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Another Step Forward

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Bathing in the miasma of the morning after I am trying to figure out if last night was a good win. I think I am in the same place as J Money. The box score tell us that everything was as it should be. We placed four players in double figures, beat a decent mid-major on its home court by 18, and won the key statistical categories. As J states and I alluded to yesterday, there was the added bonus of winning convincingly when we were getting a team's best shot in their biggest home game of the year. That can't be discounted.

Still, even in watching us pull ahead last night I couldn't help but think something was off about this team. The easy scapegoat is the Hummel factor, which will be thrown in our face all year unless we end up hoisting the National Championship trophy in April. Another is the Kramer factor. I buy into this more, because one commenter in the Open Thread last night mentioned that we don't have the same intensity. I can definitely see that, but it feels like we lost more intensity than just Kramer.

There is definitely cause for some concern so far. I saw several comments last night about how this team would struggle against most Big Ten teams that can double-down on JaJuan Johnson. It is hard to gauge where we would stand up compared to the rest of the conference right now. Minnesota had some good moments, but gacked at home against Virginia. Michigan State is clearly struggling, although against very good teams. Illinois has looked good, but far from invincible. The same is true with Wisconsin. Only Ohio State has looked incredible so far.

Therefore, it gives me comfort that we are not the only team in the conference searching for something more at the moment. I would rather look dull and uninterested right now in mid-December than in mid-January. There is still time to pull things together and get sharp. If these struggles now lead to sharpness down the road, I will take it. That's what this portion of the season is all about.

Positives from the Valparaiso Game:

Kelsey Barlow and Lewis Jackson - I have talked about Barlow being a 30/70 player. 30% of him is amazing, while 70% drives us crazy. Tonight was a very welcome reverse of that. He still had some frustrating moments, but when he decided to drive the lane with authority it was impressive. A prime example was his one-handed and-1 dunk in the closing minutes. That type of athleticism is exactly what we need from him. I still say we can play him at the four and tell him to clean up the offensive glass because he can do it better than anyone on the team.

As for LewJack, you can't ask for a much better line out of him than 11 points, 6 rebounds (from the smallest guy on the floor), four assists, four steals, and only two turnovers. He's been a surprisingly effective rebounder of late. He has rebounded and scored much like I do, where he flashes in, grabs an offensive rebound, and puts it in before people realize he is there. Even if he does it once a game it is still demoralizing for an opponent.

Best of all, these guys are looking to score now. We need them to look to score if the motion offense is going to be anything more than the "run around and wait for E'Twaun or JJ to do something" offense. The old saying of "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take" is true. They aren't taking jumpers, but driving scores count the same. I'll leave jumpers to E'Twaun, The Love Pump, and Byrd.

Ryne Smith - He still passed up a few open looks, but nine points on 3 of 4 shooting from long range is a very good night from him. It shows he can be effective when in the game and it loosens things up for JJ in the middle.

D.J. Byrd - He was ugly within five feet of the basket, but seven points in 23 minutes is a start to coming back. I think he can do the most Hummel-like things for us. He's not afraid to rebound. He can pass the ball effectively, and he can shoot the three. I saw one of his final high school games where he as the best player on the court by far, but did all of his scoring (12 points) in a six minute stretch. The rest of the time he was passing, rebounding, and playing defense while getting everyone else involved. This was all about a week after minor surgery for a torn meniscus. Doesn't this sound like Hummel?

E'Twaun Moore - I think it is a sign of just how good Smooge is when he pours in 23 points, yet we're talking about others before him. I should add that it was an almost effortless 23, with several, "F*** it, I'm scoring because I'm the best player on the floor" moments. We're only going to have success in the Big Ten with several "by the way, E'Twaun had 23" games. We know he's going to be dropping 15-25 every night because we won't have a chance if he doesn't. The others will be the difference makers unless E'Twaun has an especially explosive game.

Rebounding - Any game where we win the rebounding battle is a good one. Technically, even Patrick Bade got a board.

Playing on the road - It may not seem like much, but we now have a pair of true road victories. One came against a solid major conference opponent, the other in a hyped up venue against a good mid-major. After seeing how flat we were in Chicago I can tell this team plays better in front of crowds.

Second half defense - Brandon Wood had himself a ballgame in the first half. Coach Painter then made some adjustments and we essentially removed him from the ballgame after halftime. I love seeing that we can still do this even in the absence of Kramer. I also like seeing that Wood has grown greatly as a player since his days at KHS. He is going to be a nightmare for the Horizon League to defend.

Negatives from the Valparaiso game:

The Hanson Brothers - The good news is that Travis Carroll got some run and even played good defense to force a travel on the one time he had to active guard a guy. He has shown the best fundamental of the three Hansons. The bad news is that we still didn't get him the ball even once down low to see what he could do. He's getting position, but we're not giving it to him to see if he can at least draw a foul or something. As for the other Hansons, Bade got a rebound in his one minute, proving he hasn't been abducted by a cartel. Sandi Marcius bulled his way to a shot attempt that was short, but I liked the physicality he showed there.

I keep calling for it, but these guys will only get better with minutes on the floor. We've got to give them each some run in the next few games even if it means living with their mistakes. Maybe even Bade will read our comments about him and snap Private Pyle-style, shave his head, develop an attitude, and start talking to the basketball. It worked for Pyle and he became a great marksman. On second thought, we don't need him completely breaking down, killing Matt Painter with a basketball in the locker room, then taking himself out. Bad idea on my part.

Terone Johnson - He had a very freshman-like night, but it will come around for him.

Final Thoughts:

All told, this was a positive step forward. We shot better than 50% from the field and had less than half our points scored by JJ and E'Twaun. The only major issue is the one that continues to plague us (developing low post depth) but I continue to hold out hope that it will come in time. We keep wearing teams down defensively. That will be hard to do in Big Ten play, but we're still building for something more here. I think coach Painter knows this.

I am fine with not looking sharp right now as long as we keep taking steps toward something more. We still should be 15-1 heading to Minnesota. January 13 is when we need to start looking like a finished product. I am confident Matt Painter will have things looking better by then. Besides, we're already in an envious position if we're griping about an 18 point road win over a good team.