Mark McGwire may not be ready to talk about the past, but three weeks seems like ample time to digest the basketball team’s heartbreaking loss in the Big Sky Conference Tournament and try to divine what this season’s success means for the future of the program.
Why no NIT bid?
Quite simply, the Vikings didn’t prove they had earned a bid to the NIT. Losing to a 13-15 Weber State team on your home court is not the way to make a case to play in a national tournament. Big Sky observers and PSU fans know PSU was the best team in the conference, but to outsiders PSU’s credentials weren’t as apparent. Take away the team’s two wins over non-D1 opponents, add in the fact PSU played the 20th easiest schedule in the country, the fact that the Big Sky Conference’s RPI was second to last of all 31 conferences and the fact that only one of the 17 D1 opponents PSU beat finished above .500 and it’s easy to see how PSU’s 19 wins and regular season championship didn’t convince tourney selectors.
As any coach will tell you, all you can do is win the games in front of you. That’s true once the season starts, but before the season starts the coach and the athletic director determine what those games will be. This year’s easy schedule, a weak Big Sky and a string of home games helped the team build confidence but it also undermined the Viks’ postseason chances and denied them opportunities to test themselves in pressure situations against better teams. Victories over six of the statistically worst teams in the country looked good on the record but did little for developing the team.
Next year the Viks will play some of the same patsies including Bethune Cookman (13-17) and Howard (5-23), but should face a more daunting road schedule. In scheduling the last two home games, the Viks should remember that all they need to do for a shot at the Big Sky’s automatic NCAA bid is finish sixth or better and that good losses against strong teams can be worth more than a gaudy record built on victories over nobodies.
Viks took advantage of rebuilding league
In analyzing PSU’s success, much has been made of PSU’s four returning senior starters.
Without doubt they were invaluable, but the team’s success is also due to timing. The Big Sky has long relied on junior college players to fill out rosters and develop into the stars who would otherwise shun its low-profile schools. JC players usually only have two years of eligibility and often take a year to figure out the new systems of the schools they transfer to.
The result is a high turnover rate of top talent and a two-year cycle that benefits teams in the second year. This year, while the rest of the league restocked with fresh JC faces, PSU returned four starting seniors – three of whom had transferred to PSU after their sophomore years. Next year, the top Big Sky contenders Montana and Montana State will return nine of ten starters and PSU will return one. In two years PSU should benefit again.
With that in mind, Coach Schroyer and staff have some gaping holes to fill if next year’s team is to build on this year’s success. Surprisingly, the biggest hole won’t be the one left by departing Big Sky MVP and team captain Seamus Boxley. His unparalleled leadership and talent will be difficult to match, but Anthony Washington, a 6-9 junior transfer from the University of Washington, has the makings of a star and has shown a desire and ability to lead that should help ease Boxley’s departure.
To date, there is not much to ease the departures of the other three senior starters. Jake Schroeder, Josh Neeley and Tyler Hollist – the three new recruits who saw the most playing time this year – all provide solid outside shooting and hustle but have yet to show the athleticism or ball-handling skills that Will Funn, Blake Walker and Antone Jarrell provided. This year Funn’s wizardry camouflaged a team that turned the ball over more than any other Big Sky team (17.2 turnovers/game). Without him things could be bleak. Little-used point guard Dan Stock, a sophomore transfer from Air Force, showed flashes of potential, but Schroyer will likely look to the JC ranks for more help. Walker and Jarrell were the do-it-all creators on both sides of the ball and none of the 11 returning players come close to filling their shoes. Redshirt junior Paul Hafford has the quickest shot on the team and can get to the basket, but won’t fill Walker’s spring-loaded shoes.
Schroyer has signed two high schoolers and is still looking to round out the roster with three or four more players. Scoring an in-state point guard or scorer would not only improve the team’s balance but expand the program’s visibility in the fickle Portland market.