November 12, 2012

The Game You Didn't See was a Lion Whimper

Anthony Ireland is so good that he's allowed
to dribble at head level free of charge
I like the Loyola Marymount University Lions men's basketball team. I root for them routinely. I consider their success the WCC's success, and thereby, as a WCC writer and admitted league homer, my own. I want LMU to do well. Seriously.

To say that they trotted out to Dallas this weekend after throwing up 108 against an NAIA school and looked jittery, out of sync and one dimensional gives me no pleasure at all. It is also a true statement. While the rest of the country was looking the other way on Sunday at the NFL, or at Arizona and Gerogetown's single digit faux-scares against little guys, LMU snuck in an unaired contest against Southern Methodist University. It was probably a good thing for the Lions that nobody was watching.

LMU lost 73-58. Its accomplishments included:
  • at one point in the second half, only trailing by six points
  • three unforced travelling errors in a span of four minutes as it was desperately trying to keep it close
  • shooting 32 percent from the floor
  • 5'10" Anthony Ireland, who is unquestionably a great guard, out-rebounding every other player on the floor
SMU is a random school coached by the really random Larry Brown, who marked his Mustang debut by running too far out on to his home court in his Harry Potter glasses, the act of which baited the pal-sy reprimand of the officiating crew and contributed nothing of tactical significance. SMU is also, at least at the moment, not a very good basketball team.

More importantly, LMU, as nearly everyone's "best-of-the-rest" pick in the WCC peloton, is supposed to be pretty good. Despite losing Drew Viney and Jared Dubois, and despite C.J. Blackwell sitting out with nagging knee issues, Ireland and sidekicks Ashley Hamilton and Ayodeji Egbeyemi are supposed to get a hand up in the proverbial face of the SMC-BYU-Zag leadership trio, give a lot of teams a scare and flat out beat a lot of others (unless, of course, people who make an effort to predict things in the pre-season are somehow wrong. But that would really surprise me).

LMU kind of did this hand-in-face thing last year. They knocked off UCLA and St. Louis, then went 11-5 in league. But then it lost its first game of the WCC Tournament, and then bowed out in the quarterfinals of the CIT tournament, which isn't even a thing that you particularly want to win. Then Drew Viney graduated. Then junior Jared Dubois transferred to Utah. Do you know how much a college basketball player has to dislike where he is in order to want to go play at Utah?

Anyhow, here's the essence: If the LMU team from last night (flame throwers, note the couch, here) is the fourth best team in the WCC, then the WCC has taken a step backward.

And now, a whole bunch of explaining.

Ashley Hamilton navigates success through his hand monocle
Context: The WCC poached perennial Top 50 BYU. Then it nabbed Pacific. Simultaneously, it negotiated a masterful ESPN contract (hey, at least you can be damned sure that the three media people who watch college basketball in New York at Midnight on Thursdays are watching WCC basketball, damn it!). The league even, per Jon Wilner, just negotiated a "Game of the Week" deal on Time Warner Sportsnet in the Southern California area, providing enhanced exposure in a critical recruiting base. All of these things are nothing short of brilliant for a conference resting on the stanchions of religion (read: logistical constraints), without football, and with very little leverage in a collegiate landscape that shifts like quicksand. It is, depending on who you talk to, the 9th, 10th or 11th best college basketball conference out of the 32 this country has to offer. It is aiming to be the best non-Power Six basketball conference in the country and is well on its way. That's really neat!

Conditions: In order to keep growing, the conference cannot have three teams that most-likely-but-possibly-won't make the NCAA Tournament, and seven teams who at best might do something like a CIT quarterfinals loss. That would just be a continuation of the same thing it's already doing. When you do the same thing over and over again with the same result, you stop growing. And sometimes you go insane. As the prohibitive number four, LMU is the closest to joining the conference's elite, and quite simply, the conference needs more elite-ness if it wants to be the best non-Power Six basketball conference in the country.

Caveats: Maybe LMU isn't the fourth best team in the conference. When it was awarded the four slot in the pre-season coaches poll, it eked out USD by one vote, SCU by two. It also doesn't take a poll to consider fourth place a reality for a Foster-Roquemore-Trasolini Santa Clara team that's basically treating '12-'13 as a giant do-over. And don't even try to predict USD at this point. Team's just a straight wild card. Johnny Dee and a bunch of players you've never heard of could quietly win a ton of games this year. Or, Billy Grier's head could detonate all over the Slim Jim floor due to mind-bending frustration and unresolved-shaving-scandal stress.

Also, maybe the LMU no one (thankfully) saw last night is not the LMU we'll see later in the year.  Blackwell was admittedly out with an injury. Starters Chase Flint and Godwin Okonji might've had uncharacteristically awful evenings. Maybe things will get so injury-sordid that Adam Drexler will win a starting spot and Glide like his eponymous Clyde pops.

But there are gut feelings from watching this game that make me think otherwise.

Those feelings center around the team's post play. LMU doesn't have a true center on its roster by a long shot. Its tallest player is 6'9" Croat freshman Marin Mornar, who logged exactly two minutes last night (and looks like the person who would be created it someone took Kyle Dranginis' torso, extended it vertically about a foot, then shoved his head and neck about six inches forward while leaving the back in place). Mornar's trailed in the height rankings by 6'8" Okonji, who, again, looked completely outmatched. Against Southern Methodist. After that, everyone just gets smaller. One would conclude that this at least partially resulted in SMU, in the bottom four percent of offensive rebounding teams in the country last season, nabbing 14 ORebs Sunday, out-total-rebounding LMU by a bundle, and winning the post FG% battle handsomely.

Anthony Ireland played 90 percent of his team's minutes last season as a sophomore, second in the conference only to Matty Dellavedova, who played 93. Both of those marks were in the top 30 in the country last year, and both players' minutes proportions should reach even higher this year. But Dells has troops downstairs to spend his 38 minutes a game throwing the ball to. Even with a creative Ashley Hamilton occasionally slashing and doing power forward things, last night's game showed me an Ireland who has 38 minutes a game to make shit up and try to out-athleticize his opponents.

This conference quite simply scrapped its way to significance. It needs to continue to grow. The best way for it to do that is to separate another team out of the pack that can consistently challenge the lead trio. If LMU wants to be that team - which I think all league proponents would welcome - it needs to beat WCC teams with pythags significantly better than the Southern Methodist team it just lost to by 15.

Will Green writes about WCC basketball for The Upset out of innate habit. You can crucify him or tell him about interesting new college basketball things @Zagacious on Twitter.