With football having reached its gut-wrenching conclusion, it’s time to turn the focus back to basketball, where the Tribe is off to a 6-2 start, including wins over Wake Forest and VCU. Senior guard David Schneider is playing at an All-CAA level, while a number of new and returning additions have restored a new buzz to Kaplan Arena.
Before leaving for break, I had the chance to catch up with Head Coach Tony Shaver today, as his squad prepares to end its two-week break for exams with a tough stretch of games that will bridge the non-conference and CAA portions of the schedule.
This post will be the first in a weekly series providing news, analysis and an inside look into the Tribe basketball program. We will resume in mid-January after winter break.
Good news for Tribe fans as sophomore guard Kendrix Brown, senior center Steven Hess and freshman forward Andrew Pavloff have all returned to the court. Brown missed six weeks with an ankle injury, while Pavloff has been out all season with a broken foot; Hess missed about a month with an elbow infection, suffered after a cut in practice.
“This week as of Monday, all of our guys are at practice, it’s the first time all year long that they’re all cleared to play,” Shaver said. “The only thing, particularly with Pavloff and Ken, they have to get back in shape. Pavloff missed over two months, Kendrix [was] probably [out] six weeks. [Pavloff’s] conditioning is not very good right now, his ball skills have eroded a little bit. When you have a broken foot, you can’t work on things.”
A full strength roster will be key for Shaver as his squad prepares to enter a stretch that will see the Tribe play five of six games on the road, including one spot with four games in eight days.
“I don’t think it’s a tougher stretch than what we’ve faced, but they’re all on the road,” Shaver said. “One thing we’ve talked a lot about with this team is not getting result oriented. We’re not going to say we’ve got to win four of these five, but it’s obviously an important stretch and a big stretch.
“We’d love to condition more, but our guys are so tired from exams, that we have to be careful of that. Once we get through exams, we can condition more, but we can’t run them to the point that they can’t study at night.”
On a side note, do you think there’s another division-I basketball coach in America, outside of a few select places, that’s worried about leaving his players enough energy to do well on exams? Forget the major conferences even, I’d love to see Shaka Smart or Jim Larranaga in the CAA lying awake at night wondering about that. Yeah, right. Just another of the impressive aspects of the Tribe’s start to the season.
The return of Steven Hess
Perhaps the most remarkable portion of the Tribe’s 6-2 start is the play of Steven Hess – and what they’ve been able to do without him. Through the first five games of the season, Hess was excellent in the paint, averaging 15 minutes and five rebounds a game. After spending the first three years of his career mostly on the bench, Hess began to emerge as a key physical presence down low, one who gave a great amount of energy in the paint that was sorely lacking last season.
When he went down before the Wake Forest game, the College was left with only one true center in junior Marcus Kitts. Yet the Tribe has reeled off three straight wins since then, including marquee victories over Wake Forest and VCU.
I asked Shaver whether he thought, before the season, that there was any way the College could have stayed in those games without Hess.
“Honestly, no, but this team’s found a way to make it happen,” he said. “When we went to Wake Forest, I was sitting in the hospital thinking ‘how in the world are we going to beat them without him?’ … But, [sophomore forward] JohnMark Ludwick has added such a new weapon to our team. And we play him at the five spot, which is not his natural spot, but his ability to make the three from so deep [makes] guys like [VCU forward Larry] Sanders have to come out and guard him. And it opens up the world for us, with backdoors to [sophomore forward] Quinn [McDowell] and stuff like that.”
Now, Hess’ return comes not a moment too soon with games against Radford and Maryland, two teams with excellent big men, looming. Kitts will no longer feel as much pressure to stay out of foul trouble, freeing him up defensively in the post. Similarly, the Tribe will not have to rely on Ludwick as much to play down low, as opposed to his more natural spot on the wing. However, Shaver envisions a scenario where Ludwick, a deadly three-point threat, and four guards/forwards can spread defenses and lead to quick points.
“We have what we call a bomber package,” he said. “We have about four plays which we run and they’re tough to defend. We’ve had fun with that. We run set plays to get [Ludwick] out on the perimeter and post players have to chase him. We’re not very big when he’s at the five, but we do have some weapons.”
The College has opened up this season behind a barrage of three-pointers, making 41% on the season, accounting for 43% of their total scoring. That accuracy is up a whopping 10% from last season, which saw the squad bury only 30.9% of its three-point attempts. Shaver, thinks that number is sustainable, however, due to the quality of the shots taken by the Tribe.
“We’ve got great shooters taking great shots,” he said. “But I think the one thing that’s so much better this year, is that last year, too many possessions ended with forced, tough threes at the end of the shot clock. The threes we’re taking right now are great shots.”
After taking 41% of their shots from three-point range last season, the College is up to 50% this year. Part of that rise is due to the addition of three newcomers, in freshman Kyle Gaillard and Matt Rum, and Ludwick, who can drain long attempts, leading to an offense that is more balanced despite that figure.
“We have a better balanced offense right now, and balance in who can score the ball,” Shaver said. “Kitts is scoring more inside, [Hess is] scoring more inside, the backdoor [cutters] to Quinn. We’re getting to the free throw line at an extremely high rate, too. Last year we were so dependant on David [Schneider] and Danny [Sumner] and we have a lot more weapons right now.”
National attention and recruting
With the Tribe off to its best start in decades and receiving votes in both major national polls, the College is getting more basketball attention than it has in years. The squad is currently ranked 18th nationally in CBS Sportsline’s, admittedly extremely early, RPI rankings.
“The one thing I’ve told our players is ‘let’s continue to execute,’” Shaver said. “People have asked me ‘does this put more pressure on you guys’, but the answer’s no. I’ve told our players I really want us to enjoy what’s going on right now – enjoy being in Sports Illustrated, enjoying getting votes in the national top-25. Understand why we’re getting that, because we’ve been good as a team. We’re going to enjoy each step of this process.”
The extra attention, including mentions on national telecasts by ESPN’s Dick Vitale and CBS, has recruits, both incoming and prospective, buzzing.
“When your team has been on ESPN and CBS, and Dick Vitale says something about a game, absolutely people see and hear it,” Shaver said. “We’re recruiting very hard in our junior class right now, and kids are aware that we beat Wake Forest and VCU and it’s nothing but a positive thing … And our staff has been on the road a tremendous amount the last few weeks. Our guys have been to Minnesota, Indiana, Pittsburgh, and North Carolina and we’ve hit the state hard.”
Let the speculation begin as to those locations…