There’s been a lot of attrition thus far in the CAA. Injuries afflict every team in the country, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that Delaware, Drexel, James Madison and Northeastern wouldn’t have better records if key cogs hadn’t missed so much time – and that’s not even touching on suspensions and dismissal that have affected most every team in the CAA.
Today we’ll talk about two surprising teams: William and Mary and Drexel.
William and Mary was picked to finish ninth by coaches, SIDs and media members, but the Tribe has already topped last season’s win total, with its seventh win coming last Friday. Our friends at The Flat Hat have provided us with excellent analysis of the Tribe this season, and I think you’ll enjoy this review of all things Tribe: past, present, and future.
Drexel was a trendy favorite to win the CAA this season, but that was before Chris Fouch went down with a season-ending injury in the third game of the year. The Dragons still boast two all-CAA caliber players in Damion Lee and Frantz Massenat. We just saw Drexel pound Davidson into submission in typical Bruiser Flint fashion, the Dragons have a chance to pick up a big win on New Year’s Eve, when St Joe’s visits the DAC.
When the final buzzer sounded following William and Mary’s 82-49 shellacking of Division III Salisbury on Friday night, a familiar question slowly began to creep into the minds of faithful Tribe fans: Just how good is this team?
At the beginning of the year, CAA scribes and prognosticators pegged the Tribe for a finish in the near the bottom of the conference, and all signs pointed to another long season for Tony Shaver and Co.
As the non-conference season nears its close and we emerge from exams, the Tribe sits atop the CAA and is one of the conference’s biggest surprises. But despite the pleasant surprise, Tribe fans still don’t know what to make of this team.
At 7-3, the Tribe has done everything it’s been asked to do, and is showing steady signs of maturation and improvement. But the Tribe’s success has come against the easiest schedule in the country, which begs the question of whether this team only appears great because its success has come against weak competition.
William and Mary has an RPI of 267 according to Statsheet.com and it hasn’t defeated anyone with an RPI over 266. It’s strength of schedule is 347 out of 347 — the easiest schedule in Division I basketball. The teams they have beaten (minus Salisbury, who is 9-3) boast a combined 18-51 record — a putrid .261 winning percentage. In short, the Tribe’s wins have come against easy competition.
Besides the cupcakes, the College has faced three decent teams: Miami-Ohio (RPI 100), Wake Forest (RPI 202) and Richmond (RPI 82). Although the Tribe has lost all three, it has played exceptionally well in all three contests and hasn’t appeared overmatched. The College showed its youth and inexperience against the Demon Deacons, and let a winnable game (and marquee victory over an ACC squad) slip away. It was bad, but not unforgivable, especially for a young team. The loss to Richmond was probably the most encouraging game all year. The Tribe took one of the better teams in the Atlantic-10 to double overtime, and appeared to be evenly matched with the Spiders.
While the Tribe’s current schedule leaves us with a lot to ponder, it’s interesting to put this team in perspective with past William and Mary teams.
Particularly interesting is to trace the development of several Tribe players. Last season, the Tribe’s leading scorers were:
1. Sr. Quinn McDowell, 12.5 ppg
2. Fr. Marcus Thornton, 11.1 ppg
3. So. Tim Rusthoven, 10.3 ppg
4. So. Brandon Britt, 9.0 ppg
This year (through ten games):
1. So. Marcus Thornton, 18.0 ppg
2. Jr. Brandon Britt, 15.0 ppg
3. Jr. Tim Rusthoven, 14.1 ppg
4. R-Jr. Kyle Gaillard, 9.4 ppg
When looking at the two seasons, the most obvious trend is that the scoring has greatly increased across the board. The Tribe’s top three scorers are outscoring their counterparts from a year ago, and by significant margins.
More importantly, the returning players have really improved — Thornton has settled into his role as the College’s primary scoring threat, and he has shown the ability to hit the three from anywhere on the court.
