The Bowling Green Falcons enter the 2013-2014 men's basketball season with a lot of questions and relatively few answers. Two of the starters are known, and players who had significant bench minutes last season should fill the other three slots. However, this year's bench is an almost universal unknown in terms of what it can contribute.
Of course, a bigger issue -- perhaps the biggest long-term issue for this team going forward -- is the status of head coach Louis Orr. Orr is entering the final season of his contract, and there is growing fan displeasure over the team's apparent inability to make a move toward the top of the Mid-American Conference. BGSU has won just three MAC regular-season titles in the last 30 years and is entering its 46th season of play since its last NCAA Tournament appearance (1968). If the team begins the season slowly, Orr's status will likely loom even larger.
Despite the potential distractions, there is reason for optimism. BGSU is not that far removed from contention. The Falcons were respectable in league play last year and return one of the MAC's best defenses. If Orr's players can find a way to generate more offense, the Falcons could be a very pleasant surprise -- but that is one enormous IF.
Bowling Green finished the 2012-2013 season with a 13-19 overall record and a 7-9 mark in the MAC. Their conference record for a fourth-place tie in the Eastern Division and a home game in the MAC Tournament. BGSU lost that initial tournament game for the second consecutive year, this time falling to Miami, 63-52.
In the non-conference season, the Falcons generally played very well at home and earned wins over Wright State, Detroit and Samford. They also played Michigan State very tough in a 64-53 loss. They won only one of their road/neutral site games but did have some exciting contests. In particular, their three-point loss in triple-overtime at South Florida was thrilling. They also fell by just three at North Dakota.
Against MAC foes, BGSU again found much more success at home than on the road. The team was 6-2 in MAC play at the Stroh Center, and that included an impressive win over Kent State and cross-division victories over Ball State and Western Michigan. On the road, they won just once (at Northern Illinois) but had very close calls at Central Michigan, Miami and Buffalo. When they traveled to Athens, Ohio to face the Ohio University Bobcats, they played one of their better road games of the season before falling, 72-63.
Four players from last year's roster are departed, and three of them were starters. The most conspicuous absences will be forward A'uston Calhoun and point guard Jordon Crawford. Calhoun (15.1 points per game) and Crawford (15.0 ppg) accounted for nearly half of the Falcons' 62.8 points per contest last year. Calhoun led the team in rebounding (7.1 per game), while Crawford was -- by far -- the team leader in assists. Crawford's 139 assists were 87 more than anyone else on the team; in fact, if you added up the totals for the next three players on BGSU's assist leaderboard, that total still would not equal Crawford's.
While it's true that these two did turn the ball over an inordinate amount of times (Crawford had nearly as many turnovers as assists and averaged almost four per game), the fact remains that these two players were Bowling Green's primary play-makers last season.
Also gone are starter Luke Kraus and fill-in James Erger. Kraus was tied for second on the team in assists and averaged 4.1 points, 2.2 rebounds and 24.2 minutes per game. However, he also shot only 30.3% over a span of 132 shots. From beyond the three-point arc, that shooting efficiency dropped to 25.6%. Erger averaged ten minutes per game but posted just 47 points and 28 rebounds over the course of the entire season.
What do the Falcons have to replace this year? Try 58% of their attempted shots, 57% of their points, 61% of their assists and 35% of their rebounds. For a team that often lacked offensive punch last season as it was, this will be a daunting task.
The team will return two starters and several other important bench/role players from last season. Primary among those are BGSU's catalysts on defense. Cameron Black returns to occupy the center position. He was not an active scorer last year with just 3.4 points per game, but he was one of the most successful players on the team when he did shoot the ball. His shooting percentage (48.1) was second on the team among players with 50 or more shots. Defensively, he was second on the team in blocks (33) and third in rebounds (4.3/game) despite averaging under 20 minutes per contest.
Joining Black in the front court will be Richaun Holmes, one of BGSU's primary backups last season. Holmes set a school record for blocks in one season with 73. He was also fourth on the team in points (6.5/game) and second in rebounds (5.0/game). Holmes started just two games and averaged only 18.8 minutes per game.
For both players, their minutes will undoubtedly rise. One of the biggest keys to success for BGSU this season is whether or not those extra minutes will translate to added production and continued efficiency on defense. If the answer is "yes", the Falcons will be very dangerous inside.
The Falcons' other returning starter is guard/forward Chauncey Orr, son of head coach Louis Orr. In last season's 32 games, Orr started 31 times and ended up third on the team with 7.5 points per game. He is the team's returning leader in assists (52) and will also be expected to help Holmes and Black clean up on the boards; last year, he averaged 3.7 rebounds per game. On offense, Orr was a very good shooter in the 2012-2013 campaign. He shot 44.8% from the floor, including 35.3% on three-point attempts. He was also very reliable from the line (81.5%).
Orr will likely be expected to assume much of A'uston Calhoun's role on offense. He'll need to play added minutes and shoot much more than he has in the past. As with Black and Holmes, BGSU's hopes rest largely on whether or not this added responsibility will be met with increased production.
