A light switch comes to mind as a good metaphor for how the McNeese Cowboys basketball season extended into tournament play on a Dru Kuxhausen 3 pointer with .5 seconds left.
That same light switch turned off just as quickly in a Lamar rally and win that put an end to the Cowboys’ SLC Tournament hopes.
The NCAA flipped that switch with lightning speed and nimble fingers with its unprecedented decision to cancel the rest of the basketball season, including the iconic NCAA Tournament, known as March Madness, due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
Basketball was first on the cancellation hit list. Then came the rest of spring sports. And that includes the men’s and women’s College World Series.
You know these guys are serious when they put the kibosh on spring football too. For the time being anyway.
The footballers can’t assemble, even in shorts and helmets, until after March 30 or until the NCAA reexamines the coronavirus situation and deems things are safe.
The way everything is going with campus lockdowns across the country, I don’t expect spring football to resume at all.
I hope I am wrong, especially for the sake of McNeese. New head coach Frank Wilson and his band of assistants need those 15 practices over spring to begin installing their schemes and figuring out who can play where.
McNeese is following the NCAA and Southland Conference edicts on spring sports shutdown for the rest of the season.
McNeese interim Athletic Director Tanner Stines, whose job just got easier, or more difficult, depending on how you view it, expressed his thoughts in a prepared media statement.
“This decision is a difficult one, and we understand and share the disappointment our student athletes and coaches feel. Their health and safety is our primary concern. We will continue to provide support and assistance to our student athletes as they work to fulfill their academic semester.”
The dominoes began to fall across all sports after Utah Jazz center Ruby Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus and the Jazz’s game with the Oklahoma Thunder was abruptly cancelled. The NBA then swiftly moved to suspend all games for the time being.
The snowball is now at Mach speed as it heads down the proverbial mountain.
The month of March without the madness of the NCAA Tournament is akin to Louisiana without Mardi Gras or no crawfish to boil.
Heresy, I say, but the right move.
“I’d never thought I would see it (cancellation of the NCAA Tournament),” McNeese head coach Heath Schroyer said with a tone of dismay and sadness.
“It blows me away of just where we are at as a nation. Athletics is just a very small part of where we are in society. It is a very, very different time. As I told my staff and players, everyone just take a deep breath and relax. We are going to figure this out together.”
After 20-plus years as a college coach, Schroyer says this is “uncharted territory,” admitting the NCAA had no other options but to scratch the rest of the season.
“When the NBA cancels the games or season, the NCAA’s hands were tied. It was the right thing. Any time when there is public safety and public health of individuals and of student-athletes, that has to take precedent over anything else.”
A move that’s gaining steam is allowing senior athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the cancelled tournaments and remaining spring games.
The Southland and Southeastern Conferences will be dealing with this idea over the next few weeks. But when there is one answer to an issue, three more questions come up. In this case, who covers the added cost of extending the scholarship? Will that senior athlete have the option of going to another school? What if a basketball or baseball program already has all its allotted scholarships filled? And what happens to those incoming freshmen recruits who were already promised a scholarship?
Schroyer gleefully said that he would love to have his two seniors back for another year, those being Sha’Markus Kennedy and Roydell Brown. “I would be in favor of allowing the seniors another year just because, for the most part, number one, most seniors need extra time to graduate. Number two, it allows them another year of development without being stuck going to another country to play ball.”
There are a certain number of senior basketball players, like Kennedy and Brown, who may have opportunities to play professionally in Europe or aboard. But Schroyer asked the question of whether the foreign leagues would be up and running next season, and further wondered about the ability of the European economy to support these pro teams.
The myriad of unknowns, as Schroyer pointed out, solidified his support of an NCAA-granted additional year of eligibility.
Imagine the strength and depth of the Cowboys’ roster if, by chance, Kennedy, a double-double machine this season, and Brown were able to return?
Schroyer says he has three talented guards who will be added to the roster next season in La. Tech transfer Ra’Shawn Lanston and redshirts Collin Warren and Evan Palmquist, both top rated players from Houston.
Even though Schroyer and his staff can’t resume recruiting for a while due to the coronavirus restrictions, he says they have targeted two or three big men who are his top priorities and needs for next fall.
“We need to get bigger. If you look at all the teams that got into the SLC tournament, outside of Sam Houston, they all started two traditional big post players. They played big wings. So their 3, 4 and 5’s (front court bigger players) were all big, strong, physical guys. There was only one team out of the eight that wasn’t that way. And you could make an argument that McNeese was the same,” Schroyer said.
