The Extra Point: Tribe Basketball looks to bounce back into CAA success

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Jamie Holt / THE FLAT HAT

National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball practice has started, and that means we’re just over a month away from both the William and Mary men’s and women’s teams taking the floor to begin their seasons.

The two programs are in drastically different spots entering this season. Bianca Boggs ’19, one of the greatest to ever wear green and gold, graduated from the women’s team. However, a strong cast of younger players, including sophomore guard Eva Hodgson, the 2019 Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year, and do-it-all senior forward Victoria Reynolds, will step up as the Tribe continues one of the best stretches in team history.

Meanwhile, the men’s squad was in turmoil through last spring and into the summer. A team that was expected to compete for the conference crown instead saw four of its top six players transfer following the controversial dismissal of long-time head coach Tony Shaver. Dane Fischer, Shaver’s replacement, enters the campaign with six new faces (seven, if you count senior forward Andy Van Vliet, who sat out last year as a transfer redshirt and will play his first game for the Tribe this season). The saving grace for Fischer is that senior forward Nathan Knight, ostensibly one of the top two players in school history, decided to return for his final season rather than turning pro.

Let me take this opportunity to make five way-too-early predictions about Tribe basketball this season.

First, Knight will win CAA Player of the Year. The six-foot-10 senior is one of two First Team All-CAA players last year returning in 2019, the other being Charleston guard Grant Riller. Riller is a deadly scorer, but Knight is an all-around dominant player. Last season, Knight scored 21 points per game, while averaging 8.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per contest. Impressively, Knight ranked eighth in the CAA with 3.5 assists per game, which is uncommon for a big man and shows what an excellent passer Knight is. This year, it is likely that Knight’s statistics will take a step up this season, as he is the only proven scorer that the Tribe returns. The conference player-of-the-year race is likely to be a two-man race on the men’s side between Riller and Knight, and I think Knight beats him out.

Second, Harper Birdsong will take a step forward toward being a legitimate scorer. Birdsong first suited up for the Tribe in last year as a redshirt sophomore after playing her freshman season at George Washington. Playing all 31 games but only starting four, Birdsong showed flashes of being a top-tier scorer but was inconsistent at times. She averaged 8.7 points per game and hit double-digits 16 times but struggled towards the end of the season, scoring just three points in two games in the conference tournament. But with another year under her belt, Birdsong will be more consistent and become a threat every single game.

Third, the women’s team will finish with a winning record. The past two seasons, the Tribe has stuck around .500, generally winning more games than they lost in non-conference but coming back down to earth against tough CAA foes. That pattern will continue this season, but the Tribe is due to hold its own better in the CAA, even if that means winning some close games.

Fourth, the men’s team will struggle mightily in the non-conference schedule. Aside from Knight, there’s one player that played meaningful minutes returning for the Tribe: junior guard Luke Loewe. As the team attempts to gel with a new head coach and a basically new rotation, it has to deal with a murderous non-conference slate, including a number of perennial NCAA Tournament contenders. The Tribe will struggle to win games early but will be competitive when it gets to conference play.

Fifth, one of the teams will make the CAA Tournament championship game … but neither will win the conference. Both teams will enter March in the thick of the conference, needing to win at least three games to claim the CAA championship. Neither the women’s team nor the men’s team have ever won the conference to clinch a spot in March Madness. However, both teams have been close. This season, either the fresh faces of the men’s team or the young but battle-hardened women’s squad will reach the CAA Tournament championship game, but the run will be stopped just short of a title.