The most likely candidates to take over the two guard spots are Anthony Henderson and Jehvon Clarke. Clarke, who often backed up Jordon Crawford last year, appears to be in position to take over the point guard role, while Henderson would occupy the shooting guard slot. In their sophomore seasons, Clarke averaged 11.9 minutes per game, while Henderson was on the floor slightly more (14.4/game). Both scored between 3 and 4 points per game, but neither were particularly good shots. Each posted a .327 shooting percentage on just over 100 attempts per man.
Both players must improve their shooting and become threats in order to open up better (and more frequent) opportunities for the big men on the inside.
The Falcons have four newcomers to their 2013-2014 squad. Redshirt sophomore Josh Gomez is the only one with experience on this level. The 6-10 center spent the 2011-2012 season at Iona and played in 48 minutes over a span of 16 games. In those 48 minutes, he had 10 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. Zack Denny is perhaps the most heralded freshman of the bunch. Denny was named Ohio's Division II Player of the Year as a senior and averaged 33 points per game. He is known as a sharp-shooter, and if he finds early success, he could usurp playing time from Clarke or Henderson.
The other newcomers are guard J.D. Tisdale (Flint, Mich.) and guard Garrett Mayleben (Milford, Ohio). Both will play but should not be expected to make a significant contribution during the first few months of the season.
The 2013-2014 season will be the seventh of Louis Orr's tenure at Bowling Green. To date, he has an 89-101 record in his first six years with the team. He has one winning season, one season of .500 play, and four losing campaigns. However, he has not won 20 or more at BGSU, nor has he lost 20 or more in a single season. He has one regular-season MAC title (2008-2009) and two post-season appearances (2008-2009; 2011-2012).
From a fan perspective, the biggest complaint is the team's perceived mediocrity, and BGSU's won-loss records over the last few years serve to emphasize that point. Bowling Green's flame-outs in the MAC Tournament only make things worse. In each of the last two seasons, BGSU has hosted a MAC Tournament game only to be bounced from the proceedings on their own court.
As noted above, Orr is in the last year of his contract. He is also no longer working for the athletic director who hired him. This isn't to insinuate that new AD Chris Kingston wants to make a chance; he might not. However, many coaches in this situation end up in lame-duck status, especially if their program isn't advancing up the ladder.
If nothing else, Orr's status will be a source of speculation throughout the season, especially if losses pile up during the non-conference schedule. It will be hard to inoculate the team from that distraction, so whether Orr feels the pressure himself or not, the issue may eventually bleed onto the court.
There's only one way to circumvent that: win games. Wins will keep fans happy and quiet. Without them, pressure will grow.
BGSU has 13 non-league games scheduled, and six of those will be played at the Stroh Center. That list includes the season-opener against Earlham, followed by return games against South Florida, North Dakota and IPFW. The Falcons will seek to avenge losses to each of those teams in last year's schedule. Bowling Green will also host Detroit and the "other" Bowling Green (Western Kentucky).
The schedule also includes five non-conference road games and two at a neutral site. BGSU must travel to Xavier, Morehead State and Wright State. They also have four games in the Cancun Challenge. The first two are daunting, as they have to travel to Wisconsin and Saint Louis. Then, in Cancun, Mexico, they will play Presbyterian and either Oral Roberts or Georgia Southern.
The conference slate begins with three straight cross-division home games (Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan). After that, they play six out of nine on the road before finishing the season with six alternating home and away games. The MAC has expanded the conference season to 18 games this year, and the Falcons will get two extra games against the Western Division. Their home-and-home games against the West will be versus Toledo and Eastern Michigan. This will make things more difficult for BGSU, as Toledo is expected to be at the top of the Western Division.
This team has a very wide range o possibilities, and everything depends on how new players like Denny work out and how experienced players like Black and Holmes respond to expanded roles. If everything works out, combined with attrition at Akron and Ohio, BGSU could earn one of the coveted byes to the MAC Tournament. On the other hand, if things don't work out, the Falcons could compete with Miami for the cellar of the Eastern Division.
If Bowling Green could come out of the non-conference season with 7 or 8 wins, that would be fantastic. However, given the team's current makeup and early-season injury concerns with Sealey and Denny, that many wins so early is probably not realistic. The total probably doesn't matter, though. This team needs to use the first two months to get ready for the conference schedule, because that is what will be important for this team.
As for Louis Orr, it's hard to handicap these things, but it's going to be hard for BGSU to retain him unless the team captures some kind o championship this season. Saying that it's NCAA-Tournament-Or-Bust would probably be unfair and not really accurate, but most would expect a new coach to be in place next season unless this team exceeds expectations by a significant margin.
That can be done, as this team should be roughly as good defensively as they were last year. But, in order to exceed expectations, BGSU simply must be better on offense. It cannot happen any other way. The Falcons have pieces in place to drive that success, but skepticism is going to abound until the team demonstrates that ability on the court.