Another year, another opportunity for us to semi-panic about Mount St. Mary’s! See, even I’ve done it in past seasons here and here. Why are they losing so much? Where has the offense gone? Does Jamion Christian truly have enough depth to install his Mount Mayhem model? These are questions that are seemingly asked every single season because, well, the Mount always plays a ridiculous out-of-conference schedule loaded with five or more guarantee games.
The 2016-17 season may be the toughest non-conference schedule Christian has ever constructed and that’s saying a lot. Six of the Mount’s first eight opponents landed in KenPom’s top 60, while the other two, George Mason and Southern Illinois, are respectable mid-major programs. This murderous start of the schedule shouldn’t have concerned us much; after all, the Mountaineers were favored to lose every road game.
Mount St. Mary’s actually exceeded my low expectations by upsetting George Mason in a thriller of a contest, but since then the team hasn’t performed well versus “like” competition. It’s the most recent three game stretch that concerns me a little and Mount St. Mary’s fans a lot.
In those setbacks to Loyola (MD), UMBC and Lehigh, the Mount notably sputtered after halftime, scoring on average just 12 points over the first 10 minutes of the second half. So what has led to the poor start against mid-major competition? I offer some thoughts as to why much of it, I believe, lies on the offensive side of the ball:
1) The Offense is Still Looking For Its Rhythm
In their last three games, the Mount has mustered just 0.92 points per possession. Many of the offensive statistics aren’t inspiring, but just a simple eye test will tell you that the chemistry of this generally inexperienced team is off. There’s way too much dribbling, not enough penetration, and surely not enough sharing of the basketball.
One of the things Christian focused on this offseason was making sure his team made the right pass to get teammates in advantageous positions to score. Despite the focus, the Mount is 324th nationally in assists to field goals made (43.5%) and it hasn’t really gotten much better over the last three games (46.1%). Residing in 9th place among their NEC counterparts in assists per game isn’t where Christian wants the team to be.
It would also help if the Mount made their open looks, which they haven’t for the most part. Will Miller has converted just 26.7% of his 3-point attempts, easily a career low. Junior Robinson has a pedestrian effective field goal percentage of 45.8%. The team as a whole is setting a career low, under Christian, in two-point field goal percentage at 43.0%. It would probably suit the Mount well to increase their three-point takes – remember the Mount Mayhem model prefers a copious amount of threes, usually an average of 25 attempts per game!
2) The Frontcourt Has Trouble Generating Their Own Offense
When Gregory Graves and Taylor Danaher were part of the Mount’s frontcourt, they provided Christian with excellent balance one through five. Although they weren’t offensive stalwarts, the big men were solid at generating offense on their own. For starters, they could pull post defenders away from the rim – as the seniors combined to shoot 36.0% on their shots away from the rim. That’s not great, but it’s far better than what the current frontcourt of Chris Wray and Mawdo Sallah has produced. Both have combined to shoot a paltry 12.8% on their 39 away-from-the-rim attempts with Sallah going 0 for 14 on his jump shots. If you’re a defender, there isn’t a good reason not to dare Wray and Sallah to beat you away from the basket.
In addition, neither player provides much of a post presence, whereas the 7-foot-0 Danaher could get a bucket in the post with his back to the basket. Granted, Christian wasn’t calling plays for Danaher like he was Julian Boyd, yet one to three of those baskets per game took some pressure off this teammates who made their living from the perimeter. This season, that post presence is lacking and it’s placed more of the shot making burden on the guards and wings of Christian’s offense.
Wray and Sallah are terrific athletes, no one would ever dispute that, but they don’t seem to be far enough in their offensive development to consistently create for themselves and score all over the floor. It’s part of the reason for the Mount’s low 2-point field goal percentage.
3) The Defense Hasn’t Bailed the Offense Out As Much
When Mount Mayhem is clicking on all cylinders, the team is usually able to extract lots of turnovers and turn them into easy buckets in transition. So far this season, the Mount’s defensive turnover rate is middling at 19.8%, and it hasn’t improved much against mid-major competition.
Will it get better? There’s reason to believe this will improve, especially as Christian begins to expand his rotation back to 9, 10 players. In the early going, it made sense to play a condensed roster, especially when you’re competitive with the likes of George Mason, Southern Illinois, Arkansas and Michigan in the second half. Why play your back-of-the-rotation guys and risk the higher ranked opponents going on a run?
If Christian begins to trust players like Khalid Nwandu, Ryan Gomes and Randy Miller more, then the turnover rate could begin to tick upward, and coincidentally easy buckets in transition will follow. All it takes is a few buckets a night off turnovers to lift a heavy load from the team’s half-court offense.
Push comes to shove, do I believe Mount St. Mary’s will reside in the bottom 30 of KenPom in offensive efficiency? No I don’t, but it has to be a little concerning that after 11 games, the offense still is struggling to mold into a cohesive unit. If Christian can get his players to improve on the three points I shared, then they’ll compete for the NEC title. It’s now up to the players to improve on the statistics I outlined.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride