The Extra Point: Tribe title hopes rest on defense

The Tribe rallied together and reigned victorious over the Cougars in overtime. COURTESY PHOTO // GRACIE HARRIS

Welcome to The Extra Point, a weekly analysis column about William and Mary sports. Senior Staff Writer Josh Luckenbaugh has covered Tribe athletics for parts of the past four years and will be taking over the reins for this semester.

It’s hard to be critical of William and Mary after such an electrifying victory over the Colonial Athletic Association’s top team, Charleston, Saturday, when it outlasted the Cougars in a 114-104 overtime thriller to close out the Tribe’s 2017-18 regular season.

Nonetheless, the most important part of the College’s season begins next Sunday afternoon, when the fourth-seeded Tribe faces No. 5 seed Towson in the CAA tournament. If Tony Shaver’s team wants to become the first in school history to earn a National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament berth, it will have to solve its troubling defensive issues.

By all accounts, the College is statistically the best offensive team in the nation. The only team in the country with a top-five field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three-point field goal percentage, and the No. 1 team in the latter two categories, the Tribe has had no trouble putting the ball in the basket.

On the other hand, opposing teams have almost scored at will against the Tribe’s defense, averaging over 82 points per game against the College, the second worst mark in the CAA. Opponents have also shot 48.9 percent from the field against the Tribe, by far the highest opposing field goal percentage in the conference.

The College has proved it has the firepower to outscore its opposition, the only team in the CAA averaging over 80 points per game. However, just as no lead is safe when facing the Tribe’s potent offense, no lead the Tribe builds is safe either thanks to its porous defense.

Take the second half of Saturday’s victory against Charleston, for example. The Tribe led by as much as 16 in the second half against the Cougars, but the game ultimately went to overtime. Charleston scored 63 points over the second half of regulation on 62.9 percent shooting, the College unable to get stops to put the game away. Of course, the Tribe recovered in overtime and triumphed in the end, but the College can’t let double-digit leads slip away in the conference tournament.

Shaver himself addressed his team’s problems on defense after the game, the two-time CAA Coach of the Year understanding better than anyone what the Tribe needs to improve on in order to win its first conference championship.

“What we’ve got to do has been clear since day one,” Shaver said. “We’ve got to defend, and we’ve got to rebound and show some toughness. And that’s what’s been our issues all year long.”

“We’ve got to defend, and we’ve got to rebound and show some toughness,” said shaver.

Indeed, these defensive concerns have existed since the beginning of the season. No one doubted the Tribe could score, all five starters averaging double-digit points per game, but the College lacked, and still lacks, an elite defender in the mold of Terry Tarpey ’16.

On top of that, the Tribe has a serious shortage of frontcourt depth behind sophomore forward Nathan Knight. The College’s leading scorer, Knight is vital to the Tribe’s success, but his pension for getting into foul trouble has caused problems this season. For all his shooting ability, redshirt junior forward Paul Rowley does not possess the same size and strength as Knight, while graduate transfer forward Cole Harrison lacks Knight’s athleticism and offensive skill set.

A glimpse at the potential consequences of Knight being in foul trouble came Saturday against Charleston. Knight was forced to the bench several times in the second half after picking up his third and then his fourth foul, leaving the Tribe without its primary rim protector for key stretches. The Cougars took advantage of Knight’s absence, driving to the basket relentlessly and grabbing offensive rebounds to keep the pressure on the College defense. Charleston wound up with 11 second-chance points and 24 points in the paint in the second half, its success inside against the Tribe an important factor in the comeback.

“Poor Nate [Knight], guy gets a foul when he walks on the floor,” Shaver said. “We’re not very big, and without Nate on the floor, our guards have got to be better rebounders. We clearly got to do a better job there.”

The Tribe will have to be strong in all facets of the game Sunday against Towson, the Tigers having defeated the College by double digits twice earlier in the season. Towson ranks as the best defense in the conference in terms of opponent field goal percentage, and along with the added pressures which come with the CAA tournament, the Tribe probably won’t be able to simply outrun and outgun the Tigers.  

Despite the defensive issues and the tough quarterfinals matchup, the College has displayed an ability to defy expectations this season. The Tribe was tabbed to finish eighth in the CAA before the season, but fought hard through a competitive conference slate and finished fourth, winning 10 or more league games for the fifth straight season, a school record.

“I don’t think a lot of people expected much out of this team, [but] this team’s worked hard, they’ve played together, they’ve listened … and made changes when they need to make changes,” Shaver told Tribe Athletics. “There’ve been very few teams I’ve coached that I think have probably really surpassed expectations, and I don’t want to be done. We’ve got a big week ahead of us. This is our time of year.”

Having surprised many of its doubters already this season, who knows? Maybe this Tribe team can shock the world once more and finally get over the NCAA tournament hump. But as the saying goes, “Defense wins championships,” and the College will have to play the best defense of its season to hoist the CAA trophy.


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