Ready for the ‘grind’
Mesa coming together in time for RMAC play to begin
After a rough start, the Colorado Mesa men’s basketball team appears to be on the right track.
With six new faces, including two starters, the Mavericks (2-2) fell behind in their first two games of the season.
Mesa then had two weeks off, playing one exhibition game, to adjust to each other and the new hand-check rule. The Mavs rebounded from a another pair of slow starts last weekend in the Holiday Inn-Airport Thanksgiving Classic with come-from-behind wins over Montana Western and CSU-Pueblo.
“I think we’ve grown a lot with so many new guys in the rotation,” CMU coach Andy Shantz said. “That was really important for us. I knew we’d have to improve every day. It’s a testament to the kids we have in the program. I think we’ve seen that in our quality of play from our opening weekend to the past weekend. Hopefully we can build on it this weekend.”
Their improvement came at the right time.
The Mavericks begin Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference play tonight against Chadron State (3-1), with Black Hills State (2-1) in town Saturday. Both games are at 7:30 p.m. at Brownson Arena.
Chadron and Black Hills were each picked to finish near the bottom of the RMAC this season, but Shantz said there won’t be an easy weekend all season.
“There are a lot of good teams this year,” Shantz said. “Some of the teams that have finished in the lower half in the past are much improved. I don’t see many nights off in conference this year. I think every contest is going to be spirited and extremely tough competition. It’s going to be a grind. We’ll have to be focused to play every time out.”
Chadron State won its first three games, but lost its past two, including an exhibition.
“Chadron possesses a lot of matchup problems,” Shantz said. “We’ll have to be solid in our defensive effort in our dribble penetration. With the new hand-checking rules, it is a difficult matchup. You can’t have too much contact. It’s definitely a challenge.”
Black Hills gave Division I Wyoming fits Monday in an exhibition game before losing 79-65 in Laramie, Wyo. The Yellow Jackets beat Montana State-Billings and Augustana (S.D.).
“Black Hills looked really good (against Wyoming),” Shantz said. “They have four or five guys shoot 40 percent from the 3-point line. We’ll definitely have to arrive with the ball Saturday night. Joey Mitchell was pulling up about seven feet behind the line, guarded, and hitting them.”
Both teams will present a challenge defensively for the Mavericks, who struggled adjusting to the hand-check rule on that end the opening weekend.
“With the new rules, it’s a transition for everybody,” Shantz said. “You always adjust. Our guys have done a pretty good job of keeping their hands off and moving with their feet last weekend. It’s something we’ll have to work on in practice every day and play within those boundaries.”
Mesa will also need to rebound better, Shantz said.
CSU-Pueblo outrebounded the Mavericks and grabbed 15 offensive boards.
“(Rebounding) is an extremely important part of the game,” Shantz said. “Pueblo did a really good job on offensive rebounds. It’s one of those things we had four guys blocking out well and one that wouldn’t. When that one person doesn’t, the ball seems to bounce to the guy that one person didn’t block out. If you can get stops, you can get out and run.”
Mesa also had a season-high 16 turnovers against the ThunderWolves, who like to force turnovers with their press.
“One thing the coaches talked about is our toughness,” junior shooting guard Landon Vermeer said. “That’s not something you saw in the first half against Pueblo. We were turning the ball over. I was a part of that.
“For us to grasp the concept of being tough, it’s an attitude. You want to be mentally tougher than the other guy. It’s all about attitude. That’s one thing we’re building on.”
Mesa’s point guards are first and fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. Daniel Estes is first at 12-to-1. Joe Kiely is fourth at 18-to-2. As a team, Mesa is 70-to-54 (1.29).
“Our turnovers are coming mostly from our post players,” Shantz said. “One of our perimeter guys had a bad weekend. It’s frustrating. If your point guards take care of the ball so well, you feel like you have an advantage there of an extra possession. Some of it is getting familiar with the offense, but that’s somewhere we need to get better.”