EMMITSBURG — In a tale of two halves during Saturday’s 93-78 scrimmage win over Division III Hood College at Knott Arena, the Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball team displayed two contrasting scenarios of how its 2017-18 season might play out.
Just seconds after the final tune-up exhibition became 10 minutes old, the Mount, which boasts 12 freshmen to go along with its trio of established seniors, staked a 32-point lead with its trademark full-court press and a can’t-miss attitude from deep (15 first-half 3-pointers on 23 attempts). Granted the Mount was bigger, faster, stronger, but confidence oozed out of whomever touched the ball in an offense that flowed seamlessly against a tough 2-3 Blazer zone, and only one player — Jonah Antonio — had missed a shot.
Then, suddenly, the scorching start fizzled. A 32-point cushion reclined to 26 at halftime. With under-6 to play in regulation, Hood had reeled to within 74-64 and brought it to single digits shortly after. The same unit that looked unfazed and indomitable from 3-point-land appeared discombobulated. Only two 3-pointers fell the Mount’s way in the second half and turnovers — 23 total — snowballed to a level of extreme discomfort.
That practically summarizes how this season might unfold for the Mount: Stretches of dominance and phases of growing pains, with what could be the least-experienced roster in all of Division I college basketball. Mount coach Jamion Christian, a glass-half-full kind of guy, was just happy he could discern weaknesses and solidify strengths as the season-opener awaits next Friday, Nov. 10 at Marquette.
“Just really enthused with our team. Always love playing this game with Hood. [Coach] Chad Dickman always does a good job with his group. The zone they play is really tough and it’s great experience for our guys to play with a team that has great experience with a zone defense. It’s something we have to get better at every year. We had 23 turnovers today, but I was encouraged with a lot of things we did well,” Christian said. “With the team that we have, with the lack of experience, I think they did a great job of sharing the basketball.
“Sixteen assists, that’s a big number for us. … Obviously, the 17 3-pointers is an encouraging number and will give us an opportunity to play against anybody. Encouraged with a lot of stuff, but we have a lot of stuff we can work on.”
Senior lead guard Junior Robinson finished with a game-high 38 points (11-for-16 overall, 8-for-13 from deep) and four assists in 35 minutes.
— Mount Athletics (@MountAthletics) November 4, 2017
Senior shooting guard Greg Alexander produced 16 points (5-for-8 overall, 3-for-3 from deep) and six rebounds in 28 minutes off the bench. Freshman point guard Donald Carey stuffed the stat line with 15 points (5-for-9 overall, 3-for-5 from deep), seven rebounds, six assists and eight turnovers in 32 minutes. Freshman forward Omar Habwe managed eight points and three boards in 16 minutes off the bench.
Antonio, the redshirt freshman guard who netted 18 on Wednesday against Delaware, went scoreless in the first half and mustered five points on 1-for-6 shooting from deep.
Mount St. Mary’s scored 31 points off 18 Hood turnovers while the Blazers cashed in 25 points off Mountaineer turnovers.
The Mount used a 15-1 run behind treys from Robinson, Alexander, Habwe and Carey to break a 6-6 tie and make it 21-7 at the under-15 mark. After Hood halted a five-minute skid without a field goal, Habwe, Carey and Robinson canned three straight 3’s to swell the lead to 30-9. Alexander and Robinson added two 3’s apiece, which made it 44-12 with 9:23 left in the first half.
The Mount took eight shots from inside the arc in the first half and could only make 2 of 8 attempts from deep in the second. Christian shook off the question of any worry surrounding the reliance to make shots from outside the arc and attributed the drastic falloff on Saturday to sloppy, unforced turnovers, which suppressed the Mount’s chances to maintain a free-flowing offense.
“When you look at the turnover numbers, you have guys who are trying to make some plays that our team doesn’t need to be doing and we’re not asking them to do that. That’ll come with experience,” said Christian, who added the 31 tries from deep is right below the target of 3-point tries per game.
Mount St. Mary’s downed Delaware in overtime on Wednesday in a hurricane relief exhibition, 84-82, and will now look to Marquette next Friday.
“We just need to keep learning and making progress as a team,” Robinson said. “There’s a lot of things we do well. Marquette is going to be very hard, so we have to be prepared for it and take it in stride.”
Letting it fly: Christian and company aren’t hiding their motive to come out and jack up 35-plus 3-pointers a game. On Saturday, 23 of their 31 first-half shot attempts came from deep and on Wednesday versus Delaware, the Mount attempted 36 looks from beyond the arc. Through two exhibitions, 67 of 115 shot attempts are from 3-point range — a whopping 58.3 percent.
“Those are the kind of shots we are looking for,” Christian said.
Luckily, they’ve made 46.3 percent of those (31 of 67). For perspective, Marquette led the nation last year in 3-point shooting with a 42.9 percent mark.
Christian on if there’s any worry on relying too much on the 3-ball: “Not at all. Looking at this, I don’t think we took enough 3’s in the second half. We only took eight 3’s in the second half. Went 15 of 23 in the first, the way the game was being played today, I’m a little disappointed we only took eight in the second half. Should’ve been 12 to 14. We have great outside shooters. We have guys who can make shots consistently.
Defensive lapses: Usually, Christian remains upbeat even in the bleakest of circumstances. But on Saturday, he openly expressed his displeasure on the defensive end of the floor. Last year, the Mount ranked in the top third nationally in 3-point field goal defense (34.1 percent) and 82nd in points allowed per game (68.7). Though it’s a small sample size, Delaware and Hood have combined to shoot 50 percent from deep (21 of 42) and average 80 points a game. A lot of this has to do positioning, as 12 of 15 players are experiencing their first go-arounds at the college basketball level. Starting three offensive-minded players in Antonio, freshman forward Bobby Planutis and sophomore center Ryan Gomes could have a lot to do with the lapses as well. Whatever it is, the Mount need to figure it out quickly as they open with the team that led the nation in 3-point field goal percentage last year in Marquette.
“We’re giving up way too many 3’s,” Christian said. “Last year’s group did a great job with that. The way we play, we got to be an elite team from 3. I just don’t know if our group is understanding that. Nine 3’s tonight, 12 the other day. It’s way too many 3’s we’re giving up. We need to give up five 3’s a game. I think our pressure isn’t enough. It will be interesting to see if we ramp up our pressure and change our positioning and how that will change our defense. … And then I’m looking at the size of the guys we have and I’m thinking we should never give up 19 3’s.”
Freshman 6-foot-10 center Ace Stallings carving out a role as an ‘elite defender’: In the beginning weeks of camp, many thought freshman 6-10 center Ace Stallings would need another year before he’s ready for the college level. Through two exhibition games, Stallings has logged the sixth-most minutes on the team (21.0), largely due to the dire need of rim protection because of the absence of senior forward Chris Wray (wrist). Stallings has taken advantage of the opportunity. His three blocks in two exhibitions lead the team and his six total rebounds are tied for fourth. He also took a pair of charges on Saturday night and forced Hood into many awkward situations inside the paint.
“He’s a great defender, and we really need that with this team. We’re trying to get better defensively. … He’s really emerging as an elite defender for us,” Christian said. “I love what we have at that center spot between him and Ryan Gomes. We’ve got two style of guys at that position that can both finish at the rim and block shots and do a great job at positioning. We just have to keep it on those guys. … I love that two-headed monster.”