Britt has shown the most growth. He was a solid second option in his freshman season when he averaged 10.9 points per game, but last season he faced a significant setback — his father passed away, and his focus really wasn’t on the court. This season, he is the second leading scorer at 15 points per game, and he is a real driving force. He provides a different dimension than Thornton – he’s not as reliant on the three, and scores more points when slashing through the lane. He is also exceptionally efficient. While Thornton takes most of the shots, Britt is the closer — he hits a high percentage of the shots he takes (53.6% from the field compared to Thornton’s 48.0%).
Another significant point when comparing last season to this season is that Tony was right. For those of us who rolled our eyes every time Shaver claimed that the Tribe’s six-win campaign last season was due to injuries (guilty), the emergence of a healthy Tim Rusthoven and Kyle Gaillard have shown us that Shaver’s injury lamentations came with good reason.
Aside from the fact that the best player on the 2011-12 squad (McDowell) was hobbled all year with a variety of injuries, Rusthoven missed the first six games due to injury and was slow to return to 100%. Rusthoven has really added a different dimension this season — a dominating inside presence. For those of us who remember seeing a skinny and inexperienced Rusthoven get dominated by the likes of Denzel Bowles and Frank Hassell, he has really developed as a player. He is bigger and stronger, of course, but he is also a key part of the offense and gives the Tribe a legitimate inside scoring threat — something it hasn’t had in quite a while, and something many CAA teams lack.
Kyle Gaillard has proven to be equally important. Gaillard has been a tricky player to pin down in his Tribe career. His freshman and sophomore seasons showed incredible promise — imagine the possibilities of a young, athletic forward who could shoot from the outside and throw down some of the most awe-inspiring dunks seen in Williamsburg — but he never really cashed in. Last season, he sat out the entire year due to a major knee injury, and has really been a pleasant surprise so far this year. He was a little rusty in the early season, but after receiving a challenge from Shaver, he has really shone and began to fulfill some of his promise.
Another interesting, and dangerous, debate amongst William and Mary fans is whether to compare this team to successful past ones (to be honest, there aren’t many). Any successful Tribe teams in the near future will always compared to the 2009-10 squad — the most successful squad in the Shaver era, a team that lost to ODU in the CAA Championship final and played UNC tough in the NIT. Fair or unfair, the greatest takeaway is that when compared to the 2009-10 squad, there really is no comparison–they are two different teams that run completely different offenses.
A look at the 2009-10 team’s scoring distribution:
1. Sr. David Schneider, 15.5 ppg
2. So. Quinn McDowell, 13.9 ppg
3. Sr. Danny Sumner, 10.6 ppg
4. Jr. Marcus Kitts, 7.0 pgg
When compared to this year’s squad, a few things are clear. First, the 2009-10 squad wasn’t as high scoring, and was a lot more balanced. The second is that the Tribe’s current team relies more on the inside game, as its current center, Rusthoven, averages 14.8 ppg, while that team’s center, Kitts, averaged 7 ppg. The 2009-10 had a more even scoring distribution while the Tribe’s current “Big Three” hold a higher proportion of the team’s points.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to notice when looking at past Tribe seasons is to examine how the team has changed its style of offense. Whenever you hear about Shaver’s offensive approach, you think “Princeton offense”, “3-ball”, and any other means of expressing a style of ball based primarily on three-point shooting, and a reduced reliance on inside scoring
In 2009-10, that was certainly true. Kitts and Co. moved inside when necessary, but the majority of the squad’s points came from beyond the arc. Nearly half (48.5%) of the 2009-2010 team’s shots came from beyond the arc. That squad was primarily built on shooters, and they did just that.
Over the next three years, however, the trend has really changed, as has the Tribe’s personnel. With the addition of Britt, Thornton, Gaillard and Rusthoven, the Tribe has really morphed as a team. The team can still shoot the three, but with more athletic players like Britt and Thornton, the Tribe is driving more, and taking less threes.
In 2010-11, 43.5% of the Tribe’s shots were threes, and 41.5% of its shots in 2011-12 were from beyond the arc. This season, however, just 32% of the Tribe’s shots have come from beyond the arc. Instead of launching nearly half its shots from three-point land, Britt is driving inside and taking jumpers, Rusthoven is getting the ball under the basket, and others are going inside. Thornton and Britt still shoot a fair amount from three, but the focus is on a more complete, traditional offense, which is an interesting and welcome sight.
