Hope, and a Hill to Climb
March 7, 2018
FRISCO, TEXAS — Nobody moved the rims up a foot or changed the rules, but other than that, Louisiana Tech’s Dunkin’ Dogs have caught few breaks this season.
The reasons are the usual suspects, but the variety of issues and the timing of each has also played a part in the Bulldogs limping into tonight’s Conference-USA Tournament first-round matchup as a 10 seed against 7-seed North Texas at 8:30 here at The Star.
Tech is 16-15 overall, 7-11 in the league, and, on the bright side if you are a Bulldogs fan, a 2.5-point favorite over the Mean Green, a team Tech beat Jan. 18 in Ruston. By a point, of course, 66-65.
Nothing has been easy for this team.
Last season, the Bulldogs were 23-10 overall, 14-4 in the league and seeded second in the C-USA Tournament. (If you’ll remember, painfully, they lost to Marshall, 93-77, in the tourney semis as the Thundering Herd made 19 three-point shots. Nineteen. That’s firecracker hot. Buckets were flying in from all over Birmingham.)
But again, all that is so last season…This season is a much different ballgame for a team picked to finish third in C-USA.
Why didn’t they? Why didn’t they finish third — or first or second or even eighth or ninth?
Remember the fall and the football Bulldogs, when everybody was getting hurt and a heartbreaking, even historical number of games were getting lost by a point?
This was sort of like that, except without the pads and helmets.
There was that stretch from right after Thanksgiving until right after Christmas when the Dunkin’ Dogs lost five games by 5 points or less. DaQuan Bracey, the fun-to-watch, never-seen-a-drive-he-didn’t-like guard and C-USA Freshman of the Year last season, hurt is back and was limited a third of the way through the season. He’s still not 100 percent.
Joniah White, the loveable shot blocker and the only 7-footer on either the Ruston campus or the team, and I suspect in the parish, announced in early February he would retire from basketball due to a heart-related medical issue, something a lot of people were hoping for because of his health uncertainties but also because of his warm nature and potential as a difference-making coach down the line. No one saw that coming when he was a three-star recruit from Duck Hill, Miss., in 2014.
He’ll be with the team through the postseason, still a positive influence. He just can’t suit up.
So Jacobi Boykins, essentially a 6-6 guard who’s a swingman, ends up being the only senior on the active roster. He’s leading the team in scoring (14.6 points a game) and rebounding (5.0). But he’s not supposed to be the only senior playing a ton of minutes.
LaBarrius Hill is a 6-8 JC guy you read about in May of 2016 when he signed to play for Tech. He played this year and last season — for McNeese State.
Omar Sherman averaged 10 a game last season, 6-9 and another JC transfer. But he wasn’t so keen on doing classwork and…he left. Jalen Harris, an All-Freshman Team selection a year ago, was leading the team in scoring early this season. That was right before he quit.
So your starters, most likely, would have been White, Bracey, Harris, Sherman, and Boykins. Football had lots of missed starts due to injury but was lucky enough not to lose four-fifths of its starters, and the Bulldogs regrouped and won their last three games, the finale in a DXL Frisco Bowl blowout. You lose one key guy in hoops, then two, or four — and make a couple of those your leading scorers — it’s a whole new team. Fortunes can swing much more quickly in basketball than in football.
“Every time you evaluate when recruiting, you’re making educated guesses,” Tech head coach Eric Konkol said. “Experience tells you certain things. But some things you can’t foresee — some circumstances you can’t foresee — as you go along. The amount of changes now that happen with transferring and grad transfers, I would say is the biggest change in basketball, in recruiting, since I’ve been in it. With the number of players leaving programs or transferring all across college basketball, it’s fairly evident.
“Each one of those guys left our program for different reasons,” he said. “I always want what’s best for the player and for the family. But my focus is always on our guys, the guys on the team now, who we have now and the opportunity we have now.”
That’s what Konkol really wants to talk about. Not yesterday. Not who’s not on the team. On the eve of the postseason, he wants to talk about March, and the madness, and the hope, and who IS on the team. “You see so many March miracles in the NCAA Tournament, in conference tournaments,” he said. “The upsets. The incredible competition. People putting it all on the line. You see so many moments, and then when the ‘One Shining Moment’ plays after the NCAA Finals and you see all those visuals, things that have happened either that night or in the past month, it’s special.
“This time of year is all about hope,” he said, “and opportunity.”
“There’s a reason why they call it March Madness,” said Kane McGuire, Tech’s media relations point man for men’s basketball. “They don’t call it March Predictable.”
Because you never know.
Konkol knows for sure that you never know. And here’s why.
In 2006, George Mason became the first mid-major since Larry Bird and Indiana State to reach the Final Four. They did it by beating Michigan State, then No. 3-seed North Carolina, then 7-seed Wichita State, then No. 1 seed UConn. The Patriots were down by 12 in the first half against the Huskies, down by nine in the second, and won in overtime. Tony Skinn, a Tech assistant coach in today’s game against North Texas, scored 10 that game as a guard for the Patriots.
Konkol, who had worked with the George Mason program the year before and would coach there the year after, coached a high school team in 2006. On a 2006 March Saturday, his team won the state championship. The next day, George Mason beat UConn to advance to the Final Four. Konkol and his wife Meagan spent Final Four week back with the Patriots.
“In March,” Konkol said, “stuff can happen.”
For good stuff to happen to the Bulldogs this week, it all starts on the defensive end. In that way, this team mirrors its sister squad, the No. 3-seed Lady Techsters, who earned a bye and will play Thursday as a 3-seed at 2 p.m. at The Star.
“What I like most about our team is that I’m confident we can compete if we play consistently,” Konkol said. “If we play consistently at both ends of the floor, we feel like we can match up with anybody in the league. But we have to compete on both ends.
“Our troubles have been in being consistent,” he said. “We have good young talent to go along with our upperclassmen. They’ve been trying all year, with the changes we’ve had, to find their way. I’m proud of them. We’re close. If we play hard and sound defense and be active on that end, I think it’ll help our offense and help us get into a good rhythm.”
The Bulldogs have earned a bye in each of their first four years in the league, two of those byes coming as a league champ or co-champ. But they haven’t won the title. And this time, they didn’t earn a bye.
“Might as well try winning it in four games,” McGuire said. “We’ve had no luck playing three.”
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