Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Three Factors Sank Bengals

We've all had plenty of time to ponder the demise of Idaho State's men's basketball team, whose season mercifully came to a conclusion Saturday in Cheney, Wash. The Bengals, who were picked to finish third in the conference by the coaches and fourth in the media pre-season poll, whimpered to an eighth-place conclusion, finishing ahead of only perennial cellar-dweller Sac State. To make matters worse, the Hornets swept the season series with ISU.

Quick and dirty, these are my three keys to the Bengals' melt-down this year:
  • Defense -- or lack thereof. Basketball stathead Ken Pomeroy publishes numbers in key areas such as defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 defensive possessions); effective field goal percentage (which factors in three-point defense); turnover percentage; offensive rebound percentage; three-point shooting percentage defense; and two-point shooting percentage.

The long and short of it is that Idaho State was terrible in all these key defensive departments. There are 347 Division I basketball teams. Idaho State finished 341 in effective defense, 337 in effective field goal percentage defense, 331 in turnover percentage, 301 in defending against offensive rebounds, 315 in three-point field goal percentage, and 331 in two-point field goal percentage.

If you look at last season's numbers, you'll see Idaho State was in the low 200s to the high 100s in just about every major category. In fact, if you look at ISU's three previous seasons under Joe O'Brien, their defense has never been close to ranking this poorly in those key factors. We've had Joe and both his assistants, Geoff Alexander and Tim Walsh, on our coaches' show this year, and every time you ask them to pinpoint a reason why the team has struggled this year, they all say the same thing: lousy defense.

Why was the defense so bad? That's the $100,000 question. Lack of effort and heart? No true big man to clog the middle? The loss of Matt Stucki who, at 6-6, could guard every position on the floor, which is key to the Bengals' switching man-to-man? I don't pretend to have an easy answer to the question, but my eyes told me ISU was bad on defense and, in this case, the statistics tell me my eyes didn't deceive.

  • Lack of Development Among the Seniors: All of us -- coaches, fans, analysts -- all of us have a tendency to look at young players and mentally project where they will be when they are seniors. I know when I looked at Amorrow Morgan, Donnie Carson, Demetrius Monroe, Austin Kilpatrick and Chron Tatum after their sophomore seasons, I saw the potential for a great team by the time this campaign rolled around. But it didn't happen, and one reason is that Morgan was the only one of those young players to develop into an all-conference quality player over his four years here.

Amorrow increased his productivity significantly every season, from 1.5 points and 1.1 rebounds as a freshman, to 9.7-2.9, 13.6-3.3 and 16.9-3.7. Only a significant ankle injury late in his senior year kept him from having one of the best seasons of any Bengal in the last decade.

Other than Row, however, only Monroe got significantly better over his four-year career: from 2.2-1.6 as a freshman to 9.3-7.2 as a senior. And Monroe's lack of physical strength meant that most of his productivity came in the non-conference portion of his senior season. He had five double-doubles by the first of January -- and two thereafter.

The other veterans finished their ISU careers consistently inconsistent. Here are their numbers from their first to their senior years: Kilpatrick: 5.3-1.5, 7.3-2.5, 4.2-1.8, 7.0-3.3; Carson: 1.4-.5, 6.2-2.5, 6.4-3.6, 4.7-3.0; Tatum (came to ISU as a sophomore): 4.8-2.4, 6.6-3.5, 5.8-4.0.

Why the lack of development? Again, you can offer up any number of potential answers, including acknowledging that maybe we just over-estimated their ability. I won't pretend to know the answer, but it's plain the growth many of us expected and hoped for simply wasn't there.

  • The Failure of the 2008 Recruiting Class: When O'Brien finished his second year on the job at ISU, he started feeling the pressure. He had one year left on his contract, the guy that hired him was gone, and he knew he had to make strides to keep his job. So he took a calculated gamble and brought in four junior college players to join with five returning juniors in a no-holds-barred bid to win the league by 2010.

