Hope everyone has had a nice holiday weekend so far.
OK, so we're back from Fairbanks .. back on Eastern Time & I've had a little time to put my thoughts together on the team heading into this little homestand on Saturday.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind these are the observations of an un(basketball)educated fan .. I'm not a former player or coach .. just love the Zips and have watched a lot of college hoops over the years.
Current Status: Backcourt
The Zips are THIN in the backcourt right now. Dials, Middleton, and (I'm willing to say) McNees are all capable, but they're ALL SG's. Dials can play PG, but it's a big drain on his energy to run the point. That drain reduces his effectiveness at the 2 .. and it cascades from there. Combine that w/ Middelton's not being at full speed (knee) and the inexperience of McNees .. and things are a bit shaky right now in the backcourt.
This hurt us in Fairbanks in 2 principal areas:
1. On the break offensively. The fast break chances weren't converted at nearly the rate you'd like to see. Not as well as last year .. in fact, not so well at all. Some of this is chemistry, and some is poor decision making .. forwards dribbling 3/4's of the court .. SG's dishing too late & picking up charge calls. Touchdown passes out of the back of the endzone, etc. So I think having a true point that can attack the basket on the break .. and make the clean pass will help that.
2. Penetration defensively. The opponents (especially Dominguez from Portland State) are getting into the paint on the dribble WAY too easily right now. They're either beating their guy straight up, or beating the help in switch situations. Either way, it's leading to good opportunities in mid-range jumpers and lots of wide open shooters outside. It creates a need need for help D from the perimeter, leaving open shooters .. and bang .. 3 points at a time you're hurting. In a prior era .. a certain coach and a broadcaster would complain that shooters were having their career nights against the Zips .. when really they were just standing wide open.
What's the solution? Well, we would appear to have 2 PG's joining the force within the next 3 weeks. Ronnie Steward is with the team and working through a hip-flexor injury. Depending on who you talk to, he could be ready in a week or 3 weeks. I vote for conservatism here so that we don't risk a longer outage. Also, it's being said that Daryl Roberts may be available when the Fall Semester concludes on 16 December. That would theoretically make him available for the NC A&T game on the 19th.
This reminds me a bunch of the 2000-2001 season when we opened the season w/ Emmanuel Smith (R.I.P.) at the point, while waiting for the transfer sit out period of Rashon Brown to expire. They struggled mightily at many facets of the game early that season. Then in the first game after the Fall Semester ended, Brown and Andre Sims came in and gave us 2 new point guards .. and the Zips obliterated CSU that night. The season saw improvements .. and I think that was the first year we made it to the Gund.
To me this is similar. KD likes to use the 3 guard in certain situations .. and he's unable to do that now. He's got 3 SG's with decent ball handling skills, but none are exactly quick enough to stop the opponent's quickest player, usually the PG. That leads to excessive penetration (see above). We need to get deeper & more healthy in the backcourt .. and that will solve some of the defensive issues all the way around.
So let's keep our fingers & toes crossed that we have some roster additions in the next couple of weeks to help the backcourt.
Current Player Reports:
Dials: He's been pretty good. Had a few TO's trying to make the perfect pass on the break .. but also had some money looks to Quade for monster jams. His shot has been pretty good, and he hit the clutch jumper against TN ST. It appears that his knee can act up w/ back to back games .. but he played through it. He's nothing if not tough. A good leader & floor guy .. but the Zips need him as a scorer to be successful.
Middleton: Looks to be in phenomenal shape physically. His knee has been bothering him so he was a bit out of sync shooting wise, after an extended break from practice. Nothing tells me he won't be our steady Cedrick soon .. as he gets back from the injury time.
McNees: I like what I see so far. From an offensive perspective, he has a big upside I think. He's a smooth shooter with a quick release, and may be our 3rd or 4th best shooter right now. I think his decision making is pretty good (it far exceeds the last #4 on the Zips) .. and his ball handling is ok. He did get stripped a couple of times out top .. that turned into 2 quick points the other way. However, he wasn't throwing the ball away .. he was pretty good with it. As has been written and discussed before, he's still learning the D end of things. I think the guy could end up being a bigger Dials if he can apply himself to being a good defender.
Sallee / Goddard: They can contribute if called upon, but I don't see them as extended minutes options. Sallee gives good ball handling & some quickness on defense, but there's not much offensive production. Goddard has improved, and remains our best pure shooter, so he'll be used primarily as a zone buster this season, as last year.
Current Status: Small Forward
This position is at the same time one of the Zips biggest strengths and one of their biggest weaknesses.