While we still struggle to put this team in perspective, the good news is that things should be much clearer after the next three games. Now that the Tribe has successfully dispatched Salisbury, it enters a crucial and intriguing stretch.
Beginning next Saturday, the Tribe will face Purdue (5-6, RPI 175), Vanderbilt (5-5, RPI 189) and George Mason (7-4, RPI 46). While Purdue and Vanderbilt are not exactly top-shelf competition (not this year anyway), they provide the Tribe with an opportunity for growth. A win against either Purdue or Vandy on Big-10 and SEC home courts would provide an emotional victory for the Tribe. Make no mistake, those victories aren’t going to help the Tribe’s status in at-large pools (this team is going to have to win the CAA tournament to get a bid, that’s just a part of the deal at William and Mary), but they will help the confidence of a young team. If they can defeat one (or both) of those first two teams, it could be a season-changing confidence boost for a young team.
The biggest game is (of course) the George Mason contest in Williamsburg. The Patriots may be the best team William and Mary will face all season. If the Tribe can pull off a win against the Patriots, people will begin to take W&M a bit more seriously. With all due respect to Drexel and Delaware, it appears that the CAA will run through Mason, and if the Tribe can defeat — or even play well — against GMU, a lot of our questions will be answered.
If you’re a Drexel fan, it probably feels like all the Dragons have given you this Christmas is a large lump of coal. Drexel was the preseason favorite to win the conference, with the Preseason Player of the Year, and it all seemed like it was already wrapped with a bow just waiting to be opened and enjoyed in March.
Low-and-behold, December 25th came and went and the Dragons sit at 4-7 with no major statistical category ranking higher than 230th in Division I Basketball. This team is an empty re-used box of the team it was at this time last year, and the Grinch has been team chemistry.
The only gift so far has been a 69-58 victory against Davidson on the 22nd. The key for the Dragons was that they outrebounded the Wildcats by an astonishing 40-14 margin. Drexel dominated the game from the get-go and the Wildcats never pulled closer than four points in the second half.
The biggest downside this season has been the turnover bug, where Drexel ranks 252nd in turnover margin. Massenenat, the Preseason CAA Player of the Year, has led the way with 35 turnovers (14 more than anyone else on team). Those who know basketball understand the correlation between turnovers and assists, and if you don’t, a bad pass or dribbling too much into traffic results in turnovers, and good passes or dribbling leads to open shots and assists.
Drexel has a 0.9 assist-to-turnover ratio so far this season. That’s a losing formula for any team. Drexel is giving its opponents as many extra possessions as it is giving itself to score. Anyone who’s watched Drexel also knows there are plenty of issues to be fixed on the defensive end of the floor (block and steal percentages come to mind) but that’s another post. For now, the easiest fix would be to simply make smarter decisions on the offensive end.
The good news is that the play from the Davidson game could be the gift that keeps on giving. It may sound hopeful since Drexel, without question, played its only complete game of the season in the victory. In the words of former NFL coach Dennis Green, they played like the team we thought they were. And speaking of giving, the Dragons finally shared the ball on offense. Drexel ranks 246th in the country in assists per game at 11.9, but had 18 assists in the Davidson game, which led to 49.1% shooting from the field.
Damion Lee had a monster game with 26 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, which resulted in a CAA Co-Player of the Week award. Frantz Massenat also had 14 points to go with six assists. What all this means is that if Lee and Massenat can continue to produce on the offensive end while creating chances for the rest of the team, they will have the scoring needed to win when CAA play finally rolls around.
The Dragons will look to end their non-conference slate on positive note against St. Joseph’s. The Dragons are 1-0 against the Big 5 so far this season, and a win over St. Joe’s would help to put an end to this silly Big 5/City 6 bologna (Philly sports…why so cereal?). The Hawks were the preseason favorites to win the very talented A-10 conference, so a Drexel win would do wonders for its RPI later this season. The Dragons will host the Hawks on Dec. 31st at 4 p.m.