If there's one thing about college basketball that I absolutely know, it's that I know absolutely nothing. I remember what teams were able to achieve in previous contests, and it's easy to reflect on and point out the obvious mistakes that teams have made in crucial moments which could've changed a moment during a game, which could've changed the outcome of the game, which could've changed the landscape of the standings, which could've changed the outlook across the board. When you have just enough moments where you see a 4-7 conference record and think "they could easily be at 6-5 instead," it's simply frustrating.
It's frustrating because it still makes complete sense to stay optimistic about the situation. I went on a Twitter rant after fouls helped Kent State make 18-of-22 free throws in the second half of EMU's 15-point road loss just two and a half weeks ago. I said the Golden Flashes were the better team, improving to 6-1 in conference play as EMU fell to 2-5.
CMU playing better- still beatable.— Alex Alvarado (@ARAlvarado13) January 27, 2016
WMU playing better- not permanently.
Toledo- I have no idea.
NIU- 4-seed at worst.
Cant wait for 2/13
"Are we talented enough? I mean, when you look at the team, and you look at the games, we've been in every game, so that tells you if you're in every game, you're capable of winning every game," Rob Murphy told me after their most recent win over Central Michigan. "But we haven't been able to close for whatever reason. That's been frustrating. Nobody wants to win more than me. Nobody takes losing harder than I, either."
Roster turnover was a big talking point at the beginning of the season and, not surprisingly, has remained a huge talking point throughout. James Thompson's the only player in the MAC that's averaging a double-double per game (15.8 ppg, 11.2 rpg), but there was no proven depth behind the freshman earlier in the year. Jordan Nobles doesn't have the size that Pat Forsythe or Luke Meyers has, and certainly doesn't have the experience like they do as a redshirt-freshman. The early season reps for him were important for now, because he's been forced to learn on the job. Blake Brown's another new player rotating at the five, who's a first-year transfer from UNLV.
Willie Mangum and Ty Toney come in from junior college programs, have still only been playing with these teammates for just a few months. Much like how Murphy likes his guards doing, something that Raven Lee and Tim Bond are already both good at, they know how to create turnovers with the steal and get the quick transition buckets to turn a 2-point game into a 5-point lead if they're able to draw the foul and make the free throw on the drive.
"We're a very talented team, but our experience just hasn't been there," Murphy said. "Any time you bring in six new faces, it's tough. When you have so many new faces that you're depending on and you're continuing to learn each other, there's some slippage. And these guys have to continue to get better."
It's way too early to get caught up into thinking about next year as a writer, as a fan, let alone as any of the players of the team. Maybe the one exception goes to Brandon Nazione, who doesn't have a next year to look forward to with this team. After the Eagles gave up a 10-point lead to lose 80-70 on the road against Buffalo, Murphy challenged Nazione to step up as a senior, as a leader on the team to keep things going. "
James Thompson is the early favorite for MAC Freshman of the Year and it's not even close
When you're the only player in the conference to average a double-double per game, these sorts of things will be said about you.
"We look to him for leadership sometimes and when it's not there, we don't have it," Murphy said.
In the CMU game in Ypsilanti, Nazione, already an extroverted player, acted as a general to make sure players hit their spots and met their detailed assignments throughout his 39 minutes on the court.
"We need somebody like Brandon," Thompson said, "because he's always telling us to stay together, always telling us to huddle every time we get down on each other. He's there to keep us together. We need that.
"At first, we weren't playing together, we were trying to get our own stats up. But now, we're trying to come together every day in practice and trying to make each other look better instead of ourselves look better. That's how we usually would play but now we're all just trying to gel together now because we all know what's at stake. We're trying to get it."
Especially in non-conference play, everybody's attention was focused on how Thompson would look against Oakland, Michigan State, Penn State, Louisville -- would he get another double-double? Will Lee be the same guy that we're used to seeing by lighting the rim on fire with 20, 30+ points per game? Can Nazione give 130 percent on every play by diving for the rebounds that are out of Thompson's reach? It's toxic immaturity, everybody's been too eager to be excited about these moments for a long time. Nobody can win it all in Cleveland in December, so the individual accolades had to serve as valuable consolation prizes.
"We still got the most talented team in the MAC. I feel like we've got to glue together," Thompson included. "If we glue together, I feel like we can win these last few games. I know we can do it."
|vs. Kent State||16-8 overall, 7-4 MAC||Sat. 2/13||Beat EMU by 15 on Jan. 26.|
|@ Ohio||15-8, 6-5||Tues. 2/16||Started off 1-3 in MAC play, 5-2 since then.|
|vs. Toledo||15-9, 6-5||Sat. 2/20||Chemistry finally clicking, Nathan Boothe is still dominant.|
|vs. WMU||9-15, 3-8||Tues. 2/23||EMU, somehow, lost to them two weeks ago.|
|@ Ball State||15-9, 6-5||Sat. 2/27||Aside from the obvious, the second OT could've been avoided had free throws gone in.|
|vs. NIU||16-8, 5-6||Tues. 3/1||Lost five in a row, beat EMU in DeKalb when Baker caught fire.|
|@ Toledo||Fri. 3/4|
I stand by what I tweeted about how unique of a run this team would have to go on to erase the doubt that's been built up since January. Nobody should realistically expect Lee to score 46 or 25 points per game, but there's no reason for him to have another "0-for" kind of day like he had in Kalamazoo. Even though Thompson hasn't been quick to be in foul trouble like he was in early January in DeKalb, he's able to draw the early whistles. Toney's been as consistent as this team has could've ever hoped for, and will still need to be a guard that can play fast to both ends of the court without season-long fatigue getting the best of him, still driving and drawing the fouls for the freebies. Mangum still has to play quality zone defense and be a double-digit scorer by not getting an unfortunate cold night behind the arc. Nazione needs to make tough shots as he gets fouled with more regularity. Bench play from Jodan Price, Nobles and Brown has to be crucial by creating turnovers with transition baskets in the second half.
In that same breathe, it's just as easy to say that all of that isn't completely outside the realm of possibility, either. When you have four players to average double-digit scores per game, there's plenty of reason to stay confident in a defensive-minded team that's clearly looking more like a cohesive unit as the season's progressed.
"What I'm impressed with is these guys are still believing because sometimes you can just go in the tank and just give up -- not for a second," Murphy said. "Everybody's played the next play, practiced the next practice, win the next game. These guys believe that if we continue to get on a roll when we go to Cleveland, we'll go to the NCAA Tournament. There's only one team going whether you win the league or not, so we're still playing for something.
"We're still playing for a West title, we're playing to position ourselves when we go to Cleveland and play our best basketball and these guys are confident so we'll keep them motivated and keep finding ways to be successful."