Sunday, January 08, 2006

Meet your 2005-06 Birmingham-Southern Panthers

If we were to make one of those mathematical-type series of comparisons showing the amount of consistency in the 2005-06 Birmingham-Southern Panthers, after this last week I think it’d have to go something like this: 16-year-old’s moods > zero-gravity yo-yos > happiness of LSU football fans with their head coach > weather > Birmingham-Southern Panthers.

To recap, Monday is their best performance of the season, Thursday is the most humiliating defeat for the program this decade, and Saturday is the (arguably) new best performance of the season. I’ve seen elevators that weren’t this up-and-down. *cymbal riff*

But if you’re a “casual” BSC fan (and let’s just say that if you’re a BSC fan at all, that’s unquestionably the direction the odds are tilting) or alum who stumbled here while trying to Google up the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, you probably think the Panthers are still starting, like, three dudes from Iceland and playing Lipscomb twice a year. Don’t worry--I’m here to get up you speed. Here’s what you’ll need to know, top-to-bottom, to keep up with BSC the rest of the season:


Same as it is for every mid-major every season: win the conference tournament and go to the Big Dance. Everything else is secondary.
But given that Winthrop is so completely head-and-shoulders over the rest of the league (BSC included, obviously)—stathead Ken Pomeroy says they should finish their Big South slate undefeated--I’m not going to gripe if BSC finishes second or third in the league, hosts a couple of Big South tournament games, and generally washes out the taste of…


In ’04-’05, BSC had a senior-laden squad that returned just about everyone from the previous season’s Big-South-regular-season-co-titlists, and had just about everyone who’s paid to predict Big South winners predicting BSC as your Big South winner. And all that in their first year of NCAA Tourney eligibility.
It didn’t come close to happening. The Panthers played some great games in their non-conference slate (scaring the pants off of Miss. St. and UMass, beating future tourney team UT-Chattanooga on their own floor in front of yours truly) but were already showing a worrying tendency to take some teams too lightly (a 12-point loss to DI newbie Texas Pan-American) and just never seemed to get the light turned on in conference play. They finished 7-9 in the Big South and went out in the tourney semis at Winthrop without too much of a bang.
For those of us who spent November and December trying to devise the best way to weasel out of work to go watch them become the first 16-seed to win an NCAA game, it was a bit of a blow.


In summing up BSC’s chances this season, every preview publication I got my hands on put the Panthers in the Big South’s fourth or fifth slot and said basically the same thing: “Hell if we know if all those new guys are any good. Let’s stick ‘em here in the middle where we won’t be too wrong either way.”
Which was probably the right approach to take. With seven seniors graduated and woulda-been junior forward and one-time recruiting coup Arnold Gore having apparently mysteriously disappeared (he’s not with the team, but neither the school’s website nor any other media venue has said a damn thing that I can find), I don’t think even coach Reboul knew what he had coming into the season.
“How soon we can mesh together the 10 new units and make it one with our five returning players is unknown,” he said in the BSC media guide, proving that only did he not know how well his new “units” would play, that that he didn’t even know for sure they were human beings yet.
So given the turnover, it’s hardly surprising that BSC a) is struggling with consistency b) is improving as the players jell. What might be surprising is how MUCH they’ve improved. Simply put, the team that began the year getting smoked by Central Connecticut St. and escaping Brown (RPI: 300) by a point shouldn’t have been able to wax a decent UNC-Asheville squad in their fifth road game in ten days.
Bottom line? That second- or third-place finish looks attainable from here.


