RU Versus Columbia—Pre-Season NIT
The first game is now over. I am happy. RU won. RU won easily, dominating. What more can you want? Answers? Forget it. There were never going to be answers about RU's upcoming season from this game. RU returned 4 starters, and 7 of its top 9 players from an 18-13 NIT team that at one point was on the NCAA bubble—and added several newcomers expected to contribute. Columbia returned just 1 starter, and just 3 of its top 10 players (including losing one of the best Columbia players in 20 years) from a disappointing team that was 11-17. Columbia may be the worst team RU faces all year. The only things can be learned from a game like this is bad things (i.e. RU played a close game—bad sign; RU struggled to control the game—bad sign). No bad things were learned. All the questions remain: How will RU replace Kent's rebounding? How will RU replace Kent's post defense? Will Herve Lamizana be a consistent force for RU? Can Sherrod learn to shoot? Will Shields be more consistent? Can Wright provide any post play? Will any newcomers fill gaps? Actually, the only question that seemingly CAN be answered is the last one: It does appear that at least Wooten will fill some gaps, by adding depth at both point and shooting guard. The jury is still out on Hill, Good or Davis.
Still, I am happy. Why? Because the season has started, and RU pounded a helpless foe. How many seasons have RU fans seen distressingly poor performances, in both victory and defeat, in the first game of a season? This year, RU pounded, and left no doubt. Yeah, the 2nd half was lackluster. Yeah, there was no inside game, and little rebounding. Yeah, RU's outside shooting was off. Still, even with all that, there was no doubt from about 6 minutes in to the 1st half. And THAT is a change from the past.
Okay, to the game. RU struggled offensively all game. They did not even try to punch the ball inside more than 8-10 times in the 1st half, and not at all in the second half. They missed their first 10 3 pointers, and only made 4 of 19 for 21%. Still, RU's effort and defense were outstanding from the start, and only slacked off a bit after the 1st 3-4 minutes of the 2nd half. It was clear to me from about the 3-4 minute mark of the 1st half that RU would win easily and going away, even with the offensive struggles (though I expected that before the game). It was also clear by about the 8-minute mark in the FIRST half that RU's defense would keep Columbia from scoring even 40 points for the entire game. Therefore I knew RU would win by at least 20, as there was no way RU would score less than 60 (well, I forgot that Waters actually clears his bench, unlike our prior coach—Coleman, Shields and Sherrod did not play the last 8-10 minutes, and the walk-ons with Good and Hill were in with 5-6 minutes left). By the way, a 26 point win over a team like Columbia, which plays with a similar style as Princeton, is really a much bigger spread. Columbia shortens the game so much, just like Princeton, that a 25-point win is closer to a 35+ point win. Also, RU stopped its press very early in the 2nd half, if they even pressed in the 2nd half. If RU had shot just 30% from 3-point range, instead of 21%, RU wins by 30-35 points anyway.
Defense: The name of last year's season, and the name of this particular game. It is clear that if RU is going to win, they are going to do it with defense. They may not have the post defense they had last year with Kent. This will create some problems. But they will still have their tenacious, in your face, 94-foot man-to-man defense. Each player picked up their man from baseline to baseline. The guards in particular were on the ball the entire length of the floor. That is why having FOUR guards instead of just THREE guards is so valuable—each player can play harder every minute they are in. And RU actually had FIVE players play guard, as Shields slid over to guard one rotation each half. RU's defense was solid, at least. And its press completely dismantled Columbia's inexperienced and unathletic guards. And the press got better in some ways with McCoy in. RU had a line-up of Axani, Lamizana, McCoy, Shields and Wooten or Sherrod at times. That line-up can really press—in part due to the athleticism on the floor, and in part due to the simple fact that no one could pass over those lean and lanky players.
Offense: RU shot poorly from 3 point range, and made little effort to get inside in the 1st half and no effort whatsoever to get inside in the 2nd half. But … RU penetrated with ease. Sherrod, Coleman, Shields, Lamizana, Wooten and even McCoy were able to get dribble penetration inside Columbia's man-to-man AND zone pretty much whenever they tried. In the articles the day after, and in the radio interview with Desimplare after the game the coaches made pretty clear that they did not even try to have RU work on their post offense so as not to show any plays to North Carolina. Desimplare also indicated that in the 2nd half, with the game so out of control, it is tough for the young players to remember the offensive intent (and he implied that the staff did not bother to try to get them to remember). We will know a little more on Wednesday—but don't panic, it will take time for the offense to fully unfold, anyway. I think, though, that RU will have less post offense than last year (except to the extent Lamizana provides it). BUT … I suspect that RU will use dribble penetration much more. Shields, Coleman, Lamizana and Wooten all have solid to better than solid mid-range games. Also, RU will definitely have games where they struggle to shoot well. In the Big East, RU could lose those games. But RU will also have games where they are hot from the outside, regardless of the defense the opponent plays. RU will be very, very tough to beat in those games.
