"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, November 23, 2009

MU faces toughest test to date Tuesday

OK, the headline isn’t saying that much after wins over Centenary, Maryland Eastern-Shore and Grambling, but the fact is South Dakota looks to me like a much tougher match-up than those three.

The hard part is figuring out just how much better – and if that means they are good enough to give MU a little tougher warm-up before the battle with Xavier. This team could be a poor man’s version of our Utah State opponent from the first round of the NCAA last year – a team coming off a 20-9 season with a coach and trio of preseason all-conference selections used to winning – albeit against lesser foes. Dave Boots has won 443 games in 22 seasons at South Dakota, and appears to have them ready to be a decent D1 team.

Once we get a few more games in the stat books my colleagues will have much better number-crunching previews of games, but this early in the season I have to piece together little scraps of information to try to gauge how good an opponent is – particularly a team like South Dakota that has little statistical history against Division I opponents since this is the Coyotes first true D1 season.

The fact is we knew pretty definitely how bad the first three teams were. Neither Grambling or MD-Eastern Shore have finished in the top 300 in Pomeroy (www.kenpom.com) since the site started in 2004, so they were clearly among the bottom 46 teams in Division I. Centenary had been a little more respectable, averaging around 250th the last few years, but with the decision to start moving down to Division III they had lost key players and therefore might not be a Top 300 team this year.

It’s much harder to gauge where South Dakota falls among the 346 Division I schools, since they have yet to be rated by Pomeroy through last year. My guess is they could be anywhere from the 100th best team (which could battle MU) to the 200th best team (which would provide another highlight reel of dunks for us), based on the following:

Evidence the Coyotes will be tougher than the first 3 opponents

1. PICKED AHEAD OF SOME DECENT TEAMS. They are picked to finish first in the new Great West Conference ahead of Utah Valley and Chicago State, for whom we do have some history. Utah Valley was a decent program last year, going 17-11 and being ranked 159th by Pomeroy. They had one common opponent to Marquette in Houston Baptist. Marquette drubbed Houston Baptist by 31 points last year, but Utah Valley beat them by 38. Chicago State just missed knocking off Cleveland State last year and typically loses by 10 to 20 points against Big 10 teams and lost 106-87 to Marquette last year. So you might typically expect MU to beat Utah Valley or Chicago State by 10 or 20 points this year, and if South Dakota is picked by conference coaches to be better than either of them, they could give MU a close game – possibly.

2. FIRST STRONG INSIDE PRESENCE MU HAS FACED. The first three games, MU has been able to get to the offensive glass at will, grabbing 40.2% of their missed shots against teams with no size. The Coyotes will put up a much tougher fight, with two players who are going to be beasts in the new Great West Conference:

a. Senior 6-foot-8, 235 pound forward Tyler Cain (15.4 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 2.8 blocked shots last year) was named Independent Defensive Player of the Year last year when he led the Coyotes to a 20-9 mark. He is the preseason conference player of the year. Despite going up against three tough opponents already this year, he has maintained 12.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 1.8 bpg averages and will be the best player MU has faced to date.

b. Senior 6-foot-11, 265 pound center Steve Smith will be turning 25 years old in a couple of weeks, and gives them a great shot blocking, rebounding duo. He has talent, and originally went to Creighton but after battling through injuries for a couple of years transferred back to his home state, and appears to be healthy for the first time since high school.

As strong as MU has looked attacking the offensive boards in the first three games, it will be much tougher to get there this game, and they will be facing two excellent shot blockers when they come inside. If we are able to grab a lot of offensive boards Tuesday, it will indicate we really do have a team that can win by scoring off the offensive glass this year.

3. MOVE TO DIVISION I HAS BROUGHT IN BETTER PLAYERS. While those are the only big players, South Dakota has been bringing in transfers and keeping players at home with the move to Division 1:

a. As the all-time leading scorer in South Dakota High School history, 6-1 guard Louie Krogman (12.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.6 apg last year) would have normally gone to South Dakota State or out-of-state as Jamil Lott and others have done. However, he is putting up double figures again with sharpshooting.

b. The move to D1 also enticed 6-4 guard/forward Roman Gentry to transfer from UWM, and he is attacking the boards and has been selected 2nd team all-conference.

c. Two transfers from Western Oklahoma State College have looked comfortable against the tough competition to date, as 6-4 guard Mitchell Bouie has put up a quick 9 points a game and grabbed 4.8 rebounds, and 6-0 guard Kendall Cutler has taken over running the offense with 7.5 ppg and 4 assists a game.

4. GETTING BETTER AND BETTER. This will be South Dakota’s sixth game against a tough opponent in two years. They clearly were not ready to open last season at Cincinnati, and the Bearcats made them pay with a 77-46 drubbing. They looked much better a couple of weeks later in a 102-76 loss to a ranked Notre Dame team that was coming off the win against Texas. With all the new pieces this year it is probably no surprise they had not gelled in time for an opening game drubbing by Texas Tech. However, by the next game they made a late run at Oregon State (Pac 10, 18-18 last year), and missed consecutive three-pointers with a few minutes left that would have pulled them within one point, before running out of gas. They then beat a Texas A&M-Corpus Christi team that had competed for the Southland title last year and had almost knocked off the Texas Tech – indicating South Dakota may have substantially closed the gap between them and Texas Tech in the ensuing few weeks. They are coming in at 2-2 with the pieces coming together.

With all these new pieces – freshman and transfers – mixing in with their three established stars, South Dakota should get better and better as the season goes on. Of course, you can say the same thing about MU, which has much more talent and potential. While the first three blowouts were expected, I believe a blowout win over South Dakota would really indicate Marquette is ahead of schedule. On the other hand, if MU is looking ahead to Xavier, I believe the Coyotes have enough talent to potentially be a dangerous trap game. The fact is both teams have a couple of established stars, but both Marquette and South Dakota have so many new players making contributions earlier in the season that while MU should certainly win, the margin of victory is tough to predict. The one advantage the Coyotes do have if they keep the game close is that their young players already have played much tougher competition than our newcomers have.

1 comment:

JohnPudner said...

Also need to add kudos for Racine St. Catherine's Jake Thomas, who has put up 44 points this freshman season for South Dakota after leading St. Cat's to Division 3 title last year.