NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – We have long since established that the non-conference season means next to nothing for NEC teams, this season even more so than usual with parity abound. However, that zero next to Central Connecticut in the win column was still an eyesore at this point of the season.
Add the fact that of the 351 Division I basketball teams in this great country, only five had yet to win a game, and it grew harder to look at with each passing day.
With UConn and Yale next on the schedule, 69-years-young Howie Dickenman was well aware that a home loss Friday night to UMass Lowell likely meant that his Blue Devils would enter conference play 0-11, and so – now feeling much better after a health scare earlier in the season – he was out leading the warmup himself 45 minutes prior to tip, urging his players to up the tempo.
It wasn’t always pretty, and there are still plenty of questions surrounding CCSU going forward, but that darn zero is gone until next November as the Blue Devils made some big defensive stops late to beat UMass Lowell 83-79 at Detrick Gym.
“Someone asked me recently how the team was holding up,” Dickenman said. “I said, ‘Pretty well for a team that’s 0-8’. But we broke out of that winless club that was getting smaller and smaller, and we’re happy not to be in that club anymore.”
— CCSU Blue Devils (@CCSUBlueDevils) December 19, 2015
The River Hawks (4-6) are the fifth-smallest teams in the country (per KenPom) and CCSU (1-8) took full advantage, getting 18 offensive rebounds (41.9%). It was a bizarre statistical game that saw UMass Lowell post an 80.0 eFG% in the first half, but turn the ball over 15 times. In the second half, the River Hawks committed only five turnovers, but were somehow less effective.
CCSU freshman Evan Phoenix had scored 15 points in his CAREER (a 2.1 ppg average) before Friday, but finished with 28 points and nine rebounds, seemingly scoring at will inside the paint.
“(Assistant) Coach (Greg) Collucci said in the coaches meeting right after the game said he received a text from someone that said, ‘That must be a misprint about Evan’. He had never scored more than one basket in a game before Rutgers. He got three in that game, and 11 today. He had a real presence in there.”
Said Phoenix: “Last game against Rutgers was a big confidence booster because I played pretty well. In this game, I had the same mindset. Earlier in the game, people were hitting threes and that opened things up for me down low. Every time I got the ball, I went to my post moves, and I was hitting the shots today.”
But again, that zero is gone for good, and CCSU can move on to trying to upset UConn Wednesday afternoon in Hartford. There’s a decent chance of that, right?
What else did we learn Friday night in New Britain?:
- Can CCSU figure out a rotation?
Dickenman told the team he was playing everyone tonight and he did, 12 Blue Devils saw action in this tight game. But that probably won’t work going forward. However, Khalen Cumberlander (who finished with five steals, four assists, and zero turnovers despite battling foul trouble) in a lock. Austin Nehls (20 points) is a pure shooter and has averaged 37 minutes in the last four games so you can pencil him in.
From there things get a little tricky. Dickenman started Phoenix and Brandon Peel together at the 4 and 5, but Peel only played 21 minutes despite not being in foul trouble. Dickenman was very complimentary of freshman Eric Bowles, who made his college debut. he had four assists and three steals in 24 minutes and Dickenman really likes his defense, which prior to tonight the Blue Devils hadn’t really played much of.
If you call that the lineup, then Dickenman actually has some bench options in J.J. Cratit, Tidell Pierre, Mustafa Jones, and Kevin Seymour.
“We mix it up, and people have a little more zip at the end of the second half because they won’t be playing too many minutes,” Dickenman said. “It’s good for team chemistry to get everyone involved like that, too.”
2) Still work to do on D, though
In the end, even with 20 turnovers, UMass Lowell still posted 1.10 points per possession against a defense that is 349th in efficiency currently. Dickenman is well aware of it, and while he brought up the defensive three-point numbers, the more concerning number is the 53.6% on two-pointers. The River Hawks – despite the aforementioned size disadvantage – shot 68.9 eFG% and 20-29 (69.0%) on two-point shots. Needless to say, that’s probably not going to get it done consistently going forward.
Dickenman’s Ken Horton led teams of a few years back were very good defensively, in part because they forced lots of turnovers (Central was just 332nd in that category last season, which finished 5-26), so maybe with very good perimeter defenders in Cumberlander and Bowles, he’ll look to go that route. It’s risky, and they’ll likely give up some easy baskets and open shots sometimes, but if you’re 349th already, there’s not much room to drop, is there?
(Dickenman did see one of the problems with that strategy Friday, as Cumberlander picked up a couple of tough aggressive fouls and fouled out with 4:15 left, making the win a little more impressive.)
“We didn’t play defense before tonight,” Dickenman said. “We were on defense. We blew the whistle and decided to make a change. Teams were shooting higher from three-point range than we were overall. We decided to try to get into passing lanes, we had been averaging a couple of steals per game and tonight we had 13.”
— CCSU Blue Devils (@CCSUBlueDevils) December 19, 2015
3) UMass Lowell is tiny, but fun to watch
When a team is visibly small when lining up for the national anthem, you know it’s a weakness. Pat Duquette worked some magic to get to 12-17 (and 6-10 in America East) last season, even when Jahad Thomas went down with a season-ending knee injury. Thomas was held to 11 points and four rebounds, but is an amazing player, a Division I post player at 6’2”. Josh Gantz (6’7”) was the only player in the starting lineup over 6’3”. Sophomore Matt Harris is also a very interesting player, at 6’1”, a hybrid-type 3 who can shoot.
There are nights where they will make that work, but this wasn’t one of them, CCSU only had 10 turnovers and had the previously mentioned dominance on the offensive boards. And they get to play UConn Sunday, too. Is it conference season yet?
“I think we know what our identity is offensively and how we want to play, but we have to get grittier and tougher on the defensive end,” Duquette said. “We had a really hard time getting stops in the second half and that was obviously a big difference in the game.”