I think it's safe to say that not many of us expected to see the Zips in their current position halfway through the MAC portion of the season. After several seasons of leading or always being within a game of the East lead, our Zips find themselves in unfamiliar territory:
- The Zips are looking up at every team in the East, including OU when the tiebreakers are considered.
- Not only that, but the Zips only lead CMU and UT in the combined seedings at the moment. CMU by virtue of last weeks win vs. the Chips at the JAR. For the numerically challenged reading this, the Zips are in 10th place.
- The Zips have not won a road game in conference yet this season. With 5 conference losses and 4 remaining road games, it's apparent that securing a bye is quite unlikely, and getting a home tournament game will require a rebound in the second half.
I'm not alone among Zips fans in being quite surprised at the current state of things. On paper, the Zips looked to be primed to continue their run at or near the top of the East, despite the warnings of some staff members over the summer. Losing 2 seniors (big contributors in Conyers and McKnight) was going to hurt, we knew that. The other losses, mostly role players or players who didn't like their roles were expected to be more absorbable, given the addition of Abreu @ PG, and the number of incoming players to fill the extra minutes.
Could we have been more wrong? I'm not sure.
So my snapshot heading into the UT game:
- The Zips beat Can't to open the MAC slate. It had been a couple of seasons since our guys got over on the rivals, and it was a nice refreshing sight to see the Zips take out Can't at the JAR to open the conference slate. The coaches were both saying the same thing after the game. What they do after was more important than one game. Can't State sits near first, 3 games up on the Zips in the loss column. Maybe these guys know their teams? Regardless, Zeke had a huge game against Can't State and the Zips won one for the fans that we needed.
- Young athletic players (at times): There have been glimpses of the positive impact some of the roster changes can make. At times, Diggs has looked like the most athletic swing man we've seen in a long time, and I believe Abreu has the tools and basketball sense to become one of the Zips great PG's over time. Having to rely on these two at times when others have faltered is a component of the Zips struggles. Young players are going to make mistakes .. they're not going to be as steady as a senior who has won a MAC title and played almost 100 games. Regardless, these 2 guys as well as Zeke have shown stretches of what can be a more athletic running team.
- Nikola Cvetinovic: Has there been a more workmanlike season game in and game out than Nik is having? I think if we didn't have Nik, things could be a lot worse. He's matured to the point of not taking himself out of games emotionally, he leads the Zips in points and rebounds, is 3rd in assists and 2nd in steals. The guy is far and away the MVP of this team. He's improved his FT shooting, and is shooting a respectable 44% from the field. Put me in the group of people that hopes he finds a way to put off going home to Serbia one more year. We need this guy.
- Consistency: I can't remember a Zips team, perhaps because I've blocked most of the 90's out, that was as inconsistent as this team. I remember a few times in the Hipsher era where I felt the team should be better than it was, and that a bad game here or there unplugged a season. But I can't remember any team being as up and down as this team has. They beat Can't, they should have beaten U@B in their gym before giving it away, and then they lose to NIU & EMU. It's consistency at a whole bunch of levels, not just game over game. Within a game, within a half .. even within a single possession, the Zips are struggling to find consistent execution. This is leading to inconsistent results, to put it mildly.
- Cohesiveness: One of the mantras of KD Zips Basketball has always been to "Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together!" I'm not here to question the effort, I haven't seen people loafing or anything, so I think they're playing hard. Playing smart is up for debate. But playing together isn't a strength of this team. There seem to be times when the backcourt just isn't on the same page as the bigs & vice versa. It's usually on Defense. A key to good team defense is good communication. Perhaps this relates to their struggles?
- Defense: KD has been up front about this all season. The D isn't where he likes it to be yet. At times, they've been blistered by outside shooters standing all alone. At times a singular player like Silas and Cooper has really hurt them. Either way, the Zips aren't stopping people enough. In the interest of fairness, it has been better the past few games. In 3 of the past 4 games, the Zips have held the opponent to 60 or fewer points. They won 2 of those 3. In the previous 12 games, they only held one team to 60 or less. In the same 4 games, they've held opponents under 40% from beyond the arc, a stark contrast to the 50%+ they allowed OU and U@B. So maybe the defense is evolving? We'll have to wait and see.
- The Offense: This is a frustrating area to watch the Zips struggle with. They've shown an ability to get open shots, and shoot solid percentages. They've shown the ability to dominate people in the post. They've shown an ability to play inside-out to leverage both skills. However, due to the cohesiveness and inconsistency, they're rarely showing these things on a night in and night out basis. One game, the post players will dominate and get the ball in, yielding wide open looks from outside. The next game, or 10 minutes later in the same game .. they'll start passing the ball over the top looking for three balls, and ignore the post all together. I think it's driving the coaches nuts. Bottom line is that the Zips are shooting 41% as a team in conference play and only 34.5% from outside. Included in that is 4 games where they attempted more than 20 3PT FG's and made LESS than 30%. If the percentages remain as they are trending, the Zips will struggle until they find a little more balance between inside and out.
- Rebounding: Pointed out earlier as a team weakness, it seems to me to have improved ever so slightly. They're winning the rebounding in about half the conference games. They did well against CMU and Can't State and won. They did poorly against BG & still won. Other games, they've been crushed. This is a hard stat to harp on, given the defensive problems. As KD continues to need to resort to the 1-1-3 to improve the defensive end .. rebounding will struggle, as it's hard to rebound out of a zone. This is further compounded by having a good shot blocker. They're almost never great rebounders, as going for the ball has you moving away from the rim .. and therefore away from the rebound.
.. And a few comments more:
- The season's not over .. there's lots of time. So the bye *looks* out of reach .. so be it. They won the title by playing 4 games in the tournament, and they can do it again. They have time to rebound. 3 games remain against the West, and there's 4 home games left to try and get into the middle third of the league and secure a JAR game. One game at a time, they can solve their issues and become the team they've been when March rolls around.
- They have a history of winning & veterans abound. Four guys who were key in winning the MAC tourney 2 years ago are the leaders of this team. They know how to win. They've done it a LOT. This experience has to help them at some point this season. They can put it together .. teams don't just forget how to play in a month. They can re-discover it .. and I think they will.
- There's numbers to the Zips' advantage: KD has a deep bench, and can use these guys to his advantage if he tries to speed teams up. This may mean more Egner & Bardo .. but I see no reason why the Zips can't push the ball more on offense & wear teams down more. We saw it work against CMU .. I think it could work against a bunch of teams in the league.
As Mike White once said .. "it ain't over!"
Here's hoping the Zips can pull a road win out at UT and start to string some games together. With 3 left against the West & 2 of those at home, it's possible to go into the 2nd East Swing at 6-5 with a shot at a home game. It won't be easy. One game at a time .. one half at a time .. one defensive possession at a time. Gotta start stringing these together.