Viking March Madness in ’05 or just plain madness?

March Madness will soon be over. But while still consumed by it, a truly mad question popped into my mind: Could PSU ascend to college basketball’s biggest stage next year?

“That’s madness!” you say.

Maybe. But a closer examination of the circumstances suggests that on the all-important madness scale, a surprisingly successful PSU season may be a lot closer to the low level madness that might inspire you to lay $5 on Kucinich to win, than the intense insanity that would lead you to wager your life savings that the Jailblazers have truly reformed their image.

Athleticism returns to the Stott Center

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With an 11-15 record, the men’s basketball team more than doubled its win total from the abysmal 2002-03 season (5-22) and established itself as a legitimate contender in the parity-ridden Big Sky Conference. After losing 9 players from the 2002-03 team, including the team’s two top scorers who each started all 27 games the year before, the Vikings started the year with an entirely revamped starting lineup that oozed the athleticism and flash that disappeared from the Stott Center during the last losing campaign.

Blake Walker, a junior college transfer, and Antone Jarrell, who sat out last season after transferring from UTEP, threw down some monstrous dunks that quickly reminded the Viking faithful how exciting college basketball can be above the rim. Seamus Boxley returned from the injury that kept him out for most of the previous season and made a strong case for himself as the most dominant player in the Big Sky, held back only by his propensity for fouls. Boxley and Walker were each named Big Sky Player of the Week, with Walker earning the honor two weeks in a row after scoring the most points in a game by a PSU player in over 20 years.

The other new starters, junior college transfer Will Funn and Marshal Hartman, a redshirt freshman who missed the majority of last season because of injury, showed flashes of the potential that brought them to PSU, but struggled with their roles, Funn turning the ball over and Hartman deciding whether he was a shooter or a post player.

These five new and returning players alone accounted for 76 percent of the minutes played during the season. That doesn’t even take into account Sheu Oduniyi and Nguye Kaladokubo, two other new reserves who saw significant minutes.

Even the most optimistic of fans couldn’t have expected immediate success with such dramatic turnover. Coach Heath Schroyer urged that it would take time for the team to gel.

For some reason it never really happened.

Inconsistency undermines postseason hopes

Despite a number of close finishes and games that slipped through their grasp, the Vikings earned their last place finish in the Big Sky. The team was plagued by inconsistency and averaged the fewest points per game (67), turned the ball over more than any other team (17 turnovers/gm), had the fewest assists (318) and shot the lowest percentage from beyond the 3-pt line (30.7 percent) of any team in the Big Sky. Four surefire ways to lose consistently.

Devastating back-to-back-to-back home losses in January perfectly illustrate the Vikings’ problems. In games against Weber State, Eastern Washington, and Idaho State PSU dominated the entirety or majority of the first half only to disappear as the second halves wound on, succumbing to turnovers and mental lapses. Blake Walker’s reliable early-season scoring disappeared and, despite statistically strong efforts, foul trouble left Seamus Boxley on the bench when he was needed the most.

Yet the Vikings still had a chance to cinch-up a berth in the Big Sky tournament – possibly to even host a first round game. Sadly, they ended the season in a three-game tailspin that left Viking fans, and likely players too, wondering whether the glimpses of something more from earlier in the season were preludes to future success or simply mirages.

The tailspin continued after the season when Hartman, who started more games than any other freshman in the Big Sky and seemed destined for a crucial role in the program’s future, announced he was leaving the team.

A Viking raid on March Madness?

With Hartman in tow, the Vikings would head into the 2004-05 season as the only Big Sky team to return all five starters and the six players who played the most minutes this season (Walker, Boxley, Jarrell, Funn, Hartman and reserve Oduniyi).

But even without Hartman, PSU will retain more of its core than any other Big Sky team by a significant margin. The players who scored 81 percent of PSU’s points and accounted for 75 percent of the minutes played this season are coming back. Compare those numbers with the league average of 45 percent of points returning and 51 percent of minutes played returning.

Having two of the best players in the league, Boxley and Walker, clearly didn’t take the Vikings to the next level this year but having a year together in the same system under their belts, surrounded by the same cast, should help reduce the turnovers and lapses that undid the team this year.

Next year excuses about getting to know each other won’t fly.

In addition to reducing turnovers, the Vikings will need to find some outside shooting to compliment their bruising interior play. This year the Viking defense compensated for the offense’s struggles by intimidating opponents all year. It held opponents to the lowest field goal percentage in the Big Sky (42.7 percent) and dominated the boards with a rebounding margin more than twice as large as the closest team. But defense and rebounding can only take a team so far if it can’t put the ball through the net. Walker, Oduniyi and Jarrell went hot and cold from outside, showing potential, but never establishing the consistency needed to win regularly.

Lastly, when considering PSU’s chances to make it to March Madness, remember that the Big Sky entrant is the winner of the conference tournament and that the Big Sky is one of the weakest conferences in the country. This year’s winner, Eastern Washington, was clearly the best team with an 11-3 record, but the other seven teams were all .500 or below and separated by a mere two games. The top six teams get a berth in the conference tourney and from that point it’s basically a crapshoot for the automatic bid. Next year Eastern Washington loses its coach and two best players, and each of the other Big Sky teams face similar obstacles.

Except the Vikings.

So am I crazy? Is there a chance that next March PSU students could be writing “PSU” in their office brackets? Or has March Madness taken control of my body?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.