The Cougar basketball team is taking on the Mississippi State Bulldogs tomorrow afternoon, and it's this game, probably more than any other non-conference game, that head coach Tom Penders has been pointing his guys toward. This is the game he discussed the most in off-season chats, and it's this game that, along with conference games with Tulsa, Memphis, and UTEP, that will probably make or break the Coogs' NCAA tournament chances.
The 8-2 Bulldogs aren't currently ranked -- thanks to an opening game loss to Rider -- but they've been getting votes and Penders believes that they'll make the top 10 before the season is out. But besides their national credentials, the Bulldogs will bring something that the Cougars haven't really had to deal with this year, a strong inside defensive presence led by 6-9 forward Jarvis Varnado, who is one of the nation's best shot-blocking threats.
The Cougars are going to need more than the standard strong games from guards Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis. The entire team will need to help, especially the bench. Penders has been playing a pretty small rotation in most games, generally seven or eight guys, but he wants to get that rotation up to ten. He'll need the expansion if he's going to have any chance of using what height and bulk he does have, which include freshmen forward Kirk Van Slyke -- who has been getting the bulk of big-guy time -- and juco transfers Maurice McNeil and Kahmell Broughton.
If Penders does lengthen the bench, he's going to be lengthening it for the purposes of bettering the team's defense, a defense which has been somewhat lacking early this season. It's a defense with which neither Penders nor his players are satisfied.
"It's nowhere near where I want it," Penders said Sunday. 'But a lot of it is who we're playing. We're playing good teams. I don't think people understand or respect that. You can look at a stat sheet, build a great stat sheet, and say we're playing great defense playing a bunch of guys who can't shoot....but our defense is nowhere near where it'll be in late January."
The Cougars had some defensive problems during last Sunday's game against Troy. Part of this was due to Penders' decision to give up the drives to the lane and force the threes. Part of it was due to rust from the team having not played in over a week and with practice schedules being irregular due to finals. But part of the problem was just the players not doing what they were supposed to be doing.
"There was a little of miscommunication," Lewis said. "We were putting the pressure on the ball, when you do that, when you put the pressure on the ball, there are going to be times people get around you. We've just got to do a little better job of rotating and talk a little bit more on [defense]."
And though Penders is struggling with finding a way to get freshman Nick Haywood into games due to the team's bounty of guards, Haywood's ability to play defense may result in some more playing time
"The way [Haywood] played tonight, I know he can shoot the ball, he can score, but he's also a very good defensive player for a freshman," said Penders. "Most freshman are less than fabulous defensively. He is a good defensive player."
But Penders needs to extend the bench for more reasons than just trying to get some more defense on the floor. His team, after having played just two games this month, is now facing four games in ten days.
Lewis isn't too worried about this in that he feels Penders' practices keep the team prepared for these kind of stretches.
"We're used to it," he said. "The way that we practice, the way that we push each other every day in practice, it's a grind, every day. You know that you've got to be mentally ready for it. These four games in ten days, we're going to be ready for it."
The team better be prepared for it because this stretch features four very good teams in the Bulldogs, The Citadel -- which came close to upsetting Michigan State last week -- TCU and Louisiana Tech.
"We're playing good basketball teams...." Penders said. "All these teams were high RPI teams last year. You're going to see a team like The Citadel come in here [that] almost beat Michigan State last week. They're coming in here. TCU is very good. We don't have any sisters of the poor on the schedule."
But before they can prepare for those other games, they've got to get past Mississippi State tomorrow. And tip-off is fast approaching.
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