EMMITSBURG – At Greater Baltimore Basketball Media Day in late October, Morgan State men’s basketball coach Todd Bozeman kept hammering home one factor that will likely define the 2017-18 season: Consistency. Last year, the Bears lost five games by three points or less, including the upset loss to Howard in the first round of the Mid-Eastern Atlantic tournament. Along the way, they shot 38.5 percent overall and 29.4 percent from deep, while turning the ball over 14 times a game.
The Bears return every starter this season, plus their top five reserves from that 14-16 (11-5 conference) campaign a year ago. The MEAC preseason coaches’ poll and Yahoo! Sports picked Morgan State to win its conference for the first time in seven years, and in order to bridge those expectations with reality, Bozeman needs this group to develop stability in tightrope situations.
Through six games, Morgan State is 4-2, two games better than this point last year with its most recent win at Mount St. Mary’s, the reigning Northeast Conference champions, on Monday, 69-63. Overall, they’re shooting a hair better than last year (40.1 percent) and the 3-point clip has upped substantially to 41 percent. It’s a smoother start offensively for the Bears, but lofty turnover numbers still clog the stat sheet.
On Monday, Morgan State turned it over 17 times, and now have 110 giveaways (18.3 average) in six games.
“We’re not consistent yet,” Bozeman said after his team’s fourth win Monday. “We’ve had some games where we haven’t played well. We have to cut our turnovers down. Seventeen, we have to cut that down.”
It’s also worth noting they’ve started the season without last year’s MEAC leading scorer Tiwian Kendley (21 points, 5.3 rebounds a game last year), who’s nursing an injury.
Forward Phillip Carr, reigning conference Defensive Player of the Year and selected as the MEAC Preseason Player of the Year, posted his second double-double of the season in the 12-point, 14-rebound performance at the Mount on Monday night.
Carr has struggled to find his way offensively, and carried a shooting clip below 30 percent through five games. But, for the first time this season Monday, he flashed spurts of his trusty self, spraying a series of mid-range jumpers that gave the Bears leads of 6-2, 8-2, 26-24, 38-35 and 40-35 in a 5-for-11 shooting display.
Bozeman said the slow start is likely stemmed from the weighty expectations placed on the Brooklyn native’s broad 6-foot-9 shoulders, something he’s not accustomed to.
“It’s probably a lot of stuff on him,” Bozeman said. “He thinks too much and focuses too much on [distractions]. He’s a guy that’s not used to that: All the hype around him coming into the season. It’s probably effecting him a little bit. We’re pulling him back and letting him focus on basketball.”
Bozeman went with Martez Cameron (14 points and two steals), Lapri McCray-Pace (15 points and five rebounds) and Stanley Davis (six points) in the backcourt, and Carr and Tyjhai Byers (two rebounds in five minutes) in the backcourt. The main reason why Byers, the starting center who averaged 14.2 minutes a contest through five games, played minimally was because of the Mount’s four guard sets, and Bozeman isn’t sending Carr to the bench when he has to choose one forward to stay on the floor.
This opening up more playing time for guards Antonio Gillespie (five points in 16 minutes) and freshman Kyson Rawls, who hit three pivotal 3-pointers down the stretch. And for the first time this season, Bozeman played 13 different players, largely due to the search for quality, consistent minutes from his reserves – the main ingredient in February and March.
“I thought we grew up a little bit more,” Bozeman said. “Obviously, we still got a lot of ways to go, but I thought it was a great effort from the guys.”
Morgan State held its largest lead of the night at 53-41 with 8:56 left in regulation, and appeared to be pulled away. But rushed possessions and sloppy turnovers saw its cushion dwindle to one point with 40 ticks to go, a near scare in a game that could have major ramifications come Selection Sunday.
“We need to eliminate those long stretches,” Bozeman said.
Morgan State will enjoy the luxury of a backyard road schedule for the next eight days, when they play at George Washington on Wednesday, Navy on Sunday and Towson next Wednesday.
“These are all day trips for us; no practices or shoot-arounds. … Listen, they can either play the game or practice. And they’re going to choose to play the game,” Bozeman said. “They don’t want to be in [the gym] with my by themselves; they want to be out there with all the witnesses around. Trust me, they are going to take advantage of it. … I just want us to keep growing.”