(Stephen F. Austin)

Stephen F. Austin could be a scary team to play in March

Leave a comment

As we get closer to March, Southland leader Stephen F. Austin might be one of the scarier teams a program could potentially face in the NCAA Tournament.

At 25-2 — and 14-0 in the Southland with a three-game lead — the Lumberjacks have won 22 consecutive games and are winning by an average of 13.8 points per game in conference play while playing with a balanced attack.

Stephen F. Austin has five players averaging at least 10 points a game and all five of the them shoot at least 31 percent from the three-point line, while four of them are above 33 percent.

But the shocking part about their success? The Lumberjacks are playing under first-year coach Brad Underwood — a longtime assistant at Kansas State and a year at South Carolina under Frank Martin — and lost three seniors that were regular contributors last season.

Underwood credited the team’s unique bond and work ethic for the win streak.

“They’ve been very receptive to listening, very receptive to the work ethic we’ve required and when you have a senior leader who is also your hardest worker, that is a bonus from day one,” Underwood said to College Basketball Talk last week. “And that’s helped with the winning streak. We’ve developed a tough mentality. That’s one of the thing’s I’m most proud of is the road winning streak. These kids have been able to be resilient and tough-minded and this is an extremely hard-working group.”

The senior Underwood is referring to is Desmond Haymon, a 6-foot-3 guard that doubles as the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.9 points per game.

“Just an extremely high-character guy,” Underwood said. “There’s no question that no matter what Desmond does in life he’s going to be successful because he has great character and great passion. He’s not afraid to tell other guys to step up and tell the young guys and challenge them to work.”

Stephen F. Austin’s offensive balance has been great for a first-year coach like Underwood to work with.

“It’s probably helped us more than any one thing. We’re basically a position-less team,” Underwood said of the balance. “My power forward can play the point for us. My five man is our best three-pointer shooter, statistically. They can all pass it, they can all dribble it. It’s probably as good a passing team as I’ve been apart of.”

The defense for the Lumberjacks has also been surprisingly good despite their lack of size. Jacob Parker is the team’s tallest starter at 6-foot-6 and is also the team’s best three-point shooter, but Stephen F. Austin relies on getting heavy pressure on the perimeter.

“One thing I’ve learned from Hugs and learned from Frank (Martin) is on the defensive side of things,” Underwood said of his team’s pressure. “I can’t play backline defense with this team and expect to win. We don’t have the roaming presence in terms of tremendous size. We pressure and we get out and deny. Our point guard Trey Pickney is just as good an on-the-ball defender as I’ve been around and we try to take other team’s first options away.”

With the Lumberjacks on a 22-game winning streak, a potential NCAA Tournament bid has come into question. Stephen F. Austin lost to Texas and East Tennessee State on the season and don’t have any marquee wins over tournament competition. That makes their Southland Conference tournament win vital for a league that is definitely a one-bid league.

“You have to win your (conference) tournament,” Underwood said. “If that means that’s in the cards for us and we’re able to do that, I think we become a team that not a lot of people want to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In the meantime, we’re not worried about that. This team deserves what we’re getting. All of our fans, and administration should be proud of this winning streak. Winning is hard. We’re a team that is very grounded in terms of our general approach.”

Bonzie Colson leads Notre Dame to come-from-behind win over No. 2 North Carolina

Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson (11) hugs teammate Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson following an NCAA college basketball game against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016. Notre Dame beat Duke 95-91. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
(AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
Leave a comment

Less than an hour after No. 1 Oklahoma lost to Kansas State, No. 2 North Carolina fell on the road against Notre Dame, 80-76.

The Tar Heels led by 15 points with two minutes left in the first half. They were still up double-figures with 16 minutes left in the game, but the Irish made more plays down the stretch and, quite frankly, were the tougher team in crunch time.

The final sequence was a microcosm of the second half. With North Carolina down 80-76 and 10 seconds left, Notre Dame let the Tar Heels roll the ball all the way to their own three-point line. Joel Berry II picked the ball up and went in for a relatively uncontested layup … that he bricked. Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, but he was able to knock the ball out of Brice Johnson’s hands and run out the clock.

That’s the way it went for most of the second half.

Notre Dame shot just 34.8 percent from the floor and 3-for-16 from three, but they got to the foul line 38 times, they finished with 20 offensive boards — 12 came in the second half, when UNC only got 10 defensive boards — and they snagged seemingly every loose ball.

