Photo Credit: Jim Cowsert, USA TODAY Sports
When watching the first weekend of March Madness, one couldn’t help but see other basketball programs that might offer the University of Denver men’s basketball program some hope. Here are three teams that caught my interest and how their performances may provide DU with a roadmap for future success.
Stephen F. Austin
The Lumberjacks’ strength is their ability to force turnovers. Sometimes they play a full-court press, sometimes they play a half-court trap, sometimes they even play a 1-3-1 zone. All are designed to make teams make mistakes. Opponents turn the ball over 25.9 percent of the time against Stephen F. Austin, the highest rate in the nation.
They win small. Their lineup often features no players over 6’5. Thomas Walkup, a 6’4 195-pounder, makes this work. A gifted 6’4, 195-pound “big man,” has become one of the March stars by creating a ‘reverse mismatch’ against slower big men. A massively undersized forward without a reliable jumper, he has one of the most unique games in college basketball. Too fast for most power forwards to guard, he has a variety of post moves, and he’s incredible at finishing around the basket. He shoots 64 percent from inside the arc, draws a ton of fouls and hits all his free throws. He doesn’t even really need to shoot from the outside. He shot only 21.9 percent from deep this year. On defense, he keys the team’s emphasis on turnover, stealing the ball on 4.1 percent of opposing possessions, top 20 in the nation.
Takeaway: With the right players, DU can win small. Great defense can make-up for personnel shortcomings and the defense is already pretty solid. DU needs a dominant floor player(s) that creates match-up problems for other teams. That player(s) might already be here (Joe Rosga or someone else). Or, it might be a new player brought in by new coach Rodney Billups
Holy Cross made the NCAA Tournament despite a 10-19 regular season. But they did what they had to do-win the Patriot League Tournament. Really, that is all that counts for a one-bid conference: play well in March. Of course, the Pioneers need to play better during the league regular season and 10 wins would be a disaster and dampen enthusiasm locally for DU basketball. However, the program needs to work towards their conference tournament, especially in a 1-bid conference like the Summit League.
Takeaway: Build and improve during the regular season with a plan and scheme to peak in March during the conference tournament. DU’s current depth is a huge plus and should allow them to be fresh for a March run.
Let’s be clear – DU is not Yale. But the Ivy League is better than you think. Harvard took the University of Kansas to the final minute in Allen Field House in Lawrence, Kansas earlier this season. There are some significant similarities between DU and Yale. The Bulldogs got to the Dance, won their first game, and then lost to Duke – all with 2-star recruits. How did they come back to scare Duke? Yale coach James Jones threw out a full-court press, and the stunned Devils were forced into poor shot selection and turnovers . Then, the Bulldogs fell back into a stout zone defense. For six consecutive possessions, the Blue Devils settled for one shot, unable to commandeer a rebound when the Bulldogs crashed the boards.
They did it with student-athletes – guys that can cut it in class and dribble a basketball. Yale, and Harvard the year before, proved that there are two-star basketball players that are good students, too. Let’s shelve the excuses that 2-star recruits are not good enough to compete in college.
Takeaway: Learn to full court press and rebound – technique is important as size. DU has the current roster size and depth to press. Rebounding is about heart – smaller teams have proven it can be done. Get used to 2-star recruits – other successful teams win with them.
Conclusion:The mid-major Northern Iowa Panthers give us a final lesson. They blew a 12 point lead with 34 seconds to go against Texas Tech. The lesson – mid-majors programs will always have their hearts broken in March.
We’ll take it.