Bear in mind: although I’ve studied every BSC box score religiously, the Panthers have played only one weekend home game thus far, and that was over Thanksgiving. So I’ve seen them in person once this season, at the Bama game. There are people out there who might be better qualified to assess the team’s play. But they don’t have blogs, and you’re stuck with me.
From what I’ve seen, this year’s BSC squad is different from past editions in that most of its scoring will come from the frontcourt rather than the backcourt. Gone are the days when BSC would get the ball into the post primarily for the sake of kicking it out and letting a Kristmannson or a Willie or a Sigurdarson launch a three; this year, the Panthers will need to have their center (Sredrick Powe) and power forwards (Thomas Viglianco, Dwayne Paul) attack the basket much more frequently. With pass-first-pass-second point Bucky McMillan and newcomer combo guard Ed Horton in the backcourt, the Panthers just can’t afford to sit back and rain threes as they have at times in the past.
And they’re not. Paul has been arguably the Panthers’ most aggressive player from day one and with Powe back to full health, they should put up plenty of points on Big South competition. They combined for 28 against both Bama and UNC-Asheville. Viglianco had nightmare games against Bama and Winthrop (see my last post), but remains the Panthers’ leading scorer and went for 15 Saturday.
The lack of a go-to shooter (off-guard James Collins should be that guy, but perhaps isn’t quite aggressive enough) also means that there is a greater onus on BSC’s Princeton-esque offense to score via the backdoor cut than with the kick-out. But the Panthers have pried the backdoor open--between those easy buckets and the good work done by the frontcourt, they outscored UNC-Asheville in the paint by a whopping 28-12 margin, and even nicked Bama in this stat, 24-22, despite being so much shorter than the Tide I was expecting the Lollipop Guild to show up waving black-and-gold pom-poms.
When the Panthers combine a good night shooting the three with their strength inside, they can put up a number of points—their offensive efficiency rating (73rd in the country) isn’t bad at all, and far outpaces their defensive rating (316th).
But of course, that defensive rating is butt-ugly. It’s the Panthers’ biggest problem; even Centenary, a team currently rated 313 in the RPI, scored 156 total points in their two meetings with the Panthers. The biggest defensive issue (from where I sit) is at the power forward spot, where Paul is undersized and Viglianco has never been an especially physical defender--a large part of the reason, I imagine, BSC plays a lot of zone--but BSC just needs better play on that end all the way around.
Other potential problems include depth (the BSC rotation essentially only goes six-deep), rebounding against larger teams, and the occasional cold three-point shooting night.


The Panthers’ six-man rotation consists of three frontcourt players and three backcourt players, all of whom get starter minutes even if Collins has been coming off the bench recently. Here’s a quick run-down of each:

#33, Thomas Viglianco, 6-9 Sr., PF: Viglianco is not only the team’s best scorer thanks to his ability to shoot from the outside as a 6-9 power forward, but he’s the team’s top rebounder as well thanks to his quickness on the block. As mentioned, though, he could be a better defender and has a Nowitzki-like tendency to sometimes settle for a jumper when he could work his way inside.

#40, Sredrick Powe, 6-7 Sr., C: Powe spent all of last season on the shelf with an elbow injury and it’s taken him a little bit of time to get up to speed. But he’s played very well recently, both scoring and dishing the ball.

#11, Dwayne Paul, 6-5, Jr., F/PF: The Charles Barkley-esque Paul has a pair of double-doubles already this season and is the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder. As noted, even in the Big South he’ll be a bit small at the 4, but with his energy it won’t matter. Has also flashed some ability to hit the occasional three, which if he can do consistently would be huge for the offense.

#4, Bucky McMillan, 6-4, Jr., PG: McMillan runs the offense, doesn’t turn the ball over too often, and shoots the three well. But he’s not comfortable creating his own shot and although the offense doesn’t really call for it, could perhaps stand to penetrate the lane and dish a little more often.

#21, Ed Horton, 6-3, Jr., SG/PG: For a player who arrived at BSC with the reputation as a sharpshooter, Horton needs to bring his three-point percentage up--he’s hitting 28.9 percent, fourth-best on the team. But he’s also stayed aggressive on both ends and is clearly doing something right to have earned a starting job.

#10, James Collins, 6-2, Sr., SG: For my money, the key player on the BSC team. Collins is arguably the only Panther capable of creating his own shot, leads the team in three-point FG percentage, and is the team’s third-leading scorer despite coming off the bench. Collins has admittedly played better as sub and after hitting up UNC-Asheville for 18, is now averaging double-digits a game. But the senior is too experienced and too talented to only average 10.5 points a game and only take 6.8 shots a game. If the Panthers can get Collins more involved and keep him hot, they become the kind of team few Big South members will be able to defend.

The rest of the guys? Freshman guard Lecory Ruffin is the fourth guy in the backcourt and has earned the most minutes outside of the above six with athleticism and reasonable outside shooting. Twin 6-7 freshmen forwards Kyle Rowland and Ifeanyi Ehirim provide size off the bench. Ehirim has only shot the ball 22 times, but has hit 14 of those shots for the team’s second highest FG percentage (behind Powe).

So now you’re caught up. If you’re in the Birmingham area, put your newfound BSC knowledge to use Wednesday when BSC hosts Charleston Southern. More on Winthrop and the rest of the Big South coming soon.

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