“If this game is not worth five dollars, I’m telling you this is the best basketball you can see for five dollars!”
Roy Sigler, the forthright Mount St. Mary’s radio color commenter, spoke those words on the NEC Front Row broadcast moments before the Mount secured a riveting come-from-behind victory over a veteran Norfolk State club.
It was the Mount’s first home victory of the young season, likely the first of several victories at Knott Arena from a team that plays, as Sigler poignantly put it, an exciting brand of basketball.
The Mayhem style isn’t for the faint of heart, however. Yesterday’s win produced 10 lead changes and four ties, despite the Mount being in firm control of the game for the first 30 minutes of the contest. A seemingly cozy 52-39 advantage with 8:59 remaining in the second stanza slowly but surely evaporated, as the Mount went the next 6:32 — seven straight possessions — without registering a single field goal.
Freshman Junior Robinson, all 5’5″ of him, ended that by utilizing his high-major speed and quickness to knife through the lane and score on back-to-back layups in traffic. After a rough start in the season opener at Arizona, Robinson has become Jamion Christian’s starting point guard and steadied the offense. He has dished out 32 assists against 12 turnovers (2.7 A/TO) in his last seven games. No one has played more minutes than the freshman.
Robinson’s heroics late pushed the game into overtime where Norfolk State used their second half momentum to gain a five-point advantage in the extra frame. Luckily for the Mount, sophomore guard Byron Ashe calmly sank two threes to give the Mount a lead they would not relinquish. Ashe led the team with 15 points on 5-8 shooting.
The early season results may not be completely there — the Mount improved their record to 3-5 with yesterday’s victory — yet trying to judge this team by their non-conference record is virtually impossible. You simply have to ignore the noise generated from all of the guarantee games Jamion Christian is forced to schedule. After weeding out the inevitable blowouts versus KenPom top 50 clubs such as Seton Hall, Arizona and Notre Dame, the non-conference results start to look a little more favorable for Christian’s group of lengthy athletes.
In four contests — three of them victories — against Maryland Eastern Shore, Bucknell, Loyola (MD) and now Norfolk State, the Mount have allowed 0.98 points per possession while extracting a turnover on 22.3% of their opponents’ possession. While the turnover rate and pace (63.8 possessions per game) in those matchups isn’t as high as the coaching staff would like it to be, Christian believes his team will continue to improve in that regard.
“We’re just going to keep building up our pressure and keep working on it,” Christian said in the press conference afterwards. “That’s one of the harder things for a young team… you have to know when to take chances [to trap and press] and when not to. I think we’ll keep getting better at it because we have really good depth. We also have really good length and speed. So when we’re able to get that combination together with our press and trapping game, I think that’s going to be pretty special.”
The construction of this roster is emblematic of Christian’s first season as the head coach, when the Mount rostered eight players averaging between 11.8 and 18.5 points per 40 minutes. Believe it or not, this roster possesses even more balance in the early going, with not a single player averaging double figures in scoring. In fact, no one has reached the 20-point threshold (Chris Martin scored 19 points versus Notre Dame last week) in any game this season.
That may very well change with the Mount’s newest addition to the roster, Butler transfer Andrew Smeathers. He will become eligible in the Mount’s next game at American on Dec. 20.
“As a player he’s going to be special,” Christian said when asked about his insertion into the rotation. “His size, ability to shoot the ball from the outside, he’s going to be unique. He’s going to help our rotation out and roster. I’m really excited about the combination of all these guys and putting them together. I just don’t know how people are going to guard us.”
Sources inside the program proclaim that Smeathers projects to be the best player on the team, yet it remains to be seen how he will respond “when the lights go on.” In two plus seasons at Butler, the 6’8” wing played sparingly in 43 games, averaging 1.5 points and 0.5 rebounds per game. Nonetheless, he seems poised to emerge as an integral piece of Christian’s rotation.
In regards to the rotation, the Mount’s box score from the Norfolk State victory had to be a thing of beauty for Christian – 10 different Mountaineers logged at least seven minutes, with eight of them registering at least one field goal. While the Mount may not trot out that many players during a critical NEC matchup in mid-February, this team contains the balance the coaching staff surely covets.
Yet despite the balance, would Christian eventually prefer to have a couple of go-to-scorers emerge once NEC play commences the next month?
“These guys are all real talented scoring the ball. I think when Andy comes back that’s going to help too,” Christian answered. “I’m going to keep preaching to these guys to be unselfish.
“I like the committee approach. I think when the time is right the right people will step up. I think we’re giving everyone an opportunity to have a different night [of leading the team in scoring] and then it’s just important when you have a good night to feed that person the ball and be unselfish with it. I think it’s going to make us tough to guard.”
Christian later pointed out that the trio of Robinson, Ashe and Smeathers are three guys who could emerge as key scorers when the offense is stagnant and needs a boost.
With three non-conference games remaining, Christian will continue to tweak his rotation and schemes before league play begins. It remains a work in progress, but as evident from the 2013-14 season, the Mount will be ready to contend in what promises to be a wide open NEC.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride