I was ready to bury the men’s basketball team at the halfway point of the season, especially after a 22-point loss to Hamilton College and a 15-point loss to Elmira College in its first Empire 8 conference game during winter break.
But I have to give credit where credit is due after the team has turned its season around with victories in five of its last six games — including three conference wins on the road and an upset at home against 24th-ranked University of Scranton. Though the team is still below the .500 mark at 7–8, it’s currently positioned quite well in the Empire 8.
After a disappointing 7–18 record last season, the Bombers moved into this season with a much shorter lineup and less experience. This proved to be a detriment to begin the season, as the Blue and Gold lost four of their first five games by an average of about 18 points. Currently, Houghton College is the only team in the Empire 8 with more points scored against per game. The Bombers have given up 78.6 points each game to Houghton’s 80.6.
With 13 guards on the roster, the Bombers have adopted a strategy of pushing the ball as often as possible and putting up the third-most 3-pointers in the conference. But the downside to a fast-paced offense is turnovers, and the Bombers have the lowest turnover margin in the E8 with -2.27.
Also the height matchup has been a disadvantage at times, especially against conference-leading St. John Fisher College. The Cardinals’ sophomore forward Keegan Ryan took advantage of the mismatch by posting 18 points and seven rebounds against the South Hill squad on Jan. 6. Aside from points, the Blue and Gold haven’t fared well in the rebounding column with the second-lowest number of offensive rebounds in the E8 and are being outrebounded by an average of five each game. Part of this has been due to injuries, as junior forward Brad Johanson has missed two games and has been limited in minutes due to lingering back injuries.
However, last week’s victory against Scranton was perhaps a turning point for this team. Despite trailing by as many as 18, the Blue and Gold rallied to force overtime and finished the upset by outscoring the Royals 13–5 in the extra period.
Head coach Jim Mullins said the Bombers won due to spreading the ball around. After the upset victory, the Bombers went on the road and picked up two key victories against Stevens Institute of Technology and Hartwick College to improve their conference record to 4–2. Against Hartwick, the Bombers had five players scoring in the double figures.
“We don’t have a team full of great players, but collectively they’re pretty good,” Mullins said.
The biggest question moving forward for the South Hill squad is consistency. Because the Blue and Gold rely on good scoring outputs and shooting from beyond the arc, they have to keep up their high-scoring production to be successful. Only twice in the past four seasons have the Bombers scored 80 points and lost.
Though questions still remain, history may be on their side. In the past four seasons, the Bombers have gone on the road to win the Empire 8 conference tournament and clinched an automatic NCAA tournament bid. During the 2011–12 season, they snuck into the tournament as the fourth team and beat then 21st–ranked Hartwick on its home court before defeating Nazareth College the next day.
The conference record is the sole factor in deciding which four teams play in the tournament. If the Blue and Gold can beat the same three E8 teams they beat on the road at home later in the season and beat the teams with worse records, they should be able to clinch a spot in the tournament. I’ll give them even more credit if they do.