Corp. (with the cooperation of UE and the MVC) will put in a bid when the possibility comes up again in two years.

All hail Tracy Archuleta

Seriously. USI’s head coach has his baseball team on such a roll that it has won 25 of its last 27 games, has put together a 39-9 overall record, a 29-5 mark in the GLVC, a No. 1 ranking in the Midwest Region and a No. 8 ranking in the entire nation in Division II. Next up is the GLVC Tournament, with USI as the No. 1 seed in games taking place at Bosse Field and USI starting Thursday (under conference rules, USI must play at Bosse Field because it is the host) and a really good shot at hosting the NCAA Midwest Regional.

Of course, Archuleta would be the first to downplay his role in this. But consider what happened the past two years.

USI didn’t even make the GLVC Tournament — even though it has been the host the past two years. In a way, that was Archuleta’s fault as much as he deserves credit for this year’s success. Several key injuries didn’t help, but the team also never seemed to get its footing until it was too late in the season to make up for lost ground. The same coach who guided the Screaming Eagles to a DII national championship in 2010 seemed to have lost his touch.

Not.

Several players who were part of last year’s disappointment are key components in this year’s run. Others are either new or moved into the starting lineup off the bench. But if you’ve ever had the privilege of watching a weekday practice, you’d know that what’s been happening in 2014 could just as easily have happened in 2013 or 2012. Archuleta’s concentration on the basics of the game — things like throwing to the right base, bunting, knowing when to hit the cutoff man, taking the extra base on a hit or even a groundout, stealing bases, working the count, pitching to contact, etc. — have been his emphasis since he first arrived on the West Side.

From what I’ve heard there are many parallels with the 2010 squad, the most important being this team’s resilience and ability to come back and win after falling behind. Case in point: USI has won 11 one-run games this season.

With so many games, success in baseball depends on momentum. USI certainly has that right now.

Evan Brinkmeyer’s departure

I can’t say I was surprised when Evan Brinkmeyer decided to leave the USI basketball team. He never looked like he was having much fun during games or in practice. Going from being the star player on your high school team to being what amounted to a second choice off the bench must have been difficult. But he never really adapted to USI’s game. He was supposed to be a shooter, especially an outside threat. Yet, what I kept hearing when he decided to leave was that many of his high school points came off drives to the hoop, something that somebody should have realized would be all but impossible for him in the GLVC.

At 6-2 and, face it, somewhat chunky, Brinkmeyer wasn’t particularly built for the up-and-down game or even the half-court scheme that coach Rodney Watson employed. You have to be quick even in that situation, and Evan is not a quick player. On defense, it was worse; he got beat time and time again by quicker players. Watson always made it a point to praise Brinkmeyer, I guess to buck up Evan’s confidence. He often said he was a “clutch player.” But, I have to admit, I never saw what all the fuss was about.

I guess that was because I kept waiting for Brinkmeyer to become what Watson wanted: a consistently reliable 3-point shooter. He finished 10-for-26 from 3-point range over the two years he played, a .384 percentage, and was just 3-for-9 this season. Sure, he didn’t play a lot, getting only about eight to nine minutes per game off the bench. But he never was much of a catch-and-shoot man, which I think is the only way to be effective from beyond the 3-point line in today’s college game. Passes come flying out of the paint to the perimeter to players who only have a split-second opening to shoot, and Brinkmeyer never mastered that.

From what I’ve heard, he’s a great teammate and a wonderful person and an outstanding student. He’ll graduate in December with a business degree, and Watson believes Brinkmeyer will be an honest, trustworthy businessman. I can’t believe he won’t be. But college basketball — at least the way USI plays the game and how it’s played in the GLVC, the highest level of ball in NCAA Division II — wasn’t his strong suit.

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.”