For a whole host of reasons, the gamble failed. Of the five players O'Brien signed in the spring of 2008, two played only one season and left the program (Kal Bay and Felix Caspari), two played one year and were unavailable for most or all of this past season (Phyllip Taylor and Deividas Busma), and one (Sherrod Baldwin) has proven to be nothing more than a role player to this point in his career.

The Bay-Caspari duo from Eastern Utah were particularly big mistakes. O'Brien was looking for a fulltime point guard and decided to take Bay, who began his career at Colorado, as his primary point guard candidate. Bay turned out to be more of an under-sized shooting guard with limited point guard skills, played only 24 games because of injury, and left the program by the end of his first season. His good friend, Caspari, who was a serviceable back-up forward and energy guy, then waited until right before the start of this season to decide he was no longer interested in playing basketball -- far too late to allow O'Brien to recruit a replacement.

Busma, the 7-foot center, played only seven games this season before being sidelined by a stress fracture in his foot. O'Brien expects him to return next year, but there's something about bad feet and big guys that makes me nervous (Bill Walton, anybody?). And Busma, who has shown fleeting glimpses of athletic ability that both excite you and perplex, has yet to provide any kind of consistent production during his time at ISU. He averaged 4.2 points and 3.1 rebounds as a junior, 3.4 and 2.4 in his brief stint this season.

Taylor, meanwhile, was academically ineligible this year. The coaches have talked consistently about how he has improved offensively during practice, and we saw glimpses of that when he put up 23 points in the pre-season scrimmage. But none of that ability was available this past season, when the Bengals definitely could have used a third or fourth offensive weapon.

In summary, ISU has gotten very little production from that recruiting class, and passed on a good three-point shooter and potential local favorite in Pocatello High graduate Nick Hansen, who wound up at Weber State.

If you wanted to add a fourth factor to this year's disappointment, you could certainly talk about injuries. The Bengals lost both Morgan and point guard Broderick Gilchrest, their two "money producers," to significant injuries during conference play, Busma was out from the end of November on, and backup big man Rolando Little missed several weeks after he passed out while jogging on Christmas Eve.

But as much as those injuries hurt the Bengals, I'm not convinced they would have made the post-season tournament even if everybody had been largely healthy. This was one of those teams that, for whatever reasons, just never seemed destined for success.

--Brad B.


Anonymous said...

Great read, Brad.

Pretty much spot on. As much as we can get frustrated as fans with the lack of scoring--this team is at its best when they play hard-nosed defense.

I hope they get back to O'Brien ball defensively next season.


Anonymous said...

You know, we could pick apart this nightmare of a season and find a heck of a lot more than just 3 factors. The truth is, it is really just 1 factor. This team had 2, maybe 3, legitimate NCAA Division I players on it. That is it. When a player did not have any other D-I offers besides ISU, there is usually a reason why.

Bad defense? Sure. But we certainly know Joe can coach defense, because he did it here his first two years, and he had a nice history in the JUCO ranks doing it. The truth is, ISU just did not have the players who are capable of matching up man to man with equal to talented players.

The players did not develop as seniors, but that goes back to having marginal players here in the first place. The sports editor of the Idaho Statesman made a case today for firing the Boise State basketball coach, in part because none of the players have improved. In just the first year here, Joe made a mark on AAA and the post players who were left. If there is ability to develop, I think Joe can do it. The problem is these players, by and large, were NAIA at best.

We can make a case against the schedule, too. All of the coaches have said it was too hard, and it has already been said that it will improve next year. Yeah, yeah, we were not supposed to win any of those tough games anyway. The reality is, losing takes a toll on you. Confidence is shaken, and you can throw out any chance of momentum. Game plans are thrown out the window, too, because too often a team is merely trying to survive and make things respectable.

I suppose you could say the poor recruiting class of 2008 played a factor. In reality, it was just another year in the pattern which has taken place. I hope hard lessons have been learned and things turn around.

Anonymous said...

Brad...not only Bill Walton but Sam Bowie.

Mark Liptak

Anonymous said...

Yep, Mark, and Yao Ming, Rik Smits, Greg Oden....

--Brad B.