Alright, this is going to be a relatively shorter one of these without as much video, both because I just have the condensed game for this one and because there isn’t as much to take away. Maryland-Eastern Shore didn’t start anyone over 6’5″ and just wasn’t any kind of representation of any team we’ll likely face the rest of the way. Even Albany is considerably bigger. So, a workman-like 27 point victory isn’t much to put much stock in either way against Kenpom’s 310th ranked team against whom we have a huge size advantage inside. So, all of the discussion below should be viewed through that lens of “This probably isn’t a big deal either way,” like the way CTB couched the discussions about the first game in Italy. The combination of the quality of the opponent and the physical traits they brought to the matchup made this a uniquely odd game. As a result – I’m going to add the hopefully seldom-used “Unsure” category into the mix for this one.
Unsure – Gardner Feasting
It was great to see Gardner get back on track offensively in this one after such a rough start to the season. He was 0-9 on his normally reliable mid-range jumper coming into the season and was averaging 7.75 points per game across the first 4. He went off for 26 points in this one on 80% shooting from the floor. He took 15 shots from the floor, where the next closest by volume on the team were both Franklin and McKneely at 6 each. He looked smooth, polished, and finished with good touch. Check out how quickly he got out of the gate and busted the game open with a variety of post moves below:
Here’s the thing, though… his primary defender in all of those clips is Zion Styles for UMES – who is 6’3′, 199lbs! This is basically the equivalent to us running multiple possessions in a row where we get Caleb Love switched onto Gardner in the post (Love is actually slightly taller). Of course he’d feast! Literally every single player on UMES on the floor at this point was shorter than he is. Who is coming from help side? Sadly, this is not the kind of matchup he’s going to see almost ever, from here on out, so it’s hard to look at this as any kind of sustainable offense. Fortunately, the high volume did seem to find him a rhythm and he did start hitting midrange shots like this one:
This came against the more realistic 6’7″ Troy Hupstead off of the bench and is more aligned with what we saw from Jayden last year. He did get some good looks later in the game against players more equal to his size after he’d built up his confidence and they still offered little resistance.
As I was watching the game I had two simultaneous trains of thought running through my mind. It looked like our offense with Jayden from last year where, at times, he was a black hole and looked to score aggressively (and often at will), which was cool. He went to work, he looked smooth, it was fun to watch. It was easy to think and hope that maybe this is the game that gives him the confidence on the offensive side of the ball moving forward. This could be showcasing yet another way that our team can beat you offensively. In fact, we got a bunch of easy buckets around the hoop just crashing the glass with our size (Papi and Kadin, too) and sticking the board back in.
But, I also noticed that our guard play was uncharacteristically sloppy and didn’t seem as engaged. We shot our second worst three-point% for the season coupled with our fewest attempts. We turned the ball over 10 times and, generally, the guards seemed to be playing much more passively. Most of this was because we just had such mismatches inside that it just made sense to go there to exploit that. But even with such a high success rate there, we still scored our second fewest points of the season despite a flurry of three consecutive three-pointers at the end of the game in garbage time.
The whole thing left me with more questions than answers. The ease of Gardner’s scoring was certainly due to the size and skill of his competition. In the post-game press conference CTB talking about Jayden had an aside he threw out there when talking about his scoring, “and again, when you’re going against bigger guys the ability to do those things.” Can he regain a similar level of efficiency scoring against larger competition. Even if so, will this spark that even at a lower volume moving forward or will he need a similar number of looks to get going? Given what we’ve seen this season, would we even want this to be the primary offense or would the “Jayden ball” from last season have an impact on the other options we’d leaned on until this point? The idea that, in the right matchups, we have this as part of our Swiss-Army knife is enticing, but in how many situations will it be this repeatable and what are the tradeoffs when it is? It’s also possible that the ease at which this offense was coming and how the game was never really in doubt hurt some of that sense of urgency across other players – I’m reminded of the Monmouth game, a team ranked almost identically to UMES in Kenpom, and how much more effective we were offensively when everyone was more involved in the scoring.
And then, again, it might all mean nothing. The team was just off of an exhausting and complete weekend of basketball, perhaps they were just happy to take the path of least resistance to a comfortable win prior to looking forward to Michigan and would have no problem raising their level of play in a closer game even with Jayden being heavy on touches. Perhaps they really will be able to shift styles at will. Certainly, when you have someone like Gardner who can eat in the post against smaller competition, it helps them to be less vulnerable to upset against the small ball mid-majors that you can often run into during the first round of the NCAA Tournament. All things to think about, but just musings kicking around in my brain. It bears repeating, I don’t think there’s much to concretely be learned from this game. A lot of questions – but maybe this will help Gardner find that mid-range jumper when it’s open for him.
Dislike: First Year Jitters
In the post-game presser CTB flatly said that IMK and Dunn weren’t ready when they came in the game the first go around. And it was pretty obviously true. The team was up 20-4 when they came in and 20-12 when they left. Dunn wasn’t able to close out on a three, IMK turned it over, and this possession was in there as well:
This play is entirely the fault of both. Dunn is too aggressive trying to get into the passing lane for his man, leaving a wide-open drive down the middle of the lane. IMK is slow recovering to BVP’s man when he moves to stop the drive of Dunn’s man, and both IMK and Dunn bite on the pump fake of the only 6’5″ Pollard and both foul him for the and-1. Both were shortly yanked after this and didn’t return until the second half. It’s potentially a good lesson for both about how you have to be up for every game and how you won’t play if you aren’t ready/don’t execute, but it’s also a shame that they didn’t get more run against an inferior opponent but who still offered a good test at the guard position. Given how Taine Murray went 0-3 from three and just doesn’t really seem to be a threat to push for significant playing time, I thought it was a missed opportunity that the freshmen only got 12 minutes a piece most of which were after the game was well in hand.
