Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sweet Home Hello: Samford

Last year: While it was far from a disaster, 2008 wasn't the happiest of send-offs for Jimmy Tillette's Bulldogs as they left the Ohio Valley for the more academically-comfortable and football-friendly confines of the SoCon in '08-'09. After winning 20 games and fighting their way to the OVC tourney final in 2006, Samford took a step backwards in 2007 and then another in '08, going .500 in OVC play, losing a triple-overtime thriller to Done Ruthless's UT-Martin squad, and finishing with their lowest RPI (262) in five years. The good news is that with the switch to the SoCon and the 2007-2008 move into the $32 million Pete Hanna Center--still has that new gym smell!--there really does seem to be nowhere for Samford to go but up in the future.

Expectations: With only one senior on the roster and Travis Petersen--the Bulldogs' 2008 leader in points, rebounds, and assists--having graduated and left the critical point-center "P" position in Tillette's Princeton offense to underclassmen, 2008-2009 was always expected to be a building-block kind of year for Samford. As long as the Bulldogs stayed off of the SoCon's bottom rungs, honed their instincts in Tillette's system, and learned their way around the conference, this season was going to be satisfactory.

How it's worked out: From here, I'd say pretty much exactly the way it was supposed to.

The Bulldogs haven't grabbed that single season-defining win--far and away the season's biggest moment has been coming within a missed three at the buzzer of taking Davidson into overtime, in front of a school record-crowd at home no less--but they're currently sitting at .500 over all at 13-13 and at 8-9 in league play sit a solid third in the SoCon North. Despite the loss of Petersen and the unfamiliar conference settings, the Bulldogs have actually improved their Kenpom standing, from an unsightly 297 in 2008 to 261 thus far this year. Samford hasn't won many games they weren't supposed to--the home win over Lipscomb and the road victory over McNeese St., decent-if-hardly-outstanding teams in the A-Sun and and Southland, respectively, are probably the two most "impressive" triumphs--but they've only very rarely dropped a game it "should" have won. The