The IUP Crimson Hawks have a big weekend ahead, and to get ready for it, they have been playing a game of Beat the Clock.
IUP opens the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region basketball tournament at noon Saturday at East Stroudsburg. IUP (23-4), the third seed, takes on West Chester (20-9), the sixth seed, in the opening game of the eight-team tournament.
Tournament pairings were announced late Sunday night, and while most of a week might seem like a long time to get ready for a game, there’s more to tournament preparation than implementing a scouting report for the first opponent.
The Crimson Hawks have to adapt in several areas.
For starters, there’s the earlier tipoff time. IUP played in the evening in all but six of its games, including the last 13. The usual starting time is 7:30 p.m.
“You’re always more comfortable playing at times you’re used to,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said.
“Most times teams practice in the afternoon and play at night, so there’s a little bit of difference. But the last week we had a couple two-a-days over the weekend, and we practiced Thursday morning before classes, so we put a little bit of thought and work going into the process of getting our clocks adjusted and getting mentally prepared to play at any earlier time.”
Another issue is a long layoff. The Crimson Hawks have not played since March 4, a span of 11 days between games, and prior to that they had a six-day break between the end of the regular season and the conference playoffs. By the time Saturday’s game tips off, IUP will have played one game in 17 days.
“As a coach, you worry about everything. You always worry about something that’s different,” Lombardi said. “Having a long layoff is somewhat unique so I’m concerned with that. Playing at noon, I’m concerned with that. But at the end of the day if a team is going to be good, one thing you have to be good at is adapting. If you’re not good at adapting, then you’re not really a championship-caliber team. If the stars have to be lined up just right, the lighting in the gym has to be perfect, the ball has to be perfect and the temperature in the gym has to be perfect, if all that has to be perfect, then you’re not going to be a championship team.”
Then there’s the issue of a quick turnaround for the team that wins in the opening round. The winner plays Sunday at 5 p.m. against the West Liberty-Glenville State winner. That leaves little time to go over a scouting report on an unfamiliar opponent.
“Monday and Tuesday we spent a lot of time getting ready for some things we might see other teams do in the second round because there’s a quick turnaround,” Lombardi said. “You don’t want to overload and confuse the kids, but there are different styles we haven’t played this year so you want get that out of the way early in the week. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we focus on the team that we’re playing first.”
Another concern centers around Marcel Souberbielle, a senior forward who was injured in IUP’s previous game, a loss to Mercyhurst in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. Souberbielle, IUP’s leading scorer at 15.8 points per game, suffered what was first feared to be a groin injury but has since been diagnosed as a hip pointer. He is expected to play, but it is unclear whether he will be able to turn in his usual 30-plus minutes.
“He’s improved, but he hasn’t practiced,” Lombardi said. “You prepare a lot of guys during the course of the year to play multiple positions and to be able to adapt, and going into the tournament we feel confident whether Marcel is able to contribute or not at this point.”
If Souberbielle can’t play or is limited, that will lead to some position changes. Mathis Keita, a guard/forward, and Jeremy Jeffers, a forward/center, will play more minutes at forward. In addition, Devon Cottrell, Manny Yarde, Jesse Bosnik and Kalusha Ndoumbe Ngollo will see extended minutes off the bench.
“We think we have some areas covered,” Lombardi said, “but there will just be a greater need for our bench to produce some more points than they normally have this year.”
Of course, the main issue is the opponent. West Chester, which finished second in the PSAC East, played its way into the NCAA tournament last weekend, knocking off Gannon for the second time this season in the conference semifinals before losing to East Stroudsburg in the championship game.
“West Chester is a very athletic and quick team,” Lombardi said. “Overall they have better team quickness than we do, and they’re very active with their pressure guarding the ball, whether playing full court or even in their zone. They’re very active with their hands and put a lot of pressure on you. From an offensive standpoint, we have to make sure we contain them in transition — they’re an excellent transition team — and then they do a nice job offensive rebounding off shots taken off dribble penetration.”
Most PSAC West teams are known for playing deliberate, half-court games on offense. Most PSAC East teams are known for pushing the pace. West Chester averages 80.7 points per game, 10 more than IUP.
IUP is comfortable playing at a faster pace. One of the Crimson Hawks’ most impressive stretches came in a four-game span in late January and early February when they unleashed an offense featuring transition in the full court and dribble penetration in the half court.
“We’re comfortable in the open court,” Lombardi said. “We have a lot of ballhandlers, guys that can pass and do the basic fundamentals in the open court of passing and dribbling and finishing. I really don’t know if any one style suits us better than another to play against, but we have a certain amount of confidence against teams that might pressure full court and against teams that might force you to go off the dribble. We have a team built to play different styles.”
Defensively, West Chester uses a full-court zone press and a 3-2 zone and man-to-man in the half court.
“They play a lot of different defenses and try to disguise some defenses, and they do a good job with that,” Lombardi said. “They play some pressure up the court, zone-type pressure, and in the half court they play some 3-2 zone and switching man. But they make you think and react a lot and never give you an opportunity to settle in and get comfortable against a certain defense. They make you think and react, and we have some players that are pretty good at handling that.”