Saul Phillips' first season as the head coach of the Ohio Bobcats hasn't exactly gone to plan. The Bobcats, voted as the third best team in the MAC's preseason rankings, have started off 4-6 headed into MAC play and hasn't quite found a style that maximizes a roster that is a mix of Jim Christian's players, the handful of recruits Phillips' landed once hired and Stevie Taylor, the lone player remaining from the John Groce era.
The focal point of this team is Maurice Ndour, a preseason MAC Player of the Year candidate and likely the best NBA prospect in the whole conference. Ndour, a senior from Senegal, is a freakish prospect. At 6'9", he sports a 7'5" wingspan, a knack for blocking shots and an overall game that hasn't even been close to being filled out yet.
The issue with Ohio largely lies with that last part, which is also what makes Ndour so tantalizing as a prospect and why Phillips gushed about his potential in the lead up to the season. He's undoubtedly a talent, but he's still extremely raw on offense. He isn't capable of carrying this Ohio team on his own, in large part due to what's different from last year in combination with his limitations.
Under Christian, Ndour wasn't asked to bare the offensive burden for more than a handful of minutes a game. A lot of his buckets came in the flow of the offense, a byproduct from space others (i.e. Nick Kellogg) created. Just take a look at this dunk by Ndour against Massachusetts from last year.
And look who feeds Ndour. It's none other than Kellogg, the driving force for the Bobcats' offense last year and one of the MAC's best players of the past decade or so. When he graduated in the spring, he was the MAC's all-time leader in 3-pointers made with 290 made. Those triples create space for Kellogg to throw the pass inside.
Kellogg' presence alone created a lot of space inside for Ndour, who shot 51.1 percent from the field last season. Teams, whether they were running a zone or man-to-man defense, had to be aware of where Kellogg was on the floor. He often brought up the ball for Ohio and he didn't need much space to get off a clean 3-point attempt.
It also didn't particularly matter that Kellogg's 3-point percentage dipped below 40 percent last year. That makes sense, considering that he went from working off a ball dominant point guard in D.J. Cooper to creating his own shots with the point guard (Taylor) playing off of him. But because of his reputation as a shooter due to his previous body of work, teams had to pay attention to Kellogg and that created space inside for Ndour and everyone else.
That's especially important in the college game where, teams clog the paint with zone defenses and the lane is two feet snugger due to the 3-point line being two-feet loser to the hoop than that of NBA range. Without Kellogg's presence and with his increased role in the offense, it isn't a surprise that Ndour's field goal percentage has dipped down to 42.2 percent this season. He's scoring more (14.3 points per game this season vs. 13.8 point per game last season) but he's making less shots (4.9 per game on 11.6 shots this season vs. 5.1 per game on 9.9 shots this season). He's also doing so with a very similar usage rate (25.4 last year, 25.8 this year).
Ndour's increased shot attempts have partly replaced Kellogg's shots - he took 11.5 per game last season - but the bulk of those shots have gone to Javarez "Bean" Willis. He's more than doubled his shot attempts per game this season, taking 12.6 shots per game after taking 5.7 per game last season. When you break that down per minutes (Willis played 20.5 minutes per game off the bench last year vs. 33.1 this year as a starter) he's taking a shot for every other added minute he's played this season.
He also isn't taking the same type of shots Kellogg was. He's making 3-pointers at a 41.1 percent slip, but that's partly inflated due making 7-14 against DePaul last week. Willis is a chucker of sorts and he has a tendency to take quick threes early in the shot clock. Unless he gets going early, teams can pack the paint against Ndour and force Willis to beat them. Kellogg, on the other hand, took more shots off of pick and rolls and later in the shot clock after the Bobcats initiated the offense.
The other players Ohio uses on the perimeter further compounds Ohio's spacing problem. Taylor, who has a tendency to take NBA-range 3-pointers, is shooting 28.2 percent from the field and 16.7 percent on threes - both of which are career lows. Ryan Taylor, a Phillips who scored over 20 points per game at St. John's Military Academy last year, has the size at 6'5" and game to replace Kellogg's role. But many of the 3-pointers come off a Willis or Taylor pass and he doesn't get to handle the ball much due to their presence.
Other potential space creators, Mike Laster and Treg Setty, are perhaps too bulky to become knockdown shooters. Laster does his best work off the dribble and in the mid-range, while Setty only takes a handful of shots a game and thus doesn't need to be closed out on by other teams. Perhaps the most intriguing option for Ohio - forward Tony Campbell developing a 3-point shot - hasn't manifesting itself in a meaningful way.
Ndour doesn't always help his own situation - he has a tendency to take jump shots if given space and doesn't yet have the skills to reputably create his own open looks.
But he has to skills to shooting 50 percent from the field like he did a year ago, even if he's taking more shots per game. He just needs space inside that might not exist.