The Avery Johnson era is off to a good start with a 87-65 win in an exhibition game against the Division II TNU Trojans. Although these games are ultimately meaningless, and have proven to be poor predictors for the season ahead; winning handily sure beats the hell out of struggling with Stillman as we have in recent years (no disrespect to our neighboring Tigers).
Coach Johnson has totally transformed the offensive system. It looked nothing like what we've seen the last few years. It is very much an NBA type of system, designed to quickly identify and exploit a favorable matchup. I suspect it won't look quite as pretty when we are playing a team that doesn't give us a favorable matchup at every position, but we will not be struggling to score against lesser teams as we have in the past.
For the first time in years, I actually sat through an entire game without once screaming in frustration, "SHOOT THE DAMN BALL!" These guys know when they get an open look, they better put it up. Shannon Hale looks much more comfortable in this system, and hopefully he is over his injuries and and/or sophomore slump. He led the way with 18 points and played like the Shannon Hale we had seen glimpses of his freshman season.
I was pleasantly surprised by the play of Arthur Edwards. I was not expecting much based on his numbers from New Mexico, but he played 22 minutes and scored 12 points while shooting 2 for 5 from three point range. Shannon Hale was 3 for 5 from downtown, but as a whole the team only made 6 of 25 from behind the arc, so you can do the math and figure out how poorly everyone else shot. Brandon Austin, who I hyped here as having a nice shot, was 0 for 6 and really struggled. He looked exhausted when he was on the floor.
Donta Hall played very well and I think he's going to be an outstanding player for us before his career is over. He was a little overlooked in the recruiting process because he played for a small school, but right now I don't feel like we lose anything with him in the game instead of Jimmie Taylor. In 11 minutes he had 3 blocked shots, 6 points, and made an athletic play in getting a steal in the open court and taking it in for a fast break dunk.
The starting lineup was 1. Justin Coleman 2. Retin Obasohan 3. Shannon Hale 4. Riley Norris 5. Jimmie Taylor. I've heard a lot of people commenting that Dazon Ingram should be the starting point guard, but at this point I disagree. He obviously has more size, strength, and athletic ability, so perhaps he has a higher ceiling, but I think Coleman is slightly better overall right now. Both made some outstanding plays. Ingram came into the game and immediately had a no look pass for an assist on the break. On the other hand, his next no look pass ended up in the third row. Coleman had 2 assists and no turnovers, while Ingram had 4 assists but 3 turnovers. Coleman isn't afraid to shoot, but he only scored 9 points going 1 for 5 from three point range. Both are going to look to pass before they shoot for the most part, but Coleman's points will come from the perimeter whereas Ingram will be finishing around the basket. They compliment each other well, and even played together for a stretch, though I doubt we will see much of that when the season starts.
Defensively, we played mostly man to man in the half-court, and we really didn't press much. Trevecca was able to keep the game close in the first half, in large part because we did not play well on defense. We failed to get through some screens and didn't bother getting our hands up or in the shooter's faces, allowing them to knock down some open 3's. Our guards and SFs also allowed their guards to beat us on the baseline a few times. We were able to outscore them and take a 45-34 lead into the locker room at halftime, and the defensive effort was much better in the second half, as we put the game away in the first 5 to 6 minutes despite missing about 10 straight threes during that stretch.
Generally speaking, I was very pleased with Coach Johnson's approach. The picture above with him speaking to Justin Coleman was taken while Kessens was shooting a free throw. He called him over and quickly illustrated something using his coach's board. There are a few adjustments he's going to have to make to adapt to the college game. For one, the college court is not quite as long as the NBA court, and therefore the coach's boxes are much smaller. At times, Coach Johnson was at midcourt, and possibly even on the other side of midcourt. I rarely say this, but credit to Ted Valentine for being understanding and explaining/reminding him multiple times without calling a technical. Also, we had a substitution disallowed because our player did not report before the first horn during a timeout. These are minor issues that I'm sure Coach will get accustomed to sooner rather than later.
I know most people view this as relatively insignificant, but I was ecstatic by the way we managed the clock at the end of the first half. Long time readers of this blog know that clock management somewhat of a pet peeve of mine. For the last six years, on seemingly every last offensive possession of the first half, I've watched us either a) not use the "use it or lose it" timeout, b)use said timeout, but draw up a play that has us shooting with nearly 10 seconds left, giving our opponent the final possession or c) just dribbling the clock down to 5 seconds or so before setting a high ball screen for the point guard, or some combination thereof. With 16 seconds left in the first half, Coach Johnson used the "use it or lose it" timeout, before I even thought to start screaming about it like a mad man as I've become accustomed to doing. Not only that, he drew up a play that actually featured several passes and off the ball screens, resulting in Hale getting an open look in the corner with 2 seconds left, which he knocked down.
While we are on the subject of coaches, the TNU coach was quoted after the game saying something to the effect of, "they were a lot faster than what we saw on video from last year, we weren't prepared for that tempo." I probably shouldn't be ripping on a Division 2 coach who was kind enough to come down here and give us a game, but...c'mon man! Seriously? It wasn't exactly a big secret that we have a new coach, and that new coach has repeatedly announced publicly, on an almost daily basis since taking the job, "we're going to play fast." How anybody, much less an opposing coach, could be surprised that a team that practices with a 20 second shot clock shoots the ball quickly, is totally baffling to me.
The crowd was a huge disappointment, I would guess no more than 3,000 were there. I know it's only an exhibition game, but I was hopeful we would have a better turnout for the new coach with so many people in town for the big football game. The weather was less than ideal, so perhaps that kept some folks away. Those who did show up were enthusiastic and loud throughout. There was a real sense of excitement in the building, and I do think having the students closer to the floor contributed to a better atmosphere. Also, the NBA influence did not end at the product on the floor, as the entire presentation has been reformed to have an NBA feel to it. Prior to the game, the cheerleaders are spread out around the floor in front of all of the sections instead of being concentrated in the student section or on the floor, and they've brought in an "MC" type of person with a microphone to announce the contests and do various things during timeouts and dead balls to keep the crowd into it. I'm normally a traditionalist when it comes to such things; I find it insulting to a fanbase to need to be told when to "get loud," but it really didn't bother me in this case. We're obviously looking for ways to create some excitement and get more fans in the seats. I've heard credible rumors regarding the amount of money the athletic department paid to have Rae Sremmurd play the Tide tip-off event, and it's about three times what I expected it to be. I only mention this to say it's encouraging that we actually seem to be dedicating some resources to basketball, including marketing the program. We've come a long way since I was student when Coach Gottfried had to buy us pizza out of his own pocket.
Up next, we play for keeps in the season opener against the Kennesaw State Owls. Tip-off is tentatively set for 7:30 pm Friday night. It's the second half of a double header, the women will play Alabama A&M at 4:30. Let's pack the house and support both of our basketball teams Friday night as the 2015-16 season officially gets underway!