Over the past five or so years, the McNeese Cowboys basketballers appeared on paper as if they could compete with the upper tier of the Southland Conference.
Stats and projections on paper won’t win many games, though. It’s what you do on the hardwood, and how you execute, that shows up in the win and loss columns.
McNeese will soon notch its sixth straight regular season losing record when it closes out with the home match-up against rival Lamar, which will be the program’s final game at Burton Coliseum.
By next fall, the new on-campus arena will be open, marking a new era in Cowboys basketball history. And the university, along with fans and boosters, are hoping more wins will follow, with increased attendance as well.
But that’s the future; what about the present?
Senior forward Stephen Ugochukwu has played a lot of basketball for this program, and experienced more than a fair share of defeats. He feels the roster had the talent to succeed, but didn’t for a myriad of reasons.
“We are a really talented group. We just needed to learn to play more as a team and play basketball the right way. When we are able to bring it all together on both ends, we are a really special team. But it just doesn’t happen consistently for us, and that’s the thing — to do it consistently,” Ugochukwu opined.
What the Cowboys have done consistently this season is dig huge holes and fall behind by 20 or more points; then either their energy or time on the clock would burn out. At times, they would build decent leads of 10 or more, and then slip into a scoring and defensive funk and let teams back into the game.
That occurred most recently against SLC-leading Nicholls State in a must-win for McNeese. An early 8-point lead was followed by a 14-0 Nicholls run and then a 17-point half-time deficit.
Game over. 96-79 was the final tally. Imagine the confidence and momentum the Cowboys could have taken away from beating the SLC leaders, not to mention exacting some payback for the McNeese footballers.
Despite Ugochukwu’s talent analysis, the Cowboys don’t have the athleticism, speed, dependable shooting touch or mental toughness to hang with the league’s leading teams.
There is a four- or seven-game difference between the Cowboys and the SLC’s Top 5 clubs in the critical league race. That’s a huge spread in this conference. SLC records separate the haves and have-nots. You can’t depend on the overall wins and losses, because SLC teams play a lot of guaranteed road games against bigger schools early in the season, and they will usually have 9 to 12 losses on the books.
Way back in November, I spied some optimism in two defeats: a 6-point overtime loss at Loyola Marymount, and a competitive 89-78 road loss against a very good UL-Lafayette team. But a demoralizing 38-point blowout at North Texas began a slew of road losses, and the team’s confidence took a major blow.
“We are still young. We have young players. Right now, we are like a wounded team. We are obviously not playing as well as we did earlier. We just hit a lull, and that’s what’s been happening. We jumped out on people at the 10-minute mark, but fall off,” said head coach Dave Simmons.
A couple of games into this season. Simmons saw what he had in junior college transfer Quatarrius Wilson. The 6-foot, 8-inch athletic forward has averaged a solid double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds per game. He earned my vote for SLC Newcomer of the Year.
With Wilson’s work on the boards, McNeese has finally seen their rebounding margin on the positive end versus the opposition, swiping nearly 39 rebounds per game. That’s about five more per outing than last year.
So, rebounding has been the upside, according to Simmons. But defense and shooting have been the downside. “When we needed stops, we just couldn’t get the big stops. I’ve always said the defensive part will always help when you’re struggling offensively. We are an offensive-minded team, and when our guards shoot well, we are in every game. But the defensive set has to be equal,” said Simmons.
When the Cowboys didn’t have an answer defensively, they had to turn to the shooting guards to keep them in games. And the trio of starters: Kalob Ledoux, Jarren Greenwood, James Harvey; and back-ups Jacob Ledoux and Kelvin Henry, just don’t put together enough consistent firepower.
K. Ledoux, Greenwood and Harvey mustered up enough shots to average double figures (barely), but no one in the group stepped up with a marksman field goal percentage or became a go-to guy when the team needed big buckets.
The early emergence of Wilson and his penchant for double-doubles, paired with the experience and skills of Ugochukwu, looked like a dueling complement of 6-foot, 8-inch big men who could run the floor, rebound and give you 10-14 points nightly.
I won’t go as far as Twin Towers, but for McNeese, let’s just say high rise condos was the hope.
For some reason, the pairing has not produced a consistent one-two punch, for various reasons. The two look good together side by side in the front court: long and lean, aggressive. But maybe they have just not spent enough time playing together.
“It hasn’t really happened,” Ugochukwu admitted after the Nicholls loss. “We are doing stuff a lot differently this year, and I’m still getting used to it. I am playing more 5 (he played more of the 4 spot last year) and working to get open and moving on the floor.”
Simmons took a different view than his senior forward, saying Ugochukwu is still playing down low and is more about staying focused and physical. “Last year, he was a big focal point because we didn’t have anyone else to help [with] rebounding. But technically, it’s the same position. You would think they would be book ends with Quatarrius and Stephen playing, because we have the same system.
“They practice well every day. I don’t know if one is looking at the other to do it, but you should be going after the same rebounds. Stephen is a very intellectual kid, and sometimes you just have to play. To me, he is thinking about the next play too much. The natural part of the basketball game — like run, jump and get rebounds — is the part we have struggled with this year.”
“Struggle” is a word that’s been associated with the Cowboys the past three seasons. They failed to reach even 10 victories in 2015 and 2016. Between 2012 and 2016, McNeese was 56-95. The Pokes are 10-16 going into the game at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Even if the Cowboys win out, the record will once again be under .500.
“It’s a lot of things. We were close my freshman year. [There were] a lot of different guys my sophomore year, and it didn’t work out. Last year, with the twins (Ledoux brothers), they were freshmen. This was really supposed to be the year. But we’ve struggled,” said Ugochukwu.
The Texas senior, who hopes to play internationally when his McNeese career ends, described his frustration over never having a winning record as a Cowboy as “normal for any player,” but uses his best intellect to balance the losing with a life lesson of not giving up and continuing to work hard in search of success.
“I try and give my best to help this program. I didn’t put enough wins on the board with my time here. We didn’t win enough games. But I tried to work hard and be the best I could be to help this team out.”
Ugochukwu takes on a melancholy look and demeanor about not being able to play in the new arena next season. But he seems intent on leaving here with one last hurrah and a spot in the SLC Tournament in Katy, Texas.
The Top 8 teams earn tournament bids (a championship in the SLC Tournament earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament). Going into that game in Corpus Christi, the Cowboys were in ninth place behind Abilene Christian.
McNeese has no real wiggle room or margin for error. They need to win out, and will probably still need help from a tiebreaker to make the conference tournament.
If their season continues past the game, maybe then Ugochukwu’s long-running frustration will subside, and he can walk away with a smile and, finally, some sense of accomplishment.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on Suddenlink channel 4.