In a new series, we’ll look at why each team’s season ended when it did. We’re starting with the team at the bottom of the standings – Tennessee Martin.
In short: everything.
For UT Martin, it’s 2010 all over again. The Skyhawks will enter the postseason coming off of another hugely disappointing season that didn’t bring a single OVC win. In 2011, they rebounded just in time for a late season run, leaving me thinking in April they were about to make the jump to the top tier of the league.
But by November, eveything had changed. Terence Smith was out indefinetely. Mike Liabo was injured, but remained in the lineup.
If not for that, the Skyhawks might not have even won 4 games.
But is it really that simple? Can we simply say “they were injured” and move on. Does head coach Jason James deserve blame, and if so how much. How does the team with the Freshman of the Year not win a single game in a low major conference? Even if injuries are mostly to blame, this year’s 4-win season has many asking serious questions about the future of the program, and the man currently running it.
Historic(ly bad) Season
To put this into perspective historically: Tennessee Martin has only been a member of Division I for 19 years, and they spent all 19 in the OVC. This is the first time they finished the season without a single conference win. Their first year, the ’93-94 season, they went 3-20, but all 3 wins were against OVC foes. In ’09-10, they were 4-25, but did get 1 conference win. Just like this year, 2 of those wins were non-Division I W’s.
In the end, you could make the argument that it was the worst year UT Martin has ever had since making the transition. Given that 16 of the team’s 19 years in Division I the Skyhawks finished under .500 on the season, calling this season the worst is a very harsh statement.
Continuing on the subject of worsts, this year Skyhawks scored fewer points per game than any team since the transition. And defensively, they allowed more points than last year’s team, which I called “atrocious” last summer.
I might need a thesarus to come up with a new adjective.
Did It Have to be This Bad?
[Update: James told WPSD that while Smith was cleared to return to practice in January, he was never cleared to return to play. He is expected to return next season. Since this section relied mostly on the assumption that Smith was cleared to play, I’ve marked parts in red that relied on that false assumption]
One of the question that arose towards midseason was when, or if, Smith would return to the lineup. Back in late November, I asked James about Smith’s return, and was told he would be back around mid-December.
Christmas came and past, no Smith.
January turned to February, no Smith.
In fact, we didn’t see him the rest of the season.
It brings about an interesting question: When was the decision made that Terence Smith wouldn’t play this season.
It’s one I don’t have the answer to, because there are a few things at play. First, did doctors ever clear him to play in the first play. And then, following that thought, if so, when?
For sake of discussion, let’s assume he was cleared. There’s a second discussion that then needs to be had: Is whatever time was left in the season worth bringing him back, and essentially costing Smith a possible 5th year.
It was fairly obvious heading into conference season that UT Martin wasn’t poised for a bounce-back year. But last year didn’t exactly start out so great either. In fact, the Skyhawks were 0-7 in the league that year before rallying to make the OVC Tournament, and pulling off an upset in the first round.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that a returning Smith would provide the catalyst needed for such a run.
In the end, the decision was made, although not sure by whom, that Smith would sit out the season. And the result was the horrific season described above.
If the decision was made by James, he’s banking a lot on these next few seasons. Because with just 20 total wins over the past 3 years, and 3 straight 20-loss seasons, his case for getting a second contract extension at Martin, or landing at a bigger school, is getting tougher to make.
Lack of Leadership
There was little doubt in anybody’s mind after last season that Smith would be the leader of the Skyhawks this season. But when he became unable to play, the team was left with 2 large voids: Who would run point, and more importantly, who would lead the team on the court.
I’m not sure if they ever found the answer to one of those.
Sophomore Omari Minor started all but one game for the Skyhawks, and led the team in assists, but often seemed afraid to shoot the basketball. The team’s only senior, Dane Smith played more like a forward despite his 6’3″ frame.
And then there was the 6’6″ Liabo. For those that followed me all season, you may remember that I went on a bit of a soapbox about Liabo early in the year, when the forward was pulled from the starting lineup. When asked about Liabo coming off the bench, James told me he wanted Liabo, whose hip was still bothering him from a crash the summer before the season, to get better defensively. And don’t get me wrong, he was often a liability on that side of the basketball.
But unlike Minor, or Smith, or Troy King, who started more games as a freshman than he would his sophomore year, Liabo played with an intensity out on the court that I didn’t see as often from the rest of the team.
Only he was injured. And he wasn’t a point guard.
Maybe it was because, with the exception of Smith, every player that got significant minutes was an underclassman. But no one seemed to want to step up to take the role of leader, except the one player that simply couldn’t take that role.
That’s not a slam against Liabo at all. Simply, he wasn’t in the best position physically to lead the team on the court. His shot percentage was down, and he was slower than last year, something other teams took advantage of, often driving the ball at him knowing he couldn’t react.
Sure Liabo sometimes tried too hard to do the right thing for his team, making some questionable shot decisions that often killed UT Martin’s momentum.
