Scouting Report: New Orleans
Wednesday night, Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich would be well advised to go deep into his bench. The Falcons are not only taking a break from conference play, but they're doing so against a downmarket opponent that does not figure to provide a particularly robust or meaningful challenge. This is a time to give extra minutes to reserves and to players who need to show more on the court. Before the return to the grind of the Mountain West Conference, Air Force can test its bench and perhaps unearth some new revelations that will help the team in the next one and a half months.
NEW ORLEANS AT-A-GLANCE
Once a proud and competitive member of the Sun Belt Conference, the Privateers are starting from scratch. New Orleans committed major NCAA violations and, as a result, had to shut down its program for two whole seasons, in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. When a program loses two full seasons and has to cease operations, it's safe to say that recruits aren't going to flock to that particular school to play basketball. Moreover, the fact that New Orleans is rejoining the college basketball community this season means that the Privateers are necessarily an independent. Teams that become new programs acquire independent status for at least one season before they join a league. Playing an independent schedule means that UNO is flying all over the country to play a lot of road games against various schools so that it can obtain paychecks, thereby pumping in money to sustain the program's budget. This kind of schedule wears down a team, but it's a necessary part of a transitional phase and – in New Orleans's case – a restorative phase as well.
The purpose of this season for UNO is not about establishing a brand. The point of the 2012-2013 campaign is the simple act of playing again, to do something the Privateers hadn't been able to enjoy for two whole years. It won't matter that New Orleans will end its season on March 3, before the rest of the country's Division I teams compete for NCAA tournament berths. It doesn't matter that New Orleans won't have a conference tournament to play in. It doesn't matter that Selection Sunday will be a silent day for this program in 2013 and, for that matter, in 2014. What counts right now is that a program has life again and can aspire to goals in the next decade. The silence and darkness of the past two seasons have been dispelled in the Big Easy.
New Orleans is 5-12. Only three of the team's five wins have come against Division I foes, but that's really beside the point. The Privateers will relish being on the floor in Clune Arena, and for that reason alone, Air Force needs to respect its opponent, one that will enjoy playing college basketball. One last note: New Orleans played a home game on Monday, which is enough reason in its own right to suggest that the Privateers will be tired by the time tip-off arrives on Wednesday. However, their Monday game against the New Jersey Institute of Technology went three overtimes. This team is going to be gassed… and it will then have to play at altitude. The Privateers should be happy that they're not playing for high stakes in this or any other game this season.
NEW ORLEANS STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 47.6. National rank: 149 (out of 345).
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 26.2. National rank: 342.
Possessions per 40 minutes: 74.5. National rank: 7.
Turnovers per game: 17.2. National rank: 340.
Rebounding percentage: 47. National rank: 309.
Blocked shots per game: 2.9. National rank: 231.
Forward – Lovell Cook – Senior, 6-6, 215 2012-13: 15.9 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game
Cook is the one particularly formidable scorer on this entire roster. He hit 12 of 22 field goal attempts in the win over N.J.I.T. on Monday, en route to 32 points in 47 minutes on the floor. Air Force has to look to him at the defensive end of the floor, locking him down so that his less proven teammates have to make plays.
Forward – Eddie Denard – Junior, 6-5, 240; 2012-13: 5.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg
In what is a very fluid rotation system under head coach Mark Slessinger, Denard gets an average of 17.6 minutes per game, which is generally less than what a starter normally receives. Denard's minutes are more consistent with a seventh man in a seven- or eight-man rotation. His numbers should be seen in context. If he's providing rugged defense, he's worth inserting into the game for the Privateers.
Guard – Rarlensee Nelson – Senior, 5-8, 180; 2012-13: 9.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 7.1 apg
Nelson's lack of size doesn't prevent him from having a major positive impact on his team's offense. As you saw above in the "stat pack," New Orleans is seventh in the nation in possessions per 40 minutes. This team plays at a very fast pace, generating scoring opportunities by running the floor. Nelson is the engine of that effort, dishing out just over seven dimes per contest. Air Force will naturally try to slow down the tempo of this game, but even in halfcourt situations, the Falcons will need to stop the ball when it's in Nelson's hands.
Guard – Tradarrius McPhearson – Junior, 6-1, 195; 2012-13: 6.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg
McPhearson hits 32.3 percent of his threes, which puts him 6.1 percent above the Privateers' average three-point shooting percentage. However, McPhearson has attempted only 31 triples this season. This is a virtue of the Privateers to an extent: They shoot the three poorly enough to realize that they shouldn't shoot it very often. There are no high-volume long-distance shooters on this team, which means that the Privateers won't succumb to the temptation to launch a quick three early in the shot clock. The problem with this reticence to shoot the three, however, is that defenses can pack in the lane and dare the Privateers to shoot without consequence. Any really good team has to be able to hit open threes when they emerge, and that will be a long-term task of New Orleans as it builds back its recruiting base.
Guard – Maurice County – Junior, 6-1, 195; 2012-13: 1.8 ppg, 0.8 rpg
County has played in 16 of 17 games this season for UNO, but he had been a bit player for most of the campaign until recently. He grabbed 31 minutes of court time on Monday against N.J.I.T., integrating himself into the Privateers' rotation, which generally goes nine deep in a given game and has allotted double-figure minutes to 10 players, two of which did not play against N.J.I.T. Consider County the starter for now, but Slessinger might change things up once again on Wednesday.
Four reserves played at least 15 minutes against N.J.I.T., so they'll be considered the primary bench players for UNO on Wednesday: forwards Cory Dixon and Kevin Hill plus guards Isaac Mack and Max Banchy. Dixon averages 7.9 points and 4.8 boards per game. Hill averages 3.8 rebounds per game. The two double-figure-minute men who did not play against N.J.I.T. are guards Corey Blake and Darrell Williams.
Keys to the Game
1) Use the reserves and see what they can do. In the middle and latter parts of February, teams can hit a wall. This is really a game in which the coaching staff needs to hold the starters' minutes under 30, if not 25, keeping them fresh for the long haul. Gaining value from one or two bench performances is what Air Force needs from this game, which shouldn't be particularly close.
2) Stop dribble penetration. New Orleans is not an imposing team, but the Privateers have some slashers who can get to the tin. Stopping the ball is always a skill that can be polished and improved, and Air Force will need to do this against the likes of San Diego State and New Mexico in future weeks. The Falcons need to practice this part of their defensive approach on Wednesday.
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