The Cowboys, in their second season under Schroyer, took some steps forward. But there were times when there was regression.
During the early non-conference schedule, McNeese led at Wisconsin at the half. They lost at Texas by two points and had a shot at the buzzer to win it.
The Pokes played Western Michigan, UL-Lafayette and New Mexico close — all on the road.
The home win over NCAA Tournament team Missouri-Kansas City was another high point in the first half of the season, as was the road victory over SLC defending tournament champion Abilene Christian.
All that laid the foundation for the Cowboys’ seven-game SLC winning streak in January that moved the team near the top of the conference standings for the first time in many years.
But then came February and six straight losses that negated all the aforementioned progress.
There were on-court issues, like defensive consistency, turnovers, offensive cohesion and transition play.
But off-the-court personal challenges faced by several of the players weighed on their performance to a larger extent. “During that losing streak … and I’m not going to put everything out there because I just won’t do that. But a lot of these kids dealt with so many personal tragedies. And as a coach, I never experienced that many tragedies within a three week period. When you have kids going through life-altering things, it was hard for them,” Schroyer said.
The team regrouped and refocused enough to win three of their last four regular season games, including that heart stopping 70-66 victory at Lamar to put the Cowboys in the conference tournament for the first time in five years.
Schroyer knew having to play Lamar for a third time so close to that emotional regular season finale in Beaumont would be difficult. And it was, as the Cardinals sent McNeese home early with an 80-59 decision in the opening round of the league tournament.
The final numbers for the record book won’t blow you away.
There was a 15-16 overall mark and the team was 10-10 in SLC play.
But that was six more wins than in Schroyer’s first season and upped the conference wins by five.
If you broaden your view of this team, you will see many more positives.
It is a much more competitive team game in and game out. It’s not perfect, but a team with flaws. But obviously, it’s more polished and talented, which resulted in a more exciting and entertaining product on the floor.
Sell-out games at the home arena were common, along with a buzz and vibe not felt around this basketball program in more than 10 years.
McNeese was second in home attendance in the Southland for the second straight year — behind Stephen F. Austin. Those same Lumberjacks scored one of the biggest non-conference, non-NCAA tournament upsets in the last 40 years, by defeating then top-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium earlier in the season.
Schroyer is quick to note that SFA did not become the Stephen F. Austin we know today as the powerhouse of the SLC overnight. This has been building and growing for years now. “They have the most money than anyone in our league (thanks in part to their NCAA Tournament appearances). They spend more money than anyone in the league, and obviously they are getting a return on their investment. They have a great program, and I tell my staff all the time they’re not coming down. We have to get to where they are.”
The excitable and highly energized Schroyer says he still draws on a remark made to him by McNeese President Dr. Daryl Burckel during the coach’s first year. Burckel told him, ”You are not rebuilding a program. You are resurrecting one.”
Schroyer was hired at three different schools during his coaching career to oversee a sort of basketball reclamation process. This is not his first renovation project, and there are steps that must occur first before progress is clearly evident.
“I know from experience that when you are building a program you have to be relevant and out in the public and have your program embrace the community. In turn, (you) hope the community will embrace the program and I think you have seen that,” Schroyer said.
The highwater mark had to be the January 29 home game against Nicholls State before a sold-out crowd at the HHP Arena. It was loud. Boisterous. There was tension in the air. It was a conference rivalry game the way it should be.
It was a physical and chippy game that included good-natured trash talking and a heavy dose of in-your-face dunks and blocked shots by Kennedy, A.J. Lawson and Brown.
It was great college basketball. And the signature 80-74 overtime win for the Cowboys completed the resurrection Burckel was hoping for.
“(What would people) have thought if I said in my introductory press conference when I got hired, “Hey, you know what, by year two we are going to sell out that building. Everyone would have thought I was nuts,” Schroyer explained.
Well, the head coach, who sometimes acts like the best cheerleader on the sidelines, jumping and waving his arms, got his sell-out games.
He put a better brand of basketball on the court and won more games.
He got McNeese back into the conference tournament for the first time since 2016.
He’s made the program relevant again.
Schroyer said the competitor in him “wanted more from the season.”
More wins. An SLC Tournament title. McNeese’s name in the March Madness bracket.
At least he played his full season.
Imagine how his coaching brethren in baseball, softball, track and field, golf and tennis feel right about now.
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.