Combine that with the fact that the Tar Heels had fits trying to defend Notre Dame’s ball-screens, and this is what you get.

Bonzie Colson led the way with 19 points and 10 boards for UNC, and if you need any more examples for why I’m saying that the Irish won this game because they were tougher, this is it. Colson is 6-foot-5 on a good day, and he posted a double-double with six offensive boards against a front line that includes Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. He posted 13 of those points and seven of those boards (four offensive) in the second half.

So congratulations to Notre Dame.

This is a big win for them.

But it’s also the kind of loss that we’ve seen far too often with this North Carolina team. Seeing them get pushed around like this is not exactly new. They’re big and strong and athletic and talented … and soft. They’re the most talented team in the country but there is no one on this team that you could call a junkyard dog.

“I’ve got a wonderful bunch of kids, but we’ve got to decide that we want to compete when it’s tough, not just when it’s easy,” Roy Williams said.

As one coaching friend puts it, “they don’t have MFers, and it’s hard to win without them.”

That’s why the team that, on paper, should be the best in the country is not. That’s why they lose games on the road and why they’ve made a reputation out of underperforming in the last few years.

The good news?

They’re not the only flawed team in college basketball this season.

Everyone is.

Literally everyone.

Which is why the Tar Heels can certainly still win either ACC title and reach a Final Four, especially if the Marcus Paige we got tonight — 19 points, 5-for-7 from three — is the Marcus Paige we get for the rest of the season.

But if you’re wondering why North Carolina loses games like this, games where their opponent shoots 34.2 percent while erasing a 15-point deficit, you have your answer.

Wesley Iwundu, Kansas State knock off No. 1 Oklahoma

Kansa State forward Wesley Iwundu (25) pulls down a rebound against Mississippi during an NCAA college basketball game in Manhattan, Kansas, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. (Bo Rader /The Wichita Eagle via AP) LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; MAGS OUT; LOCAL RADIO OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
Bo Rader /The Wichita Eagle via AP
Leave a comment

One of the big questions regarding No. 1 Oklahoma was how they’d handle an off shooting night. On multiple occasions this season the Sooners have managed to win in spite of a subpar effort from one of their guards, thanks in large part to national Player of the Year frontrunner Buddy Hield. But what would they do against a team that managed to limit Hield (by his standards)?

That’s what happened at Kansas State Saturday night, and the Sooners did not have the right answers for the Wildcats on either end of the floor. Wesley Iwundu scored 22 points, dished out seven assists and played excellent defense on Hield throughout the game to lead the way. And freshman forward Dean Wade chipped in with 17 points and seven rebounds off the bench as the Wildcats won by the final score of 80-69.

Hield scored 23 points but did so on 7-for-16 shooting, and a lot of that damage was done during the second half as he scored 17 points during the game’s final 20 minutes. But it wasn’t enough as the Sooners didn’t get much from anyone other than Ryan Spangler (nine points) as they looked to mount a comeback. Jordan Woodard, who’s been a consistent supplementary scoring option this season, went scoreless Saturday and that essentially left Oklahoma with three scorers (Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins).

It’s highly unlikely that anyone’s going to completely take away Hield; the key there is to make him work for everything he gets and the long, athletic Iwundu managed to do that. But if you can take away one (or more) of Oklahoma’s supplementary scorers you’ve got a shot at knocking them off.

Oklahoma also had issues defensively, as the Wildcats shot 52.9 percent from the field. Iwundu was very good at finding scoring opportunities not only for himself but for his teammates as well, and in the post players such as Wade and D.J. Johnson were effective against Spangler, Khadeem Lattin and Akolda Manyang. Kansas State outplayed Oklahoma in the post, and their execution offensively helped the Wildcats pull off the upset despite committing 15 turnovers.

If not for those turnovers the margin likely would have been worse for Oklahoma, which scored 26 points off of Kansas State turnovers and many of its 15 fast break points came via K-State mistakes. The Sooners are lethal in transition, something we’ve seen on many occasions this season. Kansas State, when they didn’t turn the ball over, kept Oklahoma from running out and finding the quality looks that have made them so successful.

As a result, Bruce Weber’s Wildcats made sure that Hield and his fellow Oklahoma seniors will graduate without a win in Manhattan.