Over a month into the season, and with conference play on the horizon, the question remains for the Skyhawks: are they any closer to finding that mix than when the season started in November?
After today’s game, I’m not certain they are.
The Skyhawks 82-76 loss puts UTM at 3-10 heading into conference play against undefeated and nationally ranked Murray State, but record aside, are the Skyhawks poised to make any kind of noise in the OVC, like they did last March?
“We’re a long way from where we were last year, for a lot of different reasons,” head coach Jason James said after the loss. “We’re missing some key players still, our guys are still having problems with our philosophy and our terms for whatever reason. So to get to where we were last year, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
At this point, I doubt anyone is really questioning that. The fans, the media, we all know there is work to be done. That much is clear by the Skyhawks record, and effort on the floor. But what is left to do?
James has tried reworking the starting lineup, and today was no different. For the first time since November 13th, Mike Liabo and Troy King were in the starting lineup for the Skyhawks. It was the 6th different starting 5 for the Skyhawks in just 13 games.
But not even 3 minutes into the game, Liabo was already on the bench. James was anything but shy about changing players early. In the first half, 11 Skyhawks played at least two minutes. Nine played seven minutes of more.
This is not the mark of a team that has things figured out, something James is painfully aware of.
“Our whole thing is about being ready to play, and I think you kind of saw tonight the first couple possessions we turned the ball over we went down 6-0, that’s not being ready to play. So we tried to run guys in to give us a spark. The 2nd half we did a lot better but we have to be ready to play, a lot of time when you see the subbing, it’s because guys aren’t mentally ready to play.”
Any time you hear a coach say his team isn’t ready, the natural question is “Why?”
“Today, I don’t know what went wrong,” James said. “Maybe it was the early start. Our guys, on a normal gameday, we’re having our shootaround about one o’clock…we’ve had problems being self-starters, and that’s something that’s been an issue were’ trying to work around, but they’ve got to get themselves ready to go, and obviously we didn’t do that tonight.”
But these are things we know. The problems are clear, and abundant. And for a college basketball team on December 18th, that’s not necessarily uncommon. UT Martin is one of many teams in the nation taking a hard look at their shortcomings, and trying to find way to overcome a sluggish start to the season.
But what are the solutions?
“Sooner or later, guys have to make plays, they have to make winning happen.” – Skyhawks head coach Jason James
From a statistical standpoint, it’s much easier to point out what the Skyhawks do poorly. 41% shooting, 16 turnovers per game, 8th worse in the nation allowing 50% shooting from their opponents (a number that will only get worse after allowing IPFW to shoot 53.8%)
In fact, there’s not one single statistical category, tempo free or otherwise, that the Skyhawks as a team ranked in the top 150 in the nation heading into Sunday’s games.
Except one: Strength of Schedule.
Now, there is a caveat to this: If UTM had beaten many of these teams, it would have hurt their own SOS. But to the Skyhawks credit, they’ve played the most difficult schedule in the OVC, despite the fact their schedule is devoid of any big names. Heading into today’s game with the Mastodons, the Skyhawks schedule was ranked 16th toughest in the nation by Sagarin and 30th toughest according to the RPI.
But for a team struggling to get wins, can that even be seen as a moral victory? No one wants to lose, regardless if it’s against the best teams or the worst. But James didn’t seem worried about the mood in the locker room after the Skyhawks 10th loss of the season.
“Our guys want to win, they want to continue to play.” -Skyhawks head coach Jason James
“Our mental standpoint is okay, because they still want to play basketball, they still want to compete,” James said.
So that may be the silver lining. Despite another start to the season that can really only be seen as “bad”, the Skyhawks spirit may be weak, but it’s not broken.
But if they don’t find a way to put together 40 minutes on both sides of the ball, and get some wins, things may be over before they really begin for this Skyhawks team.