Coleman: He shot a lot, as usual. He was not making his 3-points shots last night. Except for that monster shot at the end of the 1st half—unbelievable. It is shots like that opponents will show to the guy defending Coleman, to try to prevent those shots. And then Coleman will dribble drive, and either go all the way to the basket or pull up. He did BOTH last night, and made many of those shots. Coleman showed he has a good mid-range (12-17 foot) game off the dribble. Coleman's defense was solid, as usual, and he added 4 steals, and had a nice assist on a fast break.
Shields: Excellent 1st half. He seemed quiet—except he ended up with 9 points of RU's 36. Very solid defensively—it was very nice to see his energy on defense. Penetrated well. Passed well. A good, all-around game.
Sherrod: Visibly improved stroke on his shot (good arch, good follow-through, good touch). Didn't hit at first, but made a nice looking 3-point shot in the 2nd half. Solid penetration. Slightly improved judgement on the fast break, at least (not enough opportunities to really tell). His usually strong, in-your-face defense—terrific example of how to play defense with your feet and body, and not your hands.
Lamizana: Some posters were critical. I thought he looked fine. He did not try to force (well, once, maybe), he stayed within the flow of the offense—but unlike late last year was not passive. He did a nice job with the dribble penetration and pull-up a couple of times (though the shot did not fall). His defense looked more solid, and he played Kent's role on the press (half-court wing falling back to block shots when the press was broken—the safety valve shot-blocker). Lamizana also passed rather well, I thought, and generally handled the ball well. People should remember that the way this team is constructed, RU does not need Lamizana (or Shields for that matter) to score mid-teens each night. RU needs TWO strong scorers a night, and several supplemental scorers as well. RU has FOUR players capable of scoring 15+ any night (Coleman, Shields, Lamizana and Sherrod), and another 2-3 players who could be supplemental scorers (Axani, Wright and Wooten). Of those SEVEN players, RU probably only needs 2 big offensive games, and 3 medium offensive games each night on average. For games against top opponents, you might need 3 big games, or 2 big games and 4 medium games. So don't get all upset when Lamizana or Shields don't score 15 or more points in a game.
Wright: High energy. One nice put-back. One nice high post jump shot. A couple of rebounds. Several floor burns. If we get 5-6 points and 4 rebounds and 15 minutes a night, that will help. To expect more would be absurd.
Axani: Very, very effective on the press. Expect him to get a lot of playing time against better teams without a BIG center, and expect excellent defense. He definitely looks like he is a legitimate 6'7 ½" to 6'8" tall, taller than last year. He also looks much stronger than last year. Showed no offensive improvement except he made 3-4 FT's.
Wooten: Sure reminded me a lot of … Luis Flores. Nice crossover dribble, and smooth, quick release on the mid-range jumper off the dribble. Good form and rotation on the long shot, though I think he didn't hit any. Was very, very nervous on his 1st FT (and missed), but was calm and relaxed on his 2nd FT. Showed good quickness on defense, but still plays too much with his hands instead of his feet (thus several reach-ins). Wooten will be schooled at times, I suspect, and have some miserable games (like many freshmen). But he will be a strong asset this year, and absolutely showed the ability to handle the ball well enough to back-up at point.
McCoy: First man off the bench last night. Now we know that Axani is really RU's 6th man. But McCoy played quite a bit. Showed little offensively—except he DID drive to the basket several times, more aggressively than last year. He missed the shots, badly, though. He also clearly lacks the confidence or ability to shoot from the outside—and his 3-point bank shot looked to be an errant pass (he certainly was confused about what had happened). But … he was so, so effective on the press, and was solid in the half court defense on the wing. McCoy will play more than 10 minutes a game, it looks like, and will be used when RU wants to press, and when RU needs a tall wing defender to shut off a hot 3-point wing forward shooter.
Hill: Definitely athletic. Definitely works hard and hustles. Showed little else in this game. Jury is still out. I suspect that if Hill plays an important role off the bench it will be in the 2nd half of the year after he has a chance to absorb some more teaching and lessons. He looked completely lost on offense.
Good: Impossible to tell, but he looked reasonably athletic, at least compared to the Columbia players (for what that is worth). He seems to get off the ground well, and quickly. His footwork and hands definitely need some work.