First off, Linhart and Conyers are the best defenders on the team right now. In all three games, the opposing teams did not get much in the way of production out of their SF's where it comes to penetration and attacking the paint. Jimmy and Nate are good on the ball defenders. Jimmy especially can generally keep his guy in front of him all the time in a man situation. I'd label Jimmy our best defender right now. Nate has a great knack for rebounding, in this area he's probably a bit better than Jimmy. Both are tough and in great shape. Nate had some bumps and bruises against Portland State, but showed no signs of slowness against TN St.
On the offensive side, it seems like both of these guy need a big shot of confidence. They just don't seem comfortable w/ the ball & as a result, we're not getting much offensive production from the position. They have their moments (JC had a nice shooting day against TNSU) .. but they seem gun shy when wide open, and willing to drive into tight situations. I find myself wishing that Jimmy would put the ball on the floor more when he has a gap .. seems to me he could beat his guy to the rim a lot. Nate seems to hesitate when he's wide open, and then puts the ball up in tighter spots. Given the pace of his delivery, he's got to have a little space. Both have shown (in the three games this year) that they can help on the offensive side .. I just think there's a mental aspect on the offensive side that isn't there yet. We need more scoring from the 3.
Perhaps Brett McKnight will provide some pop here. Folks around the program seem to think he's too good to redshirt. I think it will be interesting to see how that shakes out if he is in fact eligible at the end of the semester.
Current Player Reports:
Linhart: I think he's under appreciated. He fills the box score .. can guard guys bigger than him and guys smaller than him, and is really active on the glass. His shot will come around, he's shown in the past that he can score the basketball. He remains one of our most complete players. Never question his toughness.
Conyers: If you've been to this site before, you probably already know that I think this guy can play. In 4 appearances this year, including the Walsh game, I think he's had 3 solid outings and 1 rough outing. To me the guy can flat out defend .. and in this system that will get him on the floor. I feel like he can probably finish at the rim & I'd love to see more of that. When Can't State made their big run, they essentially had 3 great pieces & some role players. The three great pieces were a good PG (Mitchell), a pro level talent (Gates), and an absolute shutdown guy that could stop the 2, 3 or 4 when called upon (Shaw). To me, Jimmy can be the kind of player Shaw was. He's certainly not there yet .. but can he get there?
Current Status: Frontcourt
For the 2 big positions, the Zips used 4 guys to share the minutes in Fairbanks. Combinations of Wood, Milum, C.McKnight & Bardo were used. I think there were 2 or 3 different starting lineups in the 3 games. Wood is certain to play 25-30 minutes a night, foul & health permitting. He's our best frontcourt player and will play a bunch. That leaves about 50 minutes to split between the other 3 guys (16/17 per guy for the Can't Fans reading this).
We've been effective at times in the post, but it's been rusty. As with the backcourt, there's a transition going on with the loss of a 4 year contributor in Travis. Turnovers have been a problem .. but maybe not from where you'd think. The leading culprit has thus far been JWood. I chalk this up to having different post partners this year than he's had the past 3. He and Rome did have a smooth understanding of each other's game last season. Their interior passing was exceptional. Wood could wait for the double and find an open Rome 4 out of 5 times.
This season it's not as smooth .. though I think it will be better quickly. He's finding McKnight, Quade & Bardo .. but at the moment, the passes are too fine, in the wrong place, or simply poorly placed. JWood's trying to do it all .. and that's fine. But once he settles in and makes the passes that are there .. and kicks out when it's not. The team will be better.
One thing I noticed a bit: he seemed to be waiting for the THIRD guy before kicking out / over to a teammate. And it was usually the 3rd guy coming that caused problems or disrupted the pass out. Coaches were encouraging him to kick as soon as the double arrived & not wait too long for the triple .. or for the defense to rotate over to restore the strong side D. Again .. a work in progress. We've seen what he can do this way .. and once the chemistry with the new rotations is worked out, I anticipate that JW's turnovers will drop considerably.
Defensively, I think the frontcourt was a strength in Fairbanks. However, as in other areas, the chemistry of switching and rotations will improve over the next month. Remember the game last season where a conference opponent had 6 or more shots blocked in the first half. Quade was rotating down on the driving player and just sending it away. I think it was Western Michigan on ESPN2 .. the post players just dominated the inside of the court defensively. This season's Zips are just not at that point yet. They have the bodies & similar athletic makeup from last season, deeper even than last season .. but the communications and help are not yet a well oiled machine. It should improve.
With 4 solid big guys inside, the rebounding has to improve for the Zips to be successful. My on the spot impression is that they were out rebounded in everygame. Some of this can be tied to the guard penetration and help rotations. When the bigs have to rotate over, it's almost like playing a zone out there .. and zone teams are never good rebounding teams. There's almost always a guy left alone for slashing to the offensive glass. They appeared to be out of position several times on the defensive glass & gave up several easy putbacks to opponents. This is a needed area of improvement.