But it didn’t seem like anyone else, with the exception of a certain freshman, really wanted the ball anyway.
Is Jason James the Man for the Job?
In the interest of full disclosure, I like James. Both as a coach, and as a person.
But that being said, this past season brought up some grumblings about James as a head coach from Tennessee Martin fans.
Two 4-win seasons over the past 3 years will have that effect on a fan base. Even if there are “reasonable” excuses that can be made for those seasons, which I feel there are.
But a 20-73 career coaching record isn’t exactly something that tends to bring with it a rally of support from the community. In most places, that will put you out of a job.
But after last season’s campaign, one that seemed to signal the Skyhawks were back on the rise, James got a contract extension in Martin that lasts through 2015. And given UT Martin’s basketball budget since joining Division I, (which was the subject of an ESPN article a few years ago) I find it unlikely they would break that contract.
Sure, one or two more 4-win seasons might do it. But it would likely take something that extreme.
Barring another tragic summer like the last, I doubt James gives them that reason.
But this next season may be especially telling of James’ talents as a coach, and his staff’s ability to recruit. Because this is now his 4th year. It’s now completely his team.
No more can you look at how the team was after Bret Campbell’s expedient departure after the ’08-’09 season. (And it was a complete mess)
As much as I like James, and as much as I’ve defended a coach with a 22% winning percentage at Martin, the time for excuses is now over.
And I’m confident that James is in complete agreement.
The Rise Of Myles Taylor
If there’s reason for hope this summer, much of it rides on the broad shoulders of 6’7″ freshman Myles Taylor, this year’s OVC Freshman of the year. Finishing 11th in points per game in the conference, and 13th in rebounding despite just averaging 24 minutes per game this year, there’s a lot to look forward to.
But his rebounding wasn’t consistant. And given he played on the worst shooting team in the OVC this year, he really should have gotten more in my opinion. While Taylor was able to get to the hoop, I don’t think it’d hurt for Taylor to get a bit more athletic. Simply, he was often beat out for many rebounds by smaller players who were quicker than he was.
The second issue is foul trouble, which given that he was just a freshman, is hardly surprising. What is surprising was that it seemed to get worse later in the year, not better. Taylor either fouled out or had 4 fouls in 5 of his last 6 games. In especially impressive fashion, he manged to foul out against Austin Peay on January 28th in just 10 minutes of playing time.
And some of that I think goes back to athleticism. A more athletic Taylor can be a real force in the conference.
If not, he might not get much better at all.
How can it be fixed
This is something I’ll look into deeply in the Early season previews later this summer, but it’s a discussion I’d like to start now.
First off, the team needs an option B at point guard. If there’s any position that you need depth at in this kind of conference, I’d say it has to be point. Sure, hopefully Terence Smith is able to play at a high level this year, but he’s not going to play 40 minutes a game. (In all likliehood…) But this season shows just hard it is to replace that position in a game. It’s nearly impossible if you don’t have another talented guard. And this year, no one stepped up to be that player. This will likely have to be fixed in recruiting.
There’s a bonus to that in that if you can find another capable guard, you might be able to move Liabo to the 3 and 4-slots more often, allowing him to stop guarding speedy guards he can’t keep up with, and allowing him to use his size advantage more on offense, because, in theory, he won’t be handling the ball as often.
But James, as most coaches are, is a defensive coach, and as is becoming the norm for the Skyhawks, there appears to be a lot of work to do on that side of the ball as well. Despite being the 6th worst defense statisically in the nation, the Skyhawks did manage to force a fair amount of turnovers last season by getting into passing lanes.
But their on ball defense was god awful, and I felt a lot of this came down to disclipine. Yes, they forced turnovers by jumping in the passing lanes. They also allowed countless open look by jumping in the passing lanes and not getting steals. When teams would drive the basketball, there was rarely anyone in position to provide help defense, leading to easy layup after easy layup. They were often slow to rotate on defense, allowing open jumpers from 15 feet.
Here’s the problem: at this level, some of those things aren’t wholly teachable. Some of it comes down to the players being aware.
And it didn’t help that the offense created some of the defensive problems as well. 15 turnovers a game led to many fast breaks. Shooting 28% from 3 led to long rebounds, and quick transition offense for their opponents.
I think the question will arise this offseason: Does James have the right players? While I understand recruiting to UT Martin is a overwhelming challenge, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a surprising amount of turnover on the roster next year, especially given that there’s just one senior graduating.
And then it may be time to look at the scheme itself. This same defensive scheme hasn’t worked in 3 seasons. Is it the wrong personell? Maybe. But as I said above, every player here next season is James’ player. That’s up to him and his staff to fix. But if you keep changing players, and the defense still isn’t working, it may be time to look at the defense itself.
How does UT Martin do next year?
I think another disasterous season like this is out of the question. But are they a .500 team in conference? Maybe.
What do you think? Vote in our poll, and leave your thoughts in the comments: