Tuesday, March 21, 2017

2017 End of Season Recap and State of the Program Manifesto

This year's team over achieved in some ways, but disappointed in others.  In the end, the overall results were about where most reasonable people would expect for this squad.  Solidly in the NIT, but not a serious contender for the NCAA tournament.

There was reason for excitement heading into Coach Johnson's second year.  Most of last year's team returned and we added Braxton Key and a presumably healthy Dazon Ingram among others.  We added depth with guys like Bola, Corban, and Davis.  There were also a lot of questions marks, the biggest of which was could we replace Retin Obasohan as our leader and go-to scoring option?

Key tried to take over that role as the go-to scorer, and did well at times, but that is not really the role best suited for his skill set.  Dazon proved to be a solid point guard and improved throughout the year, and Corban provided vocal leadership and had a few great games, but we obviously missed Retin's production.  I was hoping Shannon Hale would step up and have a big senior year, but instead he regressed even further before finally getting suspended and essentially booted from the team.  Nick King was rumored to be very good in practice last year, but we still don't know what he can provide since he was out most of the season with a lung infection.

With Donta Hall's continued development, Jimmie's experience as a senior, and the addition of Bola, we had some nice depth in the post.  Coach Johnson saw the potential and emphasized rebounding early on.  This team struggled with shooting, passing, and handling the basketball, so defense and rebounding had to carry the day.  I give credit to the coaching staff for recognizing their strengths and weaknesses, and to the players for working hard to develop their identity.

It took a while for things to come together.  The pre-conference schedule was a disaster.  We seemed to try endless substitution patterns and lineups in an attempt to find some chemistry.  The tournament in Vegas was an embarrassment, and we were lucky to beat St. Louis.  After the Clemson debacle in Birmingham; I didn't think we would finish in the top half of the SEC.

We managed to finish 5th in the SEC, but admittedly part of that was due to scheduling.  We played bottom feeders Mizzou, Mississippi $tate, LSU, and auburn twice each.  Still, we had some nice wins including beating South Carolina on the road and knocking off NCAA tournament participant Vandy at home.  We even briefly got into the bubble discussion for the second year in a row, but losses to Georgia, Texas A&M, and Tennessee down the stretch did us in.

The team played it's best basketball of the season in the SEC tournament, cruising past Mississippi $tate for the 3rd time in the season and defeating sweet 16 participant South Carolina a second time before coming up short in a competitive game against Kentucky.  Unfortunately, the team did not bounce back well from that loss and looked out of sorts, going out quietly in the first round of the NIT.

In conclusion, it was an up down year with some notable high points including two wins over South Carolina, but with a disappointing end to the regular season and some bad losses, including two to auburn.

State of the Program

The Coach Johnson hire was seen as "high risk/high reward," by many, due to his inexperience at the college level.  After two seasons, the jury is still out, but at this point he still deserves the support of the fan base.  I will remain "buckled up," for now.  

The biggest concern was whether or not he would be able to recruit.  Dazon and Key have already proven to be more than capable SEC players, but Collin Sexton and John Petty highlight the most anticipated and highly rated incoming recruiting class in decades.  With a full roster of capable guys and presumably more scoring options, it will be interesting to see if the team's identity changes a bit next year to the more up-tempo style Coach Johnson has talked about implementing since his arrival.  
Next season is a pivotal year for Coach Johnson.  He's done an outstanding job of promoting the program on a national level and trying to generate more fan interest.  To the extent any of that has paid off; I don't think it's sustainable if we miss the NCAA tournament again after three years.  Next year's team is no lock to make the tournament at this point; we will be relying heavily on freshman and a lot will depend on how quickly they can adapt to the speed of the college game.  It's imperative that this staff finds a way to get everyone on the same page sooner rather than later so we aren't playing behind the 8 ball when conference season starts.  

My only somewhat major concerns are that we haven't dealt well with pressure situations the last two years.  In both of the last two seasons, we immediately had some bad games after hearing our name in the tournament conversation.  We need to win some meaningful big games at home and play better under pressure to keep the program's momentum moving in the right direction.  

I'm hopeful the addition of Collin Sexton will be a game changer.  If you've watched any of his clips; he appears to be an aggressive, explosive scorer from anywhere on the court.  He's also not the least bit shy about talking trash, to anyone, including opposing coaches and fans.  This may rub people the wrong way, and obviously he'll have to contain some of that, but I think a little bit of a cocky attitude can be a good thing.  I love our team, but we always seem to have a bunch of nice guys, and I think you need an alpha dog or two who can get under your opponent's skin when the chips are down.  

I'm excited about the future.  If anybody has any ideas for things you would like to see here on the blog in the future, please let me know.  I enjoyed seeing Bobbyjack in Vegas and Oregon this year, and catching a couple of games with MSmilie in Texas, even if our combined records were not that great.  Thanks to everyone for reading and contributing in the comments, and I look forward to seeing you all again next season.  


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