Current Player Reports:
Wood: He's been good .. but not yet great. It's clear that JWood recognizes he needs to be a leader on this team. Beyond just being the workhorse inside, he's embraced the role a 5th year senior has to fill. Just watching him stand on the bench calling the defense switching for Goddard was awesome .. he was an extra coach helping a guy through the defensive end. His production has been STRONG .. both scoring and glass. He's extended his game to 10-12 feet out & that will open things up for him. Turnovers have been a problem. He has a tendency to take the ball on the break and dribble far up the court. I think he ought to be dumping off earlier in the break, and then filling the lane to give the guards a huge target on the break. His touch and hands are good & can help the team tons. I think he could easily be a 20-10 guy this year & push for POTY consideration.
Milum: Quade has surprised me somewhat. His offensive post game is much much more than just the dunk off the lob. Quade has a nice back to the basket game & dropped several sky hooks in. Haven't seen much up an under moves, but his hops help him get good looks inside over his defenders. I think he'll help replace some of the lost scoring from Travis. He's had some blocks, but overall, I think his defense & rebounding need to improve. Too often, the Zips give up easy second chance tip-ins after going for the block and leaving the weak side guy open. As a group, they need to better find a guy and seal them off for the rebound when the ball goes up.
McKnight: Similar thoughts as those for Quade. He needs to rebound his position better than he is. He has a lot of size & athleticism. Needs to not get taken out of position defensively. Offensively, I think Chris has a big upside. He's got legitimate 3 point range and in. Nice touch all around the basket. I think with improved rebounding, he'll start to see more consistent minutes. He can become a really good weakside guy to go w/ Wood similar to Travis. This guy has big upside as a power forward.
Bardo: Pleasant surprise early on. Mike rebounded well, and made 3 of his first 4 shots. I think his only miss has been on a tip attempt. There were some big centers in Fairbanks, and Bardo showed some nice defensive effort. He's big, and tough .. doesn't get pushed around out there too much. As with young players, positioning is sometimes difficult (whether to front or not .. blocking out, etc.) but that should come with time. Not sure on the conditioning yet. He played about 25 minutes in Game 2, but came back with only 8 or 10 against TN St. in Game 3. It's not clear to me why.
I do think that we all need to be patient with this club. Even though we lost only 2 bodies in the off season, we lost 2 of the guys that took the big shots .. were leaders on and off the court. Replacing them won't happen overnight. One coach says (paraphrasing here) "These guys still know how to win, but they've got to go out and do it .. and realize they can get it done w/o Dru & Rome." I think there's some sense in that concept. Our expectations are high .. and they should remain high .. but I think that we've got to be prepared for some adjustments and learning early in the year. An assessment after the non-conference portion of the schedule may have more value than now.
Generally speaking about the roster / depth ...
If we assume that Steward and Roberts will be playing in December sometime, depth on this team is crazy. I've NEVER seen a Zips team that goes a legit 2 deep at every position. Consider the following:
PG: Steward / Roberts / (McNees)
SG: Dials / Middleton / McNees
SF: Conyers / Linhart / (B. McKnight)
PF: Milum / C. McKnight / (B. McKnight)
C: Wood / Bardo
Add Brett McKnight to the mix at the 3/4 spots .. and we're talking about having 12 legit D1 guys who can contribute. Not 3 or 4 w/ 6 other guys who can merely eat minutes. Each of these 12 guys are capable of helping this team win. This is a really good thing .. and a great sign for this season and beyond.
Now, no one, including me believes you can really work with a 12 man rotation. I expect that it will be boiled down to about 10 by conference season start and perhaps down another 1 by the end of the season. But it's great to have talented depth on hand to be able to find out who your best 9 guys are. It wasn't too long ago that we didn't even have 8 D-I quality guys to rely on .. and we had walkons in key reserve roles. Kudos to the staff for building a pipeline of talent to the roster (and especially for getting & keeping them eligible).
My expectations at this point? I think I'm going to really like the team. After traveling to see them in Alaska and watching how the staff handles things .. it's a group of REALLY good guys, coaches on down. They appear to like playing together and working together .. and that can help the group find the chemistry the Zips need in order to be successful. Judge this team on the whole season .. and be realistic .. they're not going to win every game by 20. But the effort will be there, and we'll see improvement. Without putting down numbers, I'm very optimistic about this season. Get your tickets and get there early.
Put em on Zips Fans!! The future is bright.
Yikes!! I've been adding a little to this here and there since I got back on Tuesday .. didn't realize it was this long .. my apologies for the long post. Just a brain dump, guess I must spend a lot of time thinking about Zips Hoops. Thanks for sticking with me if you're still here.