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William & Mary tries to manage through defensive struggles

February 19, 2015 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

BOSTON – In the stretch run and vying for the Colonial Athletic Association regular season title, William & Mary has an area of concern. It’s been a very good year for the team, one that is younger than you might think, and they’re right in the thick of things. But the concern showed up again on Wednesday night in Boston.

“It’s exciting to be in this position at this time of year, but it is a little bit of uncharted waters,” said head coach Tony Shaver. “We’ve got to continue to battle, and we will. This team will be battling in the end.”

William & Mary has had a stellar season at the offensive end. The Tribe has been known for its offense under Shaver, especially in recent years as it has been a very good one. They are among the nation’s best at shooting the ball and are loaded with players who can hurt you from long range, led by the leading candidate for CAA Player of the Year in Marcus Thornton, who will soon become the school’s all-time leading scorer.

Proof positive that the defense is where this team wins or loses came in the first half. The Tribe shot 47.6 percent from the field, including 6-14 from long range, and didn’t turn the ball over once. Those are very good numbers; in a vacuum, if you told someone a team did that for a half, you would expect that they at least have a lead, and maybe a pretty good one.

Problem is, they didn’t. Northeastern led by nine after leading by as many as 13, and William & Mary never led as Northeastern scored the first nine points of the game. Simply put, the Tribe did nothing to stop Northeastern, and while you can give credit to the Huskies for a lot of it as they put on a clinic with ball movement at times, some of that goes to the defense. Northeastern shot 63.6 percent from the field, including 7-11 from long range, in the first half. They overcame four turnovers by getting five offensive rebounds and not surrendering a single offensive board to the Tribe.

“It starts with our defense,” said Shaver. “I can’t tell you how hard we work on it, but they made their first five shots tonight, I believe four of them were threes.”

For that matter, the Tribe lost by 11 despite shooting 53.7 percent from the field, including 12-22 from long range. Shaver felt the offense wasn’t as good as those numbers show, owing to some late baskets with the game already decided.

“We were not very good offensively,” said Shaver. “I thought our shot selection was very poor, we were very quick, we didn’t make them guard us at times. I think these statistics are a little misleading offensively.”

What may be concerning is that of the six times William & Mary has allowed an opponent to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, half of them have come in the last five games. In all three games, the opponent has also shot over 40 percent from long range (Northeastern was 9-17 on Wednesday night). As they are just 2-3 in those last five games and have won just once all year when allowing an opponent to shoot over 50 percent, you understand that this team, as good as it is offensively, isn’t built to win shootouts. They need to get stops at the defensive end, as they aren’t built to turn teams over. For much of the season, they have been able to get those stops.

Certainly, it doesn’t help that Daniel Dixon is out with a hamstring injury. While Thornton, who moved into second on the school’s all-time scoring list on Wednesday night and surpassed 2,000 career points, gets a lot of attention, there are few players on this team more valuable than Dixon, their best defender and a versatile offensive player. Dixon is out with a hamstring injury sustained after their win at UNCW on February 7, and has now missed three games. They expect to have him back in action before the CAA Tournament in just over two weeks.

Shaver won’t use Dixon’s absence as an excuse for the struggles of late, but not having the sophomore certainly doesn’t help. Besides what he alone brings to the table, it means three freshmen have been pressed into more minutes and a bigger role than they have had, and perhaps are ready for – especially considering the Tribe is right in the thick of the conference title race.

“They’re good players, and they’re good young players who have been great role players for us,” Shaver said. “They’ve been great role players, but I’m not sure they’re ready for this amount of time on the floor, this many minutes, against a really good basketball team.”

The hope is that this stretch, while it may hurt the Tribe’s tournament seeding, will be one where the younger players grow and are more ready for the conference tournament. With Dixon back, they won’t be in the same expanded roles, but they will be more ready if needed and should be better in the roles they had been in. It could pay off in the long run.

The Tribe has battled through a lot to this point. They had a tough month of December, going 1-4 with two losses being one-possession games while they had their final exams. They have just two seniors who play significant minutes, meaning they have had some growing pains already. Now they have had to go without their best defender, but should have him back. The latest thing to be concerned about is something they can overcome, just like everything else they have faced to this point.

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