Like: McKneely Threes
That being said, I did think McKneely salvaged things a little at the end when he hit these two shots back-to-back:
I’d like to think these could be confidence builders after he seemed a little more timid to shoot in Las Vegas than he had previously. The first being off the dribble with a nice step back move and the second being in transition. These might be building blocks or not, but they were pretty sweet. I’d like to really see IMK continue to hunt that shot when he gets run no matter who he’s playing against.
Dislike: Buying Ball Fakes From Much Smaller Players
This happened to both Kadin here:
And Papi here:
Now, Kadin had 5 inches on the man he was guarding in his clip and Papi had 6 inches on his man. Again, some of it might be the nature of thinking you can grab some stats against a lesser opponent, but they need to use more discipline and be locked in mentally in these situations. Neither needed to jump or to take themselves out of the play on either of these. Just standing tall there would have been more than enough.
Like: Shedrick In Transition
One thing that’s been a very pleasant surprise for me early in the season is Shedrick’s ball handling in the open floor. His court vision, willingness to take a few dribbles, and quality passing have enhanced our ability to take steals and turn them into points quickly the other way as opposed to slowing the ball down and setting up a half-court set. Three good examples from this game:
This is a Franklin deflection into a Gardner to Franklin, to Shedrick, back to Gardner fast break! I loved this because Beek and Clark were on the floor but completely unnecessary for the play, we didn’t have to wait for either. Also, all of these passes made sense and were fluid, and were made possible because Shedrick was skilled enough to take a few dribbles in the open court, draw a defender, keep from charging, and make a quality pass to the wide-open Gardner under the hoop.
This one was great because he gets the deflection and the steal. He could have just handed the ball to Kihei there but because he took a few dribbles and then threw a really quality outlet pass to Reece, it created the opportunity for the alley-oop layup for Franklin the other way before the defense could get set. UMES is a smaller team but they’re quick and they play hard, something that could be a 6’10” big man fits in the open floor if he was unskilled, but this improvement from Kadin has allowed us to be more aggressive running the floor. Also, this gratuitous run-out after a steal on a pass to the high-post:
While these continue to showcase his active hands on defense, he’s already had a couple of these runout dunks on his own this season – which I can’t remember him having done in the past. It’s confidence and improved ball handling that’s lending toward these kinds of plays which goes a long way toward increasing the number of “easy” points we can get in a game. This is definitely a cool development to pay attention to.
Dislike: Kihei Getting Targeted On Defense (Reprise)
I may end up being a broken record this year, but I have to keep showcasing this when it’s such a visible issue. Every single opponent we’ve played this season has made a concerted effort to isolate Clark (or, in Baylor’s case, run him off of a ton of screens) in order to take advantage of his size on defense and they’ve really kept doing this as long as they’ve found success (Illinois was unsuccessful, but this has still been the weakest part of our perimeter defense all year). This game was no different as I’ll highlight in 5 clips below.
The fourth clip is 6’3″ Chase Davis noticing the mismatch and immediately attacking it, but the other four clips are all the merely 6’1″ Ahmadou Fofana playing isolation ball and using his size advantage to aggressively hunt his shot. These were actually all of his points. He wasn’t finding success against other defenders. Some of these, the last two from Fofana, are challenging shots that we’ll generally live with. But the first two from Fofana and the one from Davis are far too easy and helped to build confidence; confidence that comes from being unworried about a blocked shot and lends to taking and making more opportunities like the last two Fofana shots below:
Now, to be clear, I completely support not going away from Clark in this game. He had 8 assists and the team was playing better as a whole with him on the floor. Contrasted with IMK and Dunn, they were out of position, slow to rotate and the chances they gave up in their very short time early on were just worse defense. CTB also obviously wanted to send the message to them that you have to be ready as soon as your number is called. So, this isn’t me being critical of any decisions made in this specific game. However, down the road we’re going to need to be able to respond to these instances by putting in one of those guys to mix up the look. Especially with Dunn, it would be incredibly helpful to get the offensive player out of rhythm by targeting him with a larger defender who can do stuff like this when they attempt similar isolation:
He just completely engulfed and erased Zion Styles there, who had been UMES’s most effective offensive player with 11 of their 45 points. So, it would be fantastic if both players, but Dunn especially, could earn the confidence of CTB to break up success like that highlighted above with oppressive defense like this.
Clark played a team-high 31 minutes in this one which, of all people on the team, our 5th year point guard probably doesn’t benefit the most individually from run in a 27-point blowout (certainly, I’d hope Reece would get more minutes at this point). But he was one of our five most effective options in this game despite being a target for the Hawks to get offense, and margin of victory does matter in tournament models for seeding, etc. There aren’t many games like this left on the schedule. Albany, debatably James Madison despite last year and, only half-jokingly, FSU and Louisville. I hope, moving forward, we see our bench guys seize these opportunities with readiness so that they’re in position to step up and help out when it matters down the road. Our opponents are inevitably going to take their shots at isolating Kihei, and we’re going to NEED the ability to switch it up when it’s working.
That’s all I have from this one. I realize the tenor might sound oddly negative after a 27-point victory and, big picture, I’m actually feeling the exact opposite. I’m bullish on this squad and excited for what’s to come this year! It’s just that when you play an opponent like this, it’s usually easier to spot stuff to work on. The full and true picture is that these are the kinds of games that would have probably been uncomfortably close last year with us under-performing and that was not the case on Friday. It was comfortable dominance throughout, despite being sloppy at times. The ceiling on this team and how we view it has been raised, and that’s a very good and encouraging thing. We’ll probably be a top 3 team in the country before the end of the day! I’m very much looking forward to seeing how, if at all, the developments on Friday show up in a challenging test against Michigan tomorrow.