Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Defense 101 and The New Baker's Dozen

Perennial wisdom says defense wins championships. Well in the CAA, it certainly keeps you in the discussion. No better example of that than Hofstra, arguably the best defensive team in the CAA. Last night in front of a national audience on ESPNU, the Pride (16-9, 8-6 CAA) showed the country how good a defensive team they are, shutting down the Monarchs (15-9, 8-6 CAA) 60-51.

Hofstra, the team that leads the CAA in field goal percentage defense, held ODU, a team coming into the games shooting 44.5 percent, to 27.5 percent shooting from the field (19 of 69). In fact, in the first half, the Pride held the Monarchs to 20 percent shooting. Hofstra, the team that leads the CAA in blocks at over 5 per game, had THIRTEEN on the night. And finally, in the most important stat, the Pride who were second to the Monarchs in rebounding margin, dominated the glass with a 48-39 advantage.

Every inside shot the Monarchs put up was contested. If the shot wasn't blocked, it was altered. Gerald "General" Lee, the Monarchs leading scorer got his points, 20 for the game. But they weren't easy. Lee, who is third in the CAA in FG percentage at 55.5 percent, shot only 7 of 19 for the game. The rest of the Monarchs shot even worse, 12 of 50, and the next highest scorer for ODU had 8 points (Darius James). With Hofstra collapsing inside, ODU couldn't shoot from outside, going 4 of 17 from beyond the arc.

The Pride never trailed in the entire game and the game was never tied. ODU was only down four, 38-34 with 14:20 left but never got closer. Despite having 18 more shots than the Pride due to a difference in turnovers (Hofstra had 16, ODU only had 8), Hofstra's defense kept ODU from taking advantage of that. But there was also another factor which I talked about in my column yesterday. Free throw shooting. Despite shooting 38 percent from the field, which is on average for them, Hofstra shot 16 of 20 (80 percent) from the free throw line. ODU, the second worst free throw shooting team in the CAA was 9 of 16 from the line (56.3 percent).

Hofstra got balanced scoring from Charles Jenkins (15 points), Nathaniel Lester (11 points and 10 rebounds), Darren Townes (10 points) and Ziggy Sestokas (9 points). Sestokas has played a lot more lately, which was a good move on Coach Tom Pecora's part. Desperately needing scoring, Sestokas has given the Pride a viable outside scoring threat which they sorely need.

Another key factor last night was the Hofstra student section, the Lion's Den. Since the article in the Chronicle by Nick Bond, which chastised the student section for not being consistently into the game, the student section has seemed more consistently passionate the last two games. Unfortunately, the section still makes vulgar chants and many of them again last night were directed at Bond's way, who was sitting at his usual seat at the press table. But Bond's article has done what was needed to be done. Despite only 2200 fans for a nationally televised game, the student section, which had a really good turnout last night, was very raucous and I think definitely affected ODU at the free throw line. Good job guys, keep it up (though can you please not say "sucks" so much. Please?).

It was a huge win for Hofstra. Now the Pride are only a half game behind Drexel and James Madison for fourth place in the CAA. The Pride also now have the tiebreaker on the Monarchs should they finished tied, since ODU and Hofstra only meet once this season. With a little help (ie two Drexel losses), the Pride could then be in control of their own destiny. With four conference games remaining, including James Madison at home, the Pride could very well run the table the rest of the way. But that starts by keeping up their play at Delaware on Saturday.

Ok, its time for a quick rendition of the new Baker's Dozen. Ten of the thirteen teams from last week's countdown lost in the past week, so some teams have moved up, some have moved out and some new teams have moved in.

1) Butler (22-2, 12-1 Horizon) - The Bulldogs bounced back from losing at Wisconsin Green Bay by pasting Wright State on the Raiders home court. Still the best mid major team in the country.

2) Utah State (23-1, 11-0 WAC) - Ho Hum, another week of 50 percent plus shooting from the field. Gary Wilkinson might be the most underrated big man in the mid major fiefdom.

