If you haven’t been following college basketball, don’t worry. Nothing that has happened so far matters.
That’s just how the college basketball season is designed. The emphasis is weighted on the NCAA Tournament and, leading to that, the conference tournaments to decide who will go into the NCAA Tournament. All of it happens in March.
That’s life for about 250 of 351 teams playing Division I basketball, including Texas State. That conference tournament at the end of the year is the sum of all ambition. Win that, and you can pretty easily amortize 15 losses if they helped get you there. You’re in the NCAA Tournament.
Another two dozen teams or so knew when practice began on Oct. 15 that they would be in the NCAA Tournament, almost no matter what. For now, they’re about being the best of the best, maintaining their status and positioning for the best possible NCAA Tournament seed, but these players and programs will be judged entirely on how they perform in March, only to be forgotten within a couple of months, after the NBA has drafted away the best players.
For the other six dozen teams left, the entire season does mean something. Two dozen spots remain to be filled in the NCAA Tournament, and we have these six dozen applicants. These are the so-called “bubble teams,” about whom no detail is too insignificant. Even for these teams, though, later games matter more than earlier games. The selection committee often will separate teams based on which played better during the last 10 games of the regular season.
So, on or about Feb. 1, right about when the Super Bowl is finished, college basketball takes center stage until the start of baseball season in April. Every team has that crack at the NCAA Tournament, and every team has its own path for getting there.
For Texas State, the path is a litte bit complicated. The Bobcats have a new coach this year, Danny Kaspar, who likes a patterned, half-court basketball game. But his players are left over from the old coach, who, for whatever reason, thought he could play racehorse basketball at Texas State, even though the athletes you need to succeed at racehorse basketball probably still haven’t heard of Texas State.
The results have been less than spectacular. The Bobcats are 6-14 overall and 2-4 in the Sun Belt Conference, which is shaping up as a one-bid league. Three of Texas State’s league losses have come by five or fewer points, an indication that the Bobcats might not be far from winning their share against this group.
How far? That question becomes the keynote for the remainder of the season. Can Kaspar take this team so far in one year that it can end the season as a real threat to capture the league’s tournament and it’s NCAA bid?
It’s not far fetched. At all. No one in this league is ten feet tall. The leader right now is Georgia State, 7-0 in the Sun Belt with an 11-game winning streak. For their efforts, the Panthers are 14-7, No. 83 in the latest RPI. But the Panthers don’t have a win against the top 100, going 0-4.
Sadly, a win against Texas State would barely qualify as a win against the top 300, as the Bobcats rank 290th in the newest RPI.
The Bobcats split their games in the Sun Belt this past week. On Jan. 23, they went to Arkansas-Little Rock and lost, 69-64. On Jan. 25, they returned to Strahan Coliseum for a 73-65 win against Troy.
The game in Little Rock goes down as a garden variety of tough road loss. The visitors held a 31-27 halftime lead, then the home team won in the second half in drips and drabs. It was still anyone’s game when UALR held a 53-51 with 8:44 left. But UALR was a point per minute better for the next five minutes and held a 62-54 lead with 3:55 left. One minute later, UALR increased the lead to 65-54, and the game was over.
Again, the Bobcats were killed at the free-throw line, where UALR made 19 of 22. And UALR found its way to the basket much better after halftime. For the first half, Texas State held UALR to 36.4 percent shooting (eight-for-22), but UALR improved to 56 percent (14 of 25) in the second half.
The Troy game might be something of a blueprint for Texas State. Troy made only 38 percent of its shots (19 of 50), while the Bobcats made 51.9 percent (28-for-54). Emani Gant led the Bobcats with 21 points, adding five rebounds and four assists, while Joel Wright scored 16 points with 12 rebounds.
Again, though, opposing free throws continued to hound the Cats. The road team, Troy, went to the line nine more times than the home team, 26 to 17. Troy made 18 and Texas State made 12.
In Sun Belt Conference games, the free-throw line is killing Texas State. Bobcat opponents in the league have gone to the line 138 times, making 98 (71 percent). The Bobcats have gone to the line 89 times, making 66 (74.2 percent). Sun Belt opponents are going to the line eight times more per game than the Bobcats, and making 5.2 of those free throws, on average. Again, the Bobcats have three losses in the league by five points or fewer.
When you see a team changing its defensive approach and getting whistled for a lot of fouls, it’s an indication that players are falling behind their men defensively. But the Bobcats aren’t falling too far behind, because they’ve held most Sun Belt opponents to good field goal percentages. The next step is to do that without fouling so much.
The Bobcats have losses to UALR and Texas-Arlington in which they held the opponent to a low field-goal percentage (UALR was 41.3 on Jan. 2 and UTA was 39.0 on Jan. 18). In each case, the opponent more than made up for it at the free-throw line. UALR made 20-of-25 in a 63-59 win, and UTA made 18 of 22 in a 56-48 win.
One of these days, then, you’re looking for something to click for the Bobcats defensively. Somewhere out there on a practice floor or in a game, there’s a player no longer a step behind the guy he’s guarding. Instead of catching up and fouling, he is positioned in advance. Now, he not only isn’t fouling, but he’s making a good defensive play. When that starts happening, your ball club improves in a hurry.
Now is the time for that to start happening. Twenty games into the season, the coach and his players no longer are strangers.