Chris Beard was as upset as I have ever seen him after a win during his post-game press conference. And rightfully so, his team played arguably their worst game of the year, and needed to pull away in the final minute to secure a 71-65 victory over a shorthanded Southern Miss team. Southern Miss is not even in the top 250 in KenPom, and were without two rotation members. The Golden Eagles failed to win a game in the Battle for Atlantis tournament (though in watching film they had decent spurts against Gonzaga and Seton Hall), and are generally overwhelmed against any decent team in the first year under Jay Ladner.
The story of the night was the poor offensive play from the perimeter. Davide Moretti took 17 shots to get 17 points, and endured a horrendous 1-12 first half. Moro had four turnovers with only one assist on offense. Kyler Edwards was pretty terrible shooting, as he went 1-7 from three and yet again shot under 45% from the field. As Chris Beard stated in the presser: the guards have to play better.
The issues were not limited to the guards, despite what some members of the fanbase would say. Terrence Shannon made a couple careless decisions on the fastbreak and was baited into some tough drives by the 2-3 zone. Chris Clare had easily his best offensive impact of the season, but missed multiple crucial rotations on the perimeter and also failed to box out on multiple occasions. T.J. Holyfield was great defensively, but still seems like a checkers piece on a chess board when on offense. He really does not seem to be involved in any sort of set action. Beyond those five nobody got significant minutes or touches. Avery Benson hit a key three late in the first half but made a few big mistakes on defense, leading to more Kevin McCullar minutes down the stretch. McCullar was pretty clearly the best perimeter defender late, and his versatility on both ends allowed Beard to give Southern Miss a variety of different looks. The rest of the bench did not register a single shot attempt, and hardly played as the Red Raiders shortened the rotation.
The first half was mainly dominated by Southern Miss, who opened on a 9-2 run and finished with a dagger three by Gabe Watson (who was tremendous in the midrange area) to put the Golden Eagles up 32-25. The second half was clearly much more crisp for Tech, with Kyler Edwards and Chris Clarke providing the early spark to put Tech back in front at 44-42. Southern Miss responded to retake a lead, but a 9-0 run to put the Red Raiders up 57-51 made life much more comfortable down the stretch. Moretti hit a huge three to put Tech up 67-60, and after a few free throws the score would stand at 71-65. Terrence Shannon had a quiet 18 points to lead the team, while Moretti and Clarke had 17 and 14 points respectively. There was clearly an offensive disconnect, as Tech shot under 38% from the field and had more turnovers than field goals, and both starting guards were abysmal from downtown.
With all that being said: I’m not concerned. There might be individual aspects of this game that were a little alarming, but the result should not be the issue.
The best way to see my point about the result not being alarming is to take a look at Jay Ladner’s Southeastern Louisiana team from last year and their game against Tech. SELA was around the same area from an efficiency (at the time of game SELA was sub-300 in T-rank) standpoint to this Southern Miss team, and like Southern Miss the Lions gave Tech lots of issue. If you read my recap from that game, you will find a lot of the same issues that were prevalent in this one: poor guard play, missed rotations, and generally a deflated team.
That team wound up being alright, and while there were more stretches of poor play last year, nothing compared to the SELA game through the rest of the non-conference schedule. Tech went out and dominated against USC and Nebraska, and eventually went toe to toe with Duke.
The guard play is still concerning, as it was last year, but it’s worth noting that both Moretti and Mooney really struggled with turnovers and poor shot selection early in the year. Moro has to work on his ball handling and decisions, but the shot selection was fine to me. Shooting percentages are the biggest statistically variant offensive stats, and over the course of a season there are bound to be stretches where such variance causes a player to miss expected shots. Edwards has played fine as a primary ball handler in most cases, but his shot selection has to be better. He was a negative shooter from three in high school, and benefited from a low volume of attempts in his freshman year. He’s legitimately improved in every aspect aside from three point shooting (55% from the rim and 41% from midrange are much better than last year), but his three point shooting is hindering the offense at this point. Having Jahmi’us Ramsey back should help both guards have easier looks, and specifically Moretti should benefit from having another positive ball handler and shooter on the court.