This is the game we all wanted tonight. We had a dominant first half, struggled somewhat in the second half, but never really let it get out of hand. I don't think IPFW got within 20 point at all in the second half, which is good given our recent struggles with the lead. In the end we got extensive minutes from the reserves and may have even found our designated free throw shooter in Neal Beshears if the NCAA allows us to have one. I kid, of course, but any time a walk-on gets his first career points he is worth a mention.
What impressed me the most was our balance. Six different players reached double figures tonight and combined for 62 points. Anthony Johnson and D.J. Byrd led with 11, but Ryne Smith, Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson, and Kelsey Barlow each had 10 points. Yes, it was only against IPFW, but this was a game we desperately needed to build our confidence before Big Ten play. It gets very real starting next week at Iowa, and that means little to no margin for error.
Positives From The IPFW Game:
D.J. Byrd - It started with back-to-back 3-pointers and ended with Byrd's best game of the season. D.J. has been virtually AWOL so far, and quite frankly, we need him. He may be one of the most indispensible players on the entire roster. I say that because he is one of the few that is capable of giving Rob a break for longer stretches. He is also very important if we want to go with a bigger lineup if Byrd, Hummel, and Lawson/Carroll/Marcius as three forwards. Whether he does it by scoring or some of the little things that don't show up in the box score, we need at least 12 quality minutes per minute out of Byrd.
Travis Carroll - The favorite whipping boy of the open threads had little margin for error tonight and ended up having himself a nice game. Once Jacob Lawson went to the bench with a second foul and Sandi Marcius was limited with his calf injury Carroll was the only option in the post. He was playing against Trey McCorkle too, a legitimate 7-footer. Carroll held his own and was actually aggressive on offense too. It paid off with six points, five rebounds, and a steal. Sure, we're not going to start stitching a banner to go up next to JJ's tomorrow, but this is a big step forward for Travis and hopefully builds his confidence.
John Hart - It was good to see Hart get in there and get some run for the second time this year. He finally cracked the scoring column at the end and made sure that everyone on the roster (except for Marcius, who did not play) scored tonight.
Kelsey Barlow - I only had one "Dammit Barlow" tonight, and it was a stretch even at that. We got good Kelsey tonight and he made a difference early on with his jump shot. I still say Barlow may have the most raw talent on this team. I just pray he can harness it because his ability to get to the rim and rebound is unmatched.
Anthony Johnson - AJ needs to be another player that needs to be more aggressive at getting to the basket. He reaped the benefits in the first half of us scoring in transition as well as breaking down the defense. Part of the struggles against Xavier and Butler came from us not attacking. AJ si one of the players that can attack the basket, so he needs to do it.
Free Throw Shooting and Rebounding - It has to start somewhere, right? We won the glass 39-30 (getting a double-double from Robbie) and shot 75% from the line (9 for 12). The misses came from Lawson, TJ, and LewJack. Beshears was 2 for 2, so if he can hit free throws we need to play him when teams are fouling on purpose. You think I am kidding.
Defense on Frank Gaines - Gaines is one of the top players in the Summit League and averages over 20 points per game. We held him to 2 of 11 from the field and nine points. Only three of his points came in the first half.
Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson - Robbie had a quiet 10-10 (except for his rim-rocking, "I didn't know he could do that" dunk) and LewJack had a 10-4-3 line. Most importantly, we didn't need them much in the second half and got to rest them.
Dru Anthrop - The Bastard Son of Bobby Buckets got a basket and a highlight move balancing on the railing out of bounds. Now that he is on scholarship (at least for this season) I could see him playing a key role in a game or two down the road.
Negatives From The IPFW Game:
Jacob Lawson - He'll learn, but at least three of his five fouls were of the dumb variety. Of the three forwards I think he has the potential to be the biggest difference maker in the Big Ten because of his athleticism, but it won't happen if he is on the bench in foul trouble.
3-point shooting - It cooled off after a hot start, but we're still settling for threes too much in the second half instead of attacking.
As I said, it gets real in about a week. We need to take this time off at Christmas to rest and enjoy the holidays, because we could be in for a battle for an NCAA Tournament berth if we're not ready. I am reminded of the 2008 season, when I had the formula of 10 wins for a berth, and anything more would be for a seed. 10 conference wins puts us above .500 in the league and with 20 wins overall. As long as Butler truly turns it around and wins the Horizon League it would be with no bad non-conference losses either.
I am thinking Iowa (twice), Penn State (twice), and Nebraska need to be must-wins. Illinois is looking shaky right now, so it is nice we get them in the second game at home. Beating Minnesota without Trevor Mbakwe would be nice to put us at seven wins. Then we beat Wisconsin (because the Badgers never win in Mackey. Look it up), Northwestern, and Indiana (in a huge "atmosphere" game that, quite frankly, we have to win) at home would get us to the 10 we need with some room to spare. Michigan and Michigan State at home also look like games we're very capable of winning.
Strangely, I wouldn't count us out of the Big Ten race totally because we have the major advantage of not going to Wisconsin and only playing Ohio State once. If we split those games that's only one loss against the two best teams in the league instead of possibly four. Our schedule is also set up to start strong if we can hold serve at home, so you never know what can happen.
For now though, let's rest. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone.