With first-year head coaches and almost entirely new rosters, I didn’t expect sterling results from either of McNeese’s basketball teams this season.
The Cowboys and Cowgirls have both surprised me, but in totally different ways.
Coach Lynn Kennedy has his Cowgirls playing their best basketball, winning four straight games and eight of their last 11. McNeese secured a first-round bye for the upcoming Southland Conference tournament with a No. 4 seed.
I didn’t see this surge from Kennedy’s crew coming — not when you throw in a recent four-game road swing and that home upset win over then league leader Texas A&M-CC. That was this team’s signature win of the season that could propel them with a ton of confidence to face the SLC’s top team, Houston Baptist, to end the regular season.
On the other side of the hoops spectrum are the Cowboys, playing easily their worse and most uninspired basketball as the regular season winds down.
I can’t totally figure out the Pokes and neither can head coach John Aiken, who didn’t have much hair to pull out as the losses mounted.
I have my theories on what plagues the Cowboys. But let’s lay the ground work first.
The McNeese men have dropped 10 of their last 14 games, including this late season slump of four consecutive losses. The really perplexing thing is that after that thrilling last-second home win over Houston Baptist back on Jan. 15 when the Legacy Center was reopened after nearly 18 months of hurricane repairs, the Cowboys have only won one of their last six on their home court.
They’ve had enough time to get acclimated to the Legacy Center since the Jan. 15 game. But as Aiken said recently, “we just didn’t play well in our gym for whatever reason.”
That recent 65-53 home loss to Texas A&M-CC was this season’s real stinker and the low point.
McNeese was coming off a disappointing 1-3 road swing, but was still in the mix for the last of four first-round tournament byes with a win over the Islanders.
A disjointed, and seemingly uninterested, effort ensued as the Pokes fell behind by as many as 18 points in the second half. You can point to the obvious flaw of just out-of-this-world lousy shooting, going for only 29 percent from the field and 11 percent from the 3 point range.
Today’s college game is 3-point-centric and dominated by the trey, which has been McNeese’s Achilles heel to the tune of hitting only 10 of 61 long-range shots over the team’s last three games, dating back to Feb. 19.
I think that on a good day, I can make 10 of 60 three point shots. But I really don’t want to prove that. What has been proven is the Cowboys have not been consistently good shooters from any distance, which is No. 1 on my list as to why they are 10-20 and 4-9 going into the season finale at tough Houston Baptist.
My other theory on McNeese’s struggles begins and ends with intensity.
This team has had a tendency to get off to slow starts, kick it up a few notches, then disappear for long stretches in the second half.
Aiken has seen very few games in which his team has maintained a high level of focus and hustle for a full 40 minutes.
Shake-your-head defensive lapses and an inability to get out and challenge 3 point shots have been troublesome. Conference opponents are shooting better from the field and the 3-point range than the Pokes.
Turnovers deny possessions and give the other guys more chances for points off giveaways. McNeese has been overly generous throughout the season.
I think team chemistry took a huge hit after a fight broke out between senior Kellon Taylor and Collin Warren a few weeks back, resulting in both players being suspended. When that happens, a locker room usually becomes divided. I’m not sure this occurred with this blowup but the optics are good.
I asked Aiken after a recent loss if the players really knew and understood their roles on the court. In his opinion, they do in most instances. But I just don’t see it.
You have players shooting 3 pointers in critical points of games when they are clearly not good 3 point shooters. Then you have Harwin Francois, the team’s second-leading 3 point shooter by percentage, getting off only four shots over the course of 23 minutes in the UIW loss. He made one of four for a total point production of 3.
He needs more shots, but he has to hold up his end by sinking some buckets. Aiken sees it across his entire roster, admitting, “we are not shooting the ball very well at all.”
I think Aiken and his staff went the entire season without figuring out the point guard position. After every time out, it seemed there was a different guy out of a collection of at least five playing the point.
7-foot, 1-inch center Brendan Medley-Bacon doesn’t have a high motor. But he should be averaging at least a double double in this league instead of 9 points and only 6 rebounds per game in the SLC.
6-foot, 7-inch freshman forward Christian Shumate is an athletic star player in the making. But right now, he should be attacking opposing defenses 10 feet and in along the block, not from the perimeter or beyond the 3-point arc.
This is my eye test on the Cowboys, and they have a failing grade based on the record and most of the stats.
The Cowgirls, on the other hand, have a better field goal and 3 point percentage than their SLC opponents and a slight edge in rebounding and steals.
They have four players averaging in double figures, led by two of their Oregon newcomers in Kaili Chamberlin and Desirae Hansen.
And when Kennedy really needs a big 3 pointer or defensive stop or rebound, he usually gets it from Cristina Gil and Divine Tanks respectively.
On sheer hustle and intensity, that nod goes to another newbie in sophomore Zusanna Kulinska, by way of Poland and the University of Colorado.
You should get the picture by now.
Riding a six-game winning streak when a tournament bye was up for grabs, the Cowgirls simply wanted it more than the Cowboys.
Coach K’s team of transfers and a few holdovers exceeded preseason expectations because they knew their roles and played to their individual strengths.
The Cowgirls were faced with the same obstacles and challenges as their male counterparts — challenges like rotating practice gyms, lack of workout space and time, relocation and an extreme change in culture both on and off the court for many. But the Cowgirls found a way to overcome with a shot, posting the program’s first winning record in 5 years. They’ll be doing fine if they can just stretch that winning streak to seven games by beating Houston Baptist on the road.
It’s a tough task. But these are some gutsy girls.
With a first-round bye in the conference tournament, the Cowgirls have a much better chance of making a run in Katy.
The Cowboys have to win four games in four days at the SLC tournament to make up for what has been a disappointing regular season.
What team do you think will be going in the right direction as we begin March Madness?
Catch Rick Sarro’s sports commentary Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and Saturdays at 6:30 and 11 pm. It also airs nightly at 9 pm on SuddenLink Cable.
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