3) Davidson (20-4, 13-1 Southern) The streak had to end sooner or later. Problem was, you don't want that happening on your home court. Still, people don't realize how good College of Charleston really is (they beat South Carolina earlier in the season) and they provide a very difficult matchup for the Wildcats with their balanced scoring. Again, Davidson really needs their other players to step it up when Stephen Curry gets shut down, like he was in the second half vs. CofC.

4) Gonzaga (17-5, 8-0 CAA) - That was just a terrible effort on Saturday on national TV at home vs. Memphis. Probably didn't hurt their at large bid all that much, but it certainly hurt their seeding. Matt Bouldin, Jeremy Pargo and Austin Daye all had bad games.

5) Siena (19-6, 13-1 MAAC) - So much for that undefeated conference run. Rider is a decent team, so losing on the road to the Broncs is not so bad. As for their at large bid chances, despite playing a really tough non conference schedule, the Saints need to beat Northern Iowa on Bracketbuster Saturday to strengthen their resume.

6) Northern Iowa (17-7, 11-2 MVC) - Speaking of the Panthers, their amazing Valley winning streak had to end. Problem, you don't like that happening at home, even if it's to the second place Creighton Bluejays. Still the Panthers are up two games on the Jays and split the season series having won at Creighton early in the season.

7) Western Kentucky(17-7, 11-2 Sun Belt) - Last season's sweet sixteen team is flying under the radar while again being the number one team in the Sun Belt. They even got a little love showing their wares on national TV in a tough win over South Alabama on Saturday.

8) Northeastern (16-7, 11-2 CAA) - Losing to the last place team in the CAA, William and Mary, a team that only had one conference win going into the game is just unacceptable. I don't care if it was on the road. Just goes to show you that the CAA is more wide open this year than ever I can remember.

9) Wisconsin Green Bay (19-6, 11-2 Horizon) - The Phoenix are certainly rising. Beat first place Butler and third place UW Milwaukee in the same week. Impressive. By the way, look for a really high scoring game when the Phoenix travel to Long Beach State on Bracketbuster Saturday.

10) Buffalo (16-5, 8-1 MAC)- Time to give the MAC some love. It's been a while since a Mid American team was in our countdown, but the Bulls have won eight straight in conference after losing their first game of the conference season. Buffalo vs. Vermont is a very underrated game on Bracketbuster Saturday.

11) Creighton (19-6, 9-4 MVC) - The Bluejays are back! Took em long enough. The Bluejays have won four in a row in the Bizarro Valley to take over sole possession of second place. Of the three Valley teams in contention (which includes Illinois State), Creighton has the best resume for an at large bid with back to back A10 wins at St Joseph's (second in the A10 at 7-1) and over Dayton.

12) North Dakota State (18-5,12-1 Summit) - Hey a Summit team cracks our Baker's Dozen. The high scoring Bison, who average 81 points per game, have won 10 straight conference games. That streak should continue as NDSU has three consecutive home games against teams with .500 or below records in conference. The game at UW Milwaukee will show how legit the Bison are.

13) Saint Mary's (19-4, 6-3 WCC) - I was very torn who I was going to pick for this last spot. VCU was off the table by losing to the defensively challenged, next to last place UNCW Seahawks. Illinois State was certainly off the board losing at home on Sunday for the second time to bottom feeding Indiana State. George Mason has lost 4 of their last 5 games, so they are toast in this countdown for now. I strongly considered Charleston after they beat Davidson on the Cougars home court, but couldn't do it after they had lost earlier to bottom feeding Elon. Eek.

Finally, I thought about Miami of Ohio but with their 8 losses, I decided to put St Mary's here instead. The Gaels are playing themselves out of an at large bid. I know Patty Mills is hurt but to get blown out by Portland and Santa Clara by 18 points in each game is downright terrible. The Gaels, especially their guards, need to step up, give a better effort and win 3 of their next 4 before Mills gets back. All the games are at home, so there's no excuses here. You have to beat Gonzaga, Portland, San Diego and Utah State on your home court to be seriously considered for an at large.

Near Misses - College of Charleston and Miami of Ohio. Off the board - George Mason, VCU and Illinois State.

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