The basketball seasons opened with a bang this weekend. Despite all the thrills, both the men’s and women’s season openers ended up being too close to call. While the women’s team pulled out a nice win, the men’s team had their chances and let them slip away in a difficult loss.
Coach John Chaney’s team has lost four straight season openers. This was one of a few key games for the Owls if they want to make a strong run at the NCAA Tournament. But it’s late November, so let’s avoid the tourney talk.
Realistically, the men’s team will not win games at Duke or Maryland, or their home date with No. 2 Wake Forest. That’s why games versus South Carolina, Arizona State, Villanova, Princeton and Alabama are so crucial.
The one encouraging aspect from the Auburn loss is that freshman guard Mark Tyndale and sophomore forward Wayne Marshall are legitimate players. Tyndale, who nearly became a hero during his debut, showed the ability to shoot and defend, and shook off any nerves as a freshman starter. His sterling play has already earned him the first Atlantic Ten Rookie of the Week award this season.
Marshall looked steady as he sunk a pair of field goals down the stretch and looked unfazed finding position down low. He had 12 points and nine rebounds in his debut.
With junior Mardy Collins and the emergence of sophomore Dustin Salisbery, Chaney now has four reliable scorers for the first time in a long time.
So what’s missing? A stellar defense capable of making stops and defending the three- point arc. After the Tigers netted 14 treys in the first half, Chaney switched up defenses, at times going to a full-court press and then man-to-man. It slowed down Auburn, but it was too late.
“We went to a different defense and tried to extend them out to half court,” Collins said. “And we just wanted to get out to the corners and match up with them, because they were running five guards out. And Coach wanted us to match up with them, so that’s why we went to man.”
The trend with Chaney’s teams is that they struggle mightily at the start of the season and turn things up a notch when the pedestrian A-10 schedule opens. However, in recent years, the Owls have not been able get away with this, making the early part of the schedule critical for their tournament positioning.
Coach Dawn Staley’s team did just the opposite this weekend. The women’s team pulled out a game it was supposed to win, and this could be a prevailing trend, as it was last year. The women won all the games they were supposed to in 2003-04, while the men’s team floundered in inconsistency.
Tonight, the women face one of the top teams in the nation with Louisiana State rolling into town. In short, the Owls can’t compete with LSU yet, nor are they likely to threaten Tennessee or Rutgers. At best, these games are good barometers for the team’s progression.
With all of their current success, it’s easy to forget that Staley’s team has three seniors, but a bevy of grizzled sophomores and juniors to steer the ship in the future.
Staley is near the end of her reconstruction of the women’s program as it improves to become a regular NCAA Tournament team. Another A-10 title and NCAA berth, and you can consider them the best team on campus, with center Candice Dupree the top athlete.
What’s even more impressive is the team should be a success without former McDonald’s all-American guard Britney Jordan, who is sitting out this season due to academic problems. The main reason the women have responded so well without Jordan is the outstanding play of sophomore Kamesha Hairston, Jordan’s recruiting classmate from last year.
So while Staley has the Owls on the cusp of becoming a formidable program, Chaney is searching for the right combination of talent to get back into contention. Both teams have similar goals but vastly different routes ahead of them.
The journeys tipped off last weekend and shouldn’t conclude until March.
Jason Haslam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.