The story of the 2019-2020 Billikens is turning into that of a team that wins games but does so in an ugly fashion every single night. Early in the season, it seemed the Bills were figuring it out and turning themselves into that NCAA tournament team fans felt they were. With all of those efforts culminating into that blowout win over Tulane. Since then the Bills have had tight game after tight game.
Then Gibson Jimerson goes down for the season, and all hell has broken loose. The game with UMass is a microcosm of all the problems the Billikens have faced and will continue to face going forward because of the sharpshooter’s injury.
The Billikens are an unfortunately one-dimensional team on offense right now. They can pound you in the paint, and that’s about it. They have the tools to be a great rebounding team and a great passing team, but because of how one dimensional their scoring is, it is easy to sell out on that one thing and eliminate all the options surrounding it.
In response to that, UMass Minutemen spent virtually the entire game packing the paint, putting two or three guys on Hasahn French, and eliminating passing lanes to the interior for anyone. Ultimately this led to a plethora of turnovers and fruitless three-pointers. In a way, UMass didn’t beat SLU’s offense with quality of defense, but with the ability to have a quantity of it.
The Minutemen picked their poison in saying they were okay with SLU taking threes, so long as it’s a struggle inside. That decision was made even more comfortable for UMass when it was clear Javonte Perkins, or Tay Weaver wasn’t going to be getting it going from deep.
The adjustment the Billikens made to this defensive strategy was to try and pick up the pace and use the passing ability of Yuri Collins, Jordan Goodwin, and Hasahn French to create offense. What this ultimately led to being was the Bills playing an out of control game that was forcing things far too often and turning over the ball regularly. The fundamentals of this plan of attack worked in sparks, which leads me to believe that maybe the immediate answer for finding new offense. But far more often than it being that solution, it resulted in the Billikens pressing their luck with reckless passing leading to turnovers and easy points for the Minutemen.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Billikens were better than the box score would indicate. SLU forced 23 turnovers and highlighted in the second half how lethal the 1-3-1 zone could be for them with the right personnel group. The biggest defensive problem doesn’t even come from the defense in that of the 80 points scored for UMass, 23 of them were from turnovers. And while yes, basketball is a complete game, if you isolate what the defense did away from how weak the ball control on the offense was, it wasn’t nearly as harrowing.
Major credit to UMass in how they played Sunday, Sean East and Tre Mitchell are going to star in the A-10 in the future. They came in with a game plan and executed it and put the Billikens on the run. The Bills were playing to the Minutemen and had their back against the wall almost all night. That being said, the Bills have a problem in the diversity of their game. They lost a core piece to how the offense functions (or is allowed to function) and are scrambling to understand how to solve that problem.
Part of that solution in order for the Billikens to take the next step and evolve into the team fans feel they can be; they need their role players to step up. Travis Ford highlighted this in his post-game presser. “I told our team this; we have two guys on this team who give you a chance to win any game. Against anybody. Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French give you a chance to win any game you play. I told this in front of the team, and they all know that. They give us a chance. We gotta have everyone else contributing…we can ride them (French and Goodwin), but everyone else gotta contribute. It can be different guys different nights.”
Fortunately, Demarius Jacobs showed up and had one of his breakout games after disappearing for a stretch and not impacting the last 5-6 games. Yuri Collins added 9 assists and again had clutch plays down the stretch. The Billikens got part of the answer against UMass, but Yuri still had 7 turnovers, and Demarius went missing in the second half until turning it on in overtime and sealing the win for the Bills.
The Billikens won ugly, but a win is a win. Conference play is a different animal than other games, and at the end of the day, you take the win and learn from those mistakes. Travis Ford was of that mindset post when he opened his statement saying, “I was reading a quote today on twitter that someone wrote, good teams figure out a way to win, even when you don’t play your best…we played hard, but we made really poor decisions at times. I told our team, every single guy that played made several positive plays, big plays for us at some point. But every single player has to cut out 2-3-4 mistakes that are holding us back from playing the way we’re capable.”
It is not like Travis Ford is one to soften his blows on his team for the media, he has been largely critical of his team’s effort at times this season, so to hear him praise that he sees it as a positive takeaway is encouraging. The Billikens can learn how to make better decisions, they can practice that to an extent. The Bills are in a rough spot right now, but there is light at the end of the tunnel if you are willing to look hard enough.