Friday, November 20, 2015

Thoughts on Opening Night and Season Expectations

The Calvin men's basketball team tips off tonight, I thought I'd lay down some thoughts to get my head around the season.

Calvin suffered substantial roster losses between last year and this year -- graduating four players and having one of the top freshmen decide not to return -- which has made it difficult for me to peg this season.

When the roster came out last month, I was surprised to find 17 names listed. That's not the norm for a Kevin Vande Streek team. Usually we see 14 or maybe 15 names.

But perhaps even more unusual than the number of players was they way they were used in Tuesday's exhibition game at Northwood. Ten players saw the floor so we got a good idea of the playing rotation:

Starter Bench
G Parks Kronemeyer
G Visser Canonie
G Daley Drews
F Denney Wilks
F Welch VanEngen

There's nothing really unusual here -- except maybe that six of the ten players are listed as guards -- but the minute distribution is where things get interesting. Vande Streek didn't expand his rotation beyond a "normal" ten players, and two of the players saw the floor for only 11 minutes.

The starters didn't necessarily play heaps of minutes -- Welch led the way with 27 -- but the team appeared to jump right into an exhibition game with a rotation that was already relatively tight.

I'm not really sure what that means. It seems like if any of the other seven players were going to be contributors this season that they would have gotten into the game to get their feet wet, but that might not be a correct assessment. We'll have to see how things unfold in the coming weeks.

It's clear that Calvin is going to play small this year. Two years after nominally starting Dyler Dykstra at the 3 and Jordan Daley at the point, Calvin will be running out three guards on most occasions. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Calvin remains a relatively big team for Division III (or, at least, not a small team), and going guard-heavy should allow their offense to operate more in the spread-the-floor-and-shoot-threes style. Not that they weren't three-ball heavy last year or in past years, but they've typically found a Tyler Kruis or John Mantel to play inside-out with. I don't think Calvin can do that this year.

Neither Welch nor Denney appear to me to be able to generate a ton of offense for themselves in the post. Perhaps I'm incorrect there. Jordan Daley, I think, will be the team's best post scorer, and he thrives on mismatches against the other team's 2 or 3.

At any rate, shooting three pointers worked tremendously against Northwood. There's no way they can shoot 55% for the season -- and there's evidence that Northwood is simply a bad defensive team -- but Calvin has several players who should have the green light to shoot from range when they find themselves open. As long as this doesn't turn into settling for long-range two point jump shots as well, I'll take this kind of offense all day every day. It's no secret that I love the three point shot.

If we can take real science data away from a one-game exhibition sample (and we probably shouldn't), it's that Parks, Visser, Denney, Canonie, Drews, Wilks, and Daley (more from history) can all knock down threes when given an opportunity. There's no Jordan Brink, but perhaps the offense can still find a way to hum.

Defense is another story. Calvin was poor defensively against Northwood, but they're perhaps a good Division II offense, so maybe they weren't the best measuring stick. Calvin is going to have to defend well to be successful and compete for the league this year. They weren't a particularly good defensive team last season, but they were so good offensively that some of the miscues were covered up and they still won games. I'm not sure that happens this year.

So let's talk about expectations. Calvin's coming off of a very good three-year run that saw them win two league titles, three MIAA tournament titles, reach two Sweet 16s, and reach the Round of 32. The 2013 squad in particular might have been Final Four good, but they had to play at (eventual Final Four team) St. Thomas in the Sweet Sixteen, losing by a single point at the buzzer when the final shot rimmed out.

I think it's unreasonable to expect more of that to just continue. The MIAA coaches voted Calvin third in the preaseason poll, a spot that makes some sense. I might actually swap Alma and Trine in the projected finish myself, but I think 2,3,4 are going to find themselves in a dogfight. It's Hope's title to lose.

I think Calvin's 50-percentile projection for this season is 16 or 17 totals wins and an eventual third place finish in the MIAA standings. In this case there will be flashes of greatness, stretches of facepalm, and some hope for the coming years. If you could run the season 1,000 times (given current unknowns, etc.), half the time they would perform better than this and half the time worse. Sometimes you catch breaks and sometimes you don't.

But I also think there exists a 90-percentile scenario whereby Calvin wins 19-20 games and either finishes atop the league or wins the MIAA Tournament. In this scenario Jordan Daley becomes a legitimate MIAA MVP candidate, Calvin becomes a defensive juggernaut (particularly on the perimeter), and everyone is capable of knocking down three pointers on offense. 90% of the scenarios are not this, but maybe 5-10% are. The aforementioned 2013 team did basically this, but they had a few more established players heading into the season.

On the flip side, the 10-percentile projection is Calvin repeating 2012 and finishing .500 in fourth place. It's hard for me to see Calvin completely dropping out of the MIAA Tournament (though fifth place would be possible here), but the floor of this squad is that of only a middling Division III team. The schedule is a difficult one this season, and in my most pessimistic of moods I see lots and lots of loseable games.

But this season isn't about pessimism vs. optimism. It's about enjoying the ride we're on right now, wherever that might take us.

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