Wednesday, December 9, 2009

should we readjust expectations?

So here we are: it's finals week, and that means the basketball team is taking a break, and that means it's a good time to sit down and figure out what the hell. We are 4-4, which incidentally is exactly where we were last year after eight games, only that involved a bare-bones win over USF and a loss that shouldn't ever have happened. It would have been really nice to get one of those four losses back, because Auburn was our last chance at a win over a major-league program outside the ACC. But the plus side is that there aren't any losses to Liberty or teams of a similar caliber.

That's going to be kind of a theme here as we try and decide today whether or not the expectations we (okay, I) had for the basketball team were too high. For every minus, there's a plus. I'd say that's probably par for the course for a rebuilding team learning a new system like ours.

First off, obviously, when I said there was an outside chance we might be interested in the results of Selection Day, obviously that's obviously not going to happen, obviously. Neither is the NIT. So that's some readjustment right there.

What's been going on, as best as my non-coaching eyes can tell, is that we're still getting murdered by the nuances of the pack-line defense. It's not automatic yet. I think it's clear the team has bought into the system and is working feverishly on getting it right, because if you've read about the basics of the defense, you can see it very very clearly on the court. Things like, stay inside the imaginary line, don't switch on screens, don't ever give up the baseline, and put your feet in such and such a place when guarding a player inside the line without the ball. When given just a split second to process his responsibilities, each player gets it right probably at least 85-90% of the time. The problem is, this is basketball, you don't always have that split second, and we're only eight games into using the system so it's not even close to automatic. And when another team runs their offense with enough precision to eliminate that split-second, bad things happen; and because of it we're especially susceptible to the three-ball because the guards haven't figured out how to stay true to the principles of the defense and still get out and contest the three.

On the plus side of the defense is the turnovers. We're getting them and winning the turnover battles. We haven't turned the ball over more than the opposition this season, except for the first game. Especially - and I don't know if this is just me or what - I think we're seeing a significant increase in shot-clock violations by the opposition. The turnovers his defense is causing has to put a smile on Tony Bennett's face.

What else is hurting? Well, the freshmen aren't as ready as we'd hoped. Spurlock hasn't even got up off the bench half the time, and Evans has played in every game, but sometimes just a minute or two. I said before the season Evans would be a big X-factor of sorts - the more he plays, the less we have to rely on guys like Baker for point guard stuff. Evans had a big-time breakthrough against Auburn with 18 minutes, 5 assists, 3 steals, and zero turnovers. And it's no coincidence at all that in the same game, Calvin Baker only played 10 minutes and Mustapha Farrakhan 9, and that we were in a position to win at the end. Right now, those two are ice-cold from the floor, and it's not helping.

Speaking of shooting, it's still a weakness. The hoped-for jump shot from Sylven hasn't quite materialized. He's not an outside threat, and neither are the aforementioned Farrakhan and Baker. HOWEVA! Jeff Jones is well on his way. His shooting is vastly improved. Like, big-time. It's not there every game yet, but any maroon can watch five minutes of any one of our games and realize we're a much, much better team when Jones' shot is falling.

So what about those readjusted expectations? Well, we've lopped off the top end. Any kind of tournament that gets any attention is out. But I made one guarantee, and I'm sticking to it: We'll improve over our 11th-place finish in the ACC. And we were 10-18 last year; I see improvement over that in our future too. The upcoming five-game stretch in between finals and the ACC program is the easiest of the year. Three of those teams are just bottom-of-the-barrel horrible. (That was the idea. We need wins.) Then there's UNC-Wilmington and UAB. Both dangerous. But neither overwhelming. At worst, we come out of this stretch and into the ACC schedule sitting at 7-6. I think 8-5 is more likely, and a five-game win streak to get us to 9-4 isn't a pipe dream. And remember - we won four games last year in an ACC that was stronger than this. So I expect to improve on that, even if only by a little.

Which brings us to what I said should be the two baseline expectations for this team: Improve on 11th place in the ACC, and go to the postseason. Hey, the CBI is the postseason. And I will tell you what: nine more wins (say, four out of five in the remaining OOC sked and five more in the ACC - that's 13-14 if you're keeping track, 13-15 or maybe 14-15 counting the ACC tournament) will get us there.

Addendum: There is one other improvement over last season I forgot to mention, and it's a big one. Last season, not a single one of our wins was broadcasted on TV up here where I could get my highlight-clipping hooks into them. This year, I finally got one. It's not, like, a big important game or anything - it's Cleveland State - but, as much for the practice of making a basketball video as anything, I'll eventually be getting this one up into the videos section.

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