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New season, same challenge for New Hampshire

November 15, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – There were some positives in New Hampshire’s season-opening 58-50 loss at Boston College on Friday night. The Wildcats made it tough on Boston College with their defense, they out-rebounded the Eagles and they had an early lead. They tried to make a game of it in the second half after BC appeared to be in control. They were in it despite being short-handed. All of those things bode well for the rest of a long season.

In the end, though, it’s a game they lost, and they’re not about to start talking about moral victories, even while taking a long view. And if they take a long view, the reality is that the new season has already seen an old problem for the Wildcats: scoring.

“It’s the same old thing,” said head coach Bill Herrion. “We have to eventually figure out how to score. We have to score. If we can score, we’re going to be fine.”

Last season, the Wildcats averaged less than 58 points per game and shot below 38 percent from the field. That continued a downward trend from two seasons earlier, but that’s not all. The trend has been all downhill since the 2007-08 team averaged 67.6 points per game and shot a still-poor 39.2 percent from the field. Since a year after that, they have largely hovered in the 57-60 point range and from around 37 to 40 percent shooting.

The Wildcats haven’t had great talent. It’s a tough place to lure talent to, though they have certainly tried. But they haven’t lacked it, either, though injuries have also hurt them over the years. Still, this has been a problem for much of Herrion’s tenure, to where the mark of his teams has been that they will defend and make life difficult for the opposing offense, but can’t score enough to win many games.

This edition of the Wildcats has offensive talent, and Herrion is optimistic. You could see it on Friday night, with much-improved sophomore Jaleen Smith and freshman Tanner Leissner leading the way. Smith had six turnovers, but scored 14 points and handed out four assists, and for stretches he was a real thorn in BC’s side. You can see how he can get in the lane and create for himself and others. Leissner was among the beneficiaries, leading the Wildcats with 17 points on 5-9 shooting, including 2-3 from long range.

“He’s the most improved player in our program from last year,” Herrion said of Smith. “We beat Duquesne in the second game of the year last year, and he didn’t get off the bench.”

The Wildcats were without two players on Friday night who could certainly help them, and a third was limited. Joe Bramanti, who transferred from Wright State and figures to start, injured an oblique muscle and could not go. They are hopeful of getting him back soon, and while he will help them offensively, his toughness will be a big help defensively as well. Matt Miller, who they are high on as a shooter, is suspended for the first three games of the season.

Besides that, Jacoby Armstrong played just 16 minutes on Friday night. Armstrong, who has the highest ceiling of their post players, is still dealing with the effects of off-season surgery on both toes. He has been limited in practice, and while foul trouble was part of it (he had four fouls in those 16 minutes), he didn’t look right.

“It was supposed to be a 6-8 week recovery, it’s turned out to be about 2-3 months,” Herrion said. “I tried to extend his minutes a little tonight, but you could tell there was some rust, his timing was a little bit off.”

New Hampshire held Boston College below 36 percent shooting, including just 1-19 from long range, and out-rebounded the Eagles 39-35. They forced 11 BC turnovers against five assists. Some of that was on the Eagles, but the Wildcats also helped take them out of what they wanted to do. Where BC won it was a 32-14 edge in points in the paint.

The long view suggests that the Wildcats will get better, and that the conference season matters most. Still, winning games in non-conference helps greatly, especially for confidence, and Friday’s was a winnable game. They showed that they will guard you, as has been the case. That’s a big plus, and is something even BC head coach Jim Christian highlighted with his team in how they persevered on Friday night when New Hampshire was in control for a good deal of the first half.

“The hardest thing to do in basketball is continue to guard when you don’t make shots,” said the BC mentor.

New Hampshire seems to have that covered, which suggests they have already conquered a big obstacle. As a new season begins, the challenge is an old one: scoring enough to win games.

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