For UT Martin head coach Jason James, injuries have been a year and a half long headache that just will not go away. Last season, it was Terence Smith missing the entire season, and Mike Liabo playing through a hip injury suffered during the summer.
This year, Smith has found himself on the bench with another, completely unrelated, injury. And he’s far from the only one: Corderio Maclin, Bobby Jones, and Justin Childs have all missed games this season due to injuries.
Last season, we were told this would be a different team with everyone healthy. This year, we’re still waiting for that to happen.
In the meantime, the struggles continue for the Skyhawks. UT Martin has just one win over Division I schools, entering conference play with a near identical record to last season.
But comparing this team to the one that went 0-16 in the OVC last season would be wrong. The Skyhawks nine losses include one in triple overtime (after a scoreless second OT) and seeing a game winning shot go against them in the final seconds on the road. This year’s team has better deep threats on offense, is better on defense, and unlike last season, their injured players are all expected back in the lineup, and soon.
Will it be enough to make a run at the OVC Tournament? They may just be in the right division to make that happen.
How many wins does UT Martin get in OVC play?
- 0-3 (43%, 3 Votes)
- 4-6 (29%, 2 Votes)
- 7-9 (14%, 1 Votes)
- 13-16 (14%, 1 Votes)
- 10-12 (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 7
After last season, James went out and recruited some playmakers for the backcourtt that could make an immediate impact. While Myles Taylor was fully expected to remain the heart of the Skyhawks offense, putting some scorers in the backcourt would help take some of the pressure off of the sophomore. He found two in Childs and Jones that have contributed, but injuries have hampered the plan somewhat.
In the end, the offense has been very similar in makeup to last year’s team, with Taylor and Liabo making up the bulk of the scoring for the Skyhawks, leaving an all too-familiar feeling for many Skyhawks fans. Childs is contributing more as a slasher than a jump shooter, but his effectiveness is altered when Taylor is in the paint, which is where you want your best big man to be on most possessions. And while Jones is shooting over 36% from behind the arc, his only two double-digit scoring games came against non Division I opponents.
Much like last season, turnovers have been a concern for a team missing their primary ballhandler. So what will the return of Smith mean to the lineup?
First, Smith is a capable scorer, averaging 11 points a game and shooting over 43% from the floor as a freshman. Assuming his ankle is at full strength when he returns, Smith adds a speedy dynamic that the Skyhawks offense is missing. He’s an even better set up man, which could help shooters like Liabo and Jones get good shots, and can get the ball to Taylor in the post. In all, it should help open up the Skyhawks offense.
But he’s not a cure-all for the Skyhawks offensive woes. There’s still not a great deep shooter that will stretch defenses and open up the inside. And much like Childs, he’s more effective going towards the basket, which is more challenging with Taylor in the paint. But if he can help reduce turnovers and find open shooters, it’s a improvement the Skyhawks offense needs.
The Skyhawks defense is a Jekyll and Hyde type situation. In the halfcourt, they’ve very capable. They have a lot of length, Taylor is an athletic big man in the middle, and they do a good job of playing in position.
But that’s all reliant on the Skyhawks getting back, which isn’t happening far too often. UT Martin is getting beat in transition off of made shots, which is mind boggling at this level. They don’t press often, they just don’t get back.
But the defense is light years ahead of last season, which was last in the nation in field goal percentage defense, and fifth worst in tempo-free defensive efficiency. The play of Taylor inside is a huge boon, as is his improved rebounding, keeping teams off the offensive glass.
Some other good things on the defensive end:
- Liabo, who was often a defensive liability last season with his injured hip, is moving better this year, evidenced by nearly double the steals per game.
- Fewer missed three’s on the offensive end are leading to fewer transition chances. Again, it’s not that teams necessarily need chances, but it helps.
- The Skyhawks are forcing over 14 turnovers a game, a higher number than a year ago.
This is kind of a challenge to rate for UTM, because injuries keep changing the starting lineup. Liabo has spent much of the season again coming off the bench, and when you’re the team’s second leading scorer, that’s pretty good.
The rest of the bench is a much different story, and it can be contributed almost fully to youth. Two freshman (BJ McLaughlin and Dee Oldham) and two sophomores (Khristian Taylor and Tobias Dowdell) get the most minutes outside of Liabo, and their play is inconsistent, as is pretty standard for underclassmen.
What’s great is that they’re getting pretty good minutes, which will be a benefit down the road for UT Martin.
While Taylor has made his name as one of the better big men in the conference, Taylor’s yet to have that game this season that makes you think he can beat you by himself if he needed to. He’s very consistent, scoring at least double digits in every game except Lyon College, a game he played a very limited number of minutes. You know he’s going to get that 15-20 points every night, but you’re not really worried about him changing a game putting down 35 or more points any time soon.
In fact Liabo, who takes as many shots as almost anyone, is more of a threat to score 30+. Of course, he could also go 4-16 and not reach 10.
The only thing keeping this from being a “0” score is that most everyone is expected back in the lineup in the next few weeks. UT Martin enters conference play losers of four straight, and six of their last seven. They start OVC play on the road against Southeast Missouri, before hosting a very capable Jacksonville State team and a very dangerous Murray State team. A road swing to Tennessee State and Belmont aren’t far behind. The second half of the Skyhawks conference schedule is much friendlier.