Battle Tested

Rick Sarro Thursday, January 9, 2020 Comments Off on Battle Tested
Battle Tested

The McNeese Cowboys basketball team spent a good portion of November on the road banking coin playing those annual early season guaranteed money games. It helps with the budget, no doubt, and allows this newly assembled roster to do some travel bonding. But more importantly, these games prepare the Cowboys for what will prove to be another rough and tumble Southland Conference schedule.

Sha’Markus Kennedy throwing down one of his six dunks during an 82-73 win over Kansas City on Dec. 10.

Over that November gauntlet, McNeese went 2-6, with those wins coming against the lowest rung of college basketball (Southern New Orleans and Arlington Baptist). But look again, and you’ll find that those six losses constituted the 10th most difficult stretch of games in the country at that point in the season.

The Cowboys plated at Western Michigan, LA-Lafayette, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Richmond and Texas, where the Pokes were eyeing a game-winning three point shot at the end only to see it rim out. In three of those six games, McNeese was within a bucket with a minute to play.

I believe there are moral victories in sports. Good losses, if you will.

That opinion is not shared by Heath Schroyer, now in his second year as McNeese’s head coach. He’s been at this coaching thing for decades now, and is judged on wins and losses — not feeling warm and fuzzy about pushing a Power 5 team to the brink.

What this early stretch has done is prime the Pokes for league play, which will be physical, fast and uber competitive.

They got a sneak peek of that during a closely contested 82-73 home win over Missouri-Kansas City from the Western Athletic Conference. Kansas City looked like an SLC team, with a big, burly front court and a string of stout, skilled guards, who played physical defense and had good range from the 3-point line.

K.C. built several 10-point leads and had the Cowboys out of sorts in the first half, which had Schroyer equally out of sorts in the halftime locker room.  He shared his PG-rated version of his assessment with tongue firmly in cheek: “I basically asked them if they could please play a little harder. If they could please not turn the ball over and actually pass and catch to each other. [I] simply asked them nicely to do things a little bit better,” Schroyer recounted, with heavy sarcasm.

A.J. Lawson scoring two of his 22. in the homestand opener Dec. 3.

If you go to any McNeese basketball game since Schroyer’s arrival as head coach, you will clearly see from his perch on the sideline (and sometimes when he inches onto the court) he does nothing with subtlety. His reddened face, stomping feet and rafter-shaking rants clearly show his players where he stands when their play goes south.

Let me be clear, though. These Cowboys are nothing like the undermanned, under-skilled, ragtag outfit from a year ago. Injuries and roster departures had Schroyer down to seven scholarship players near the end of last season.

Schroyer and his staff went to work once last season ended at 12-28.

Ten new players were recruited and signed, to go with four holdovers, resulting in a complete overhaul and a roster that can now play from every angle on the court and both ends offensively and defensively. The team is showing the early stages of an ability to finish and win games with positive plays and a strong mindset.

“A big problem with us was to finish a game. We always came up a possession or two short, which was a learning curve for us to finish games,” says center forward Sha’markus Kennedy, who notched a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks in the win over Kansas City. It was only the fourth triple-double in school history. And his 10 blocks matched the McNeese record held by the one of the Cowboys’ all-time greats in Edmond Lawrence.

Junior guard and floor leader A.J. Lawson chimed in on the topic of finishing games, adding the players have to learn to keep their emotions in check and execute on offense and defense.

Lawson has a unique perspective on this team. As a transfer last year from North Texas, he sat out last season and watched the struggling Cowboys from the bench. He’s a 6-foot, 5-inch, 215-point guard with a perimeter game and a dribble-drive force as well. Lawson led McNeese’s comeback against Kansas City, scoring a team high 30 points, with 24 coming in the second half.

The Bryan, Texas, native was Schroyer’s first big recruiting catch last year. Other players acquired last year included junior college star Roydell Brown, who led to the talented 6-foot, 8-inch Kennedy. Fast forward to this season’s additions of 6-foot, 6-inch transfer Chris Orlina, 6-foot, 4-inch guard Sam Baker, 6-foot guard Leondre Washington and 3 point sharp shooter Dru Kuxhausen from Western Nebraska. They completed a roster churn that was well planned and executed.

Going into the Kansas City matchup, Kuxhausen ranked first in the nation in 3 pointers made, with a total of 40 and a 4.4 per game average. At one point, the junior guard was hitting 50 percent of his 3 pointers, which is unheard of, even at today’s launch-it-from-anywhere standard.

K.C.’s defense was clearly aimed at limiting Kuxhausen’s 3 point attempts and looks. But he still hit two of three in a subdued game.

 Schroyer has several 3-point bombers, led by Kuxhausen, and they all have green lights to shoot the trey because that’s where the game is played now — from the 3 point arc. And if you can’t match opponents from that range, wins will be hard to muster.

“One thing that goes unnoticed is having Dru on the floor and them face guarding him. And that means we are playing four on four.  When you (opponents’ defense) do that, it opens things up for A.J. and opens things up for Sham (Kennedy). Roydell and Chris were able to catch it at the top of the key and drive it a couple of times.  And the reason that is open is because the guy that is in the corner is hanging on Dru,” articulates Schroyer as he explains the importance of Kuxhausen as an ever-present 3-point threat.

SLC opponents won’t be caught off guard when it comes to Kuxhausen and his penchant for 3 pointers. The conference and national stats show him as one of the best in the country. 

McNeese’s offense is geared to space the floor and get Kuxhausen open from the 3-point line. Sometimes it works; in games against skilled perimeter defenses, it may not. And player and coach know that.

“Dru is a team guy. He understands there will be nights where he gets eight or 10 threes. Then there are nights like tonight (versus Kansas City) where he gets one or two. At the end of the day, Dru is a winner and all about the team,” Schroyer says.

The Cowboys’ field goal percentage is like night and day from last year, in particular with the back court. We won’t even mention how utterly lousy the Pokes’ guards were at shooting the basketball last year.

This is a different team. Different players. Vastly improved shooting skills.

Where this outfit needs to focus is on is reducing a turnover rate that is averaging nearly 17 per game. Once SLC play begins, anything over 10 turnovers per outing will affect the final outcome, leaning toward the L side of the column in most cases. “We have been shooting ourselves in the foot by turning the ball over, which doesn’t allow us to get our defense set,” Schroyer laments.

This team got a much needed eight-day break to rest and recoup from a long November, which at one point had them playing five games in 10 days.

A game against small college Paul Quinn was played Dec. 18 as Lagniappe went to press. The Cowboys were heavy favorites going into that game.

And that all leads to the start of the Southland schedule on Dec. 21 with a 3 pm battle against Duke slayer Stephen F. Austin.

If you haven’t been paying attention, yes, the Lumberjacks went into iconic Cameron Indoor Arena and upset then-No. 1 ranked Duke 85-83 in overtime. Ironically, a last-second turnover by Duke led to a game-winning shot by SFA.

In my mind, it was the biggest regular season upset in college basketball in the last 20 years.

We are talking Stephen F. Austin at Duke for an early season practice game for coach K and his Blue Devils, who learned the phrase “on any given night” first hand. 

After that historic upset, the Lumberjacks went gone 3-1, with wins over Arkansas State and UL-Monroe from the Sun Belt. SFA opened SLC play against Houston Baptist with an 8-2 record.

The Cowboys will be rested and battled-tested once league tip-offs start with the game against SFA. And they’d better be ready, as the early SLC schedule has McNeese playing four of the Top 5-ranked teams in preseason conference voting. They’ll play SFA and Sam Houston at home, then travel to Central Arkansas and Abilene Christian.

Preseason SLC favorite New Orleans won’t come up until a Jan. 18 game in the Crescent City.

So, the first four league games will go a long way in determining how McNeese will fare over the long stretch of the season within a season. “Obviously Stephen F is out there. We know that. It’s a 20-game season, and every game is really big. Home games are really big. But it’s a 20 game season.  It’s a long haul,” cautions Schroyer, who says he learned how physical and tough league games are in the Southland last season and sees that it’s evident in SFA’s road win at Duke.

Schroyer has not lost any of his exuberance, with his program now in the second year of a rebuilding process, which is daunting, after the 13 years of losing seasons he took over in 2018. He retooled a roster with players he scouted, recruited and signed.

He remains the basketball program’s best salesmen and community ambassador; its most energetic cheerleader and an emblematic presence of what he intends to build.

And he hasn’t lost any of his enduring passion, with the daily grind of coaching and all that entails. He’s maintained that enthusiasm ever since he strapped on a whistle in 1996 at little Fresno City College in California. 

“I wake up every day and walk into this building and pinch myself that I get to coach at McNeese State. I feel very fortunate to be here. I love it here, and I think we are on the cusp of building something special. And to do that, you have to have players that buy into that process to give. That’s why we go and thank the fans around the arena after games and things like that — because it’s important. I see the vision of what this thing can be, and I think we are in the process of getting there,” Schroyer proclaims.

Those November late-game road losses (I won’t call them moral victories, out of deference to Schroyer) should give the Cowboys confidence as they open conference play against some of the best the SLC has to offer.  

Those game results will be a good indicator of just how far the building process has come. 

Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL.  Check local listings.

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