Barring the biggest upset in the history of American sports, the season will come to end in some fashion or another for all NEC teams in the next month or so. For most, it will be a defeat at some stage of the upcoming NEC Tournament. However, for Central Connecticut (and St. Francis Brooklyn) it’s all over next week, a fact made official after the Blue Devils lost to Robert Morris 74-64 Saturday afternoon at Detrick Gym.
Donyell Marshall hoped for better this season, but he knew he had one of the hardest rebuilding projects in the nation on his hands, and now that the season is winding down and his team is officially eliminated, he can finally speak with some candor about his plight and what he learned as he looks a little toward the future.
“Some of the adjustments are that we have to get players that can do that. It’s something that we have to get a winning mentality back,” Marshall said. “This is one of those learning experiences, meaning that – other than Tafari (Whittingham, transfer from South Alabama) – these guys haven’t been in a situation where they were in the NEC Tournament the last two years. They haven’t been in games like that. Robert Morris has been there in big games, they have guys who are going to relax and not press. We came out a little nervous even today and gave them too big a lead.”
Saturday was like many games this season for the Blue Devils (5-22, 3-13), where they fell victim to a big run in the first half, then fought like heck to get back in the game, but just didn’t quite have the energy to sustain it down the stretch. The bad news for Marshall is that his best player by far Saturday, Khalen Cumberlander (24 points), will be graduating. With a full year at the helm now, you can expect some new blood in CCSU uniforms next season as Marshall begins his task in earnest.
Isaiah Still makes it all seem so easy. Led @RMUMBasketball w/ 22 points & 8 rebounds in win at CCSU. Colonials clinch @NECBBT spot. #NECMBB pic.twitter.com/5DigSUjs60
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) February 19, 2017
The Blue Devils (with games against St. Francis Brooklyn and Bryant remaining) are 14-75 over the last three seasons, more importantly 9-43 in the NEC and have now missed the conference tournament in three straight seasons. As Howie Dickenman showed a decade ago, there is plenty of potential for CCSU to become an elite team in the NEC: it has one of the strongest fanbases in the conference and a really good home-court advantage with a competitive team in front of them.
“You can’t wait until you’re down 15 to play hard,” Marshall said. “We don’t have enough horses to do that. If you look at all our games, in the second half we’ve come back. We’ve made a lot of games close, but we just haven’t been able to pull it off.”
So, live and learn, the latter being the most important thing for Marshall in the next eight months until the 2017-18 season begins. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, will we?:
What else did we learn on a warm New Britain afternoon Saturday?:
1) Defense, defense, defense
After trying to tiptoe around the fact that Robert Morris (11-18, 7-9) depends almost completely on its defense with Andy Toole, he said, “It’s OK. Feel free, we talk about it all the time.”
“I think defense is our best way to win, obviously,” Toole continued. “Offensively, we’re anything but solid this season. That’s who we have to be. In our last four games, in the two we’ve won, we’ve held teams below 40% from the field and the two we’ve lost, they were above 50%. We have to remind our guys constantly that our best path to winning is defending first. If we do that, we give ourselves a chance, and we’ll do the best we can on the other side.”
Central Connecticut had just 0.59 points per possession in the first half, and its final total of 0.88 ppp was inflated by some late points in garbage time. The Colonials lead the NEC in defensive efficiency and are 74th nationally, which if it holds would be the third best ever in KenPom (2001-02) NEC history behind 2005-06 Monmouth (56th) and 2011-12 Wagner (71st in Dan Hurley’s final season on Staten Island). Robert Morris is not big, with 6’4” Aaron Tate asked to play center, and do foul a lot, but have an amazing statistical combination of being 8th nationally in turnover rate (23.7%) and 3rd in three-point defense (29.4%). They only had 4 steals and forced only 15 turnovers (20.5%), but it was enough because of…..
2) Offense, too?
Now Robert Morris being such a dominant defensive team and being just 7-9 in the NEC tells you how much of a struggle it has been at the other end of the floor. The Colonials finished at 1.01 ppp Saturday behind Isaiah Still’s 22 points and 8 rebounds (with Clive Allen and Tate chipping in), but they are 342nd in offensive efficiency overall, mostly because their shooting is dreadful (43.9 eFG%, 342nd).
But there’s nowhere to go but up, of course. And in a very even conference, there is certainly hope that the Colonials could get hot for a couple of games and make a run. Six of their conference losses have been by four points or less or in overtime, and a few three-pointers here or there could easily see them make a run in a couple of weeks.
“We’ve tried to add a lot more shooting segments to practice,” Toole said. “We tried to add some different things to even our dummy offense to make it more competitive and make guys more engaged, kind of rewarding them for different actions or plays they can create. Again, just trying to get them to make some better reads and get some better shots. But we’ve gotten some pretty good shots over the course of the year, we just have to make them.”
3) Salute to seniors
I mentioned Khalen Cumberlander before, and as we do every year in the next couple of weeks, we want to at least give a shout out to the seniors whose careers will be ending. It’s often been a rough ride for Cumberlander the last few seasons, but he’s shown up every game ready to play, including Saturday. He recently went over 1,000 points for his career as well. There will be more ending their careers soon as well, but they deserve at least a recognition.
“I think he’s done a great job of getting into the gym every day and working hard,” Marshall said. “He’s been very coachable. Even in the huddle today, he was being a leader. His numbers have been really good the last couple weeks.”