It’s all about chemistry — and not the kind you find in the classroom. For senior forward Danny Sumner, last year’s men’s basketball team lacked that ingredient and it showed as the squad limped to a 10-20 finish. This year, the program is rejuvenated and ready to focus on balanced scoring, intense defense and, most importantly, securing that ever-elusive team chemistry on and off the court.
“What we thought was a major problem last year was that we did not have as good chemistry as we wanted,” Sumner said. “We have a good core of guys coming back and everybody is making the effort to be unselfish on the court and putting what is good for the team at the forefront.”
The Tribe returns four starters from last year’s team that finished with a 5-13 record in the CAA, placing second-to-last in the 12-team conference.
This year’s group is targeted toward regaining its 2007-2008 form, when the College went 17-16 and finished the season one game away from an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
For the College to make this turn-around, two familiar faces will have to lead the way: Sumner and senior guard David Schneider. Both have been influential players since their arrival on campus and have started a combined 131 games over the last three seasons.
“In many ways these two guys have been the heart and soul of our program for a while,” Head Coach Tony Shaver said. “They have been through some highs and lows. They have taken us for the first time ever to the CAA championship game [in 2008], and there have been some disappointments as well.”
Schneider enters the year as a preseason All-CAA selection after netting 14.1 points and 2.7 assists per game last season. Sumner, the flashier player of the two, finished 12th in the CAA with 13.4 points per game, shooting just under 40 percent from the floor.
But this year’s team, like many of Shaver’s squads, starts with defense. The College allowed 63.4 points per game last year, ranking sixth in the CAA. Playing a disguised match-up zone, which often appears to the opposition to be a man-to-man defense, gave the College a competitive edge on its own end. The change to the match-up zone is nearly three years in the making and, according to Shaver, it is finally reaching its potential.
“Two-and-a-half years ago … we decided as a staff that we wanted to be different,” Shaver said. “We thought we needed to be hard to prepare for. I think defensively we do things that other people don’t do right now, and we’ve done that successfully.”
Alternately, last year’s offense was abysmal. The College averaged 58.1 points per game in conference showings, dead last in the CAA. Even when open looks were available, the ball rarely dropped as the Tribe shot 41.3 percent from the floor, ninth out of 12 squads.
To combat these statistics, Shaver implemented a transition game in the offseason. While most of the College’s top CAA competition loves to run, the Tribe has preferred to slow down the game and play a half-court offense — until this year. But with Schneider, and a second fast, healthy guard in senior Sean McCurdy, the College has the surplus of speed needed to make the switch.
“You’ll see us run more fast break and secondary breaks [this year],” Shaver said. “And then we will still want to make people guard us. We are not going to shoot it in the first 10 seconds of every shot clock. But we do want to pressure the defense more and get some cheap easy baskets.”
McCurdy was limited in mobility last year due to nagging injuries in both ankles, which required the senior to have corrective surgery during the offseason. With sophomore guard Kendrix Brown suffering a recent injury, the first few weeks of the season will be a good test to see where McCurdy’s game speed is.
Sophomore Quinn McDowell is back at forward and looking to surpass last year’s impressive All-CAA Rookie Team selection. Limited playing time early last year lowered some of McDowell’s final statistics, yet as a freshman he still managed 9.3 points per game, placing him third on the team, while leading the squad with 4.4 boards a night. McDowell’s most remarkable attribute may have been his 50 percent shooting, over eight percentage points higher than the Tribe’s next returning starter.
In the low post, either senior Steven Hess or junior Marcus Kitts will complement the quadruplet of McDowell, Schneider, Sumner and McCurdy. The graduation of Peter Stein ’09 leaves a void inside that one of these two big men will have to fill in if the Tribe is to succeed.
Whoever makes it into the starting lineup for the College has a daunting task ahead of them. The team will travel to Maryland and Wake Forest and will open the season on the road at no. 12 Connecticut. The Tribe’s home opener is slated for Thursday against Richmond, who was picked to finish third in the Atlantic 10 conference.
“You will be opened up and laid out there for people to see,” Shaver said of the big-name competition. “You do find out your weaknesses, but I think anyone who is a division-one basketball player wants to go up against the best and you want to see what you can do.”
Regardless of the results against some of these marquee opponents, it will be the ability to gel as a team and to accelerate through a deeply talented CAA that will determine this squad’s final destiny.
Sophomore transfer forward JohnMark Ludwick and freshmen guards Kyle Gaillard and Matt Rum should all see important playing time for the Tribe this year. Ludwick has the 6’9” frame of a forward, with the shooting touch of a guard. According to Shaver, if he can adjust to the physical inside game of the CAA, Ludwick will be a major asset to this season’s team. Both Gaillard and Rum possess speed and the ability to score. Sumner said Rum has “good grit” to his game and is not afraid to take a hit, while Gaillard gives the College a strong outside presence. All three will help the Tribe in the transition game.
Old Dominion was selected as the top team in the CAA preseason coaches poll, returning all five starters from last year’s 25-10 squad. Northeastern was slotted to finish second in the conference, while VCU was slated third. Rams reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year Larry Sanders was nominated to the Naismith Trophy watch list after averaging 11.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game last year. George Mason and James Madison round out the preseason top five as the Tribe sits in 10th. Over the last three seasons, the College is 23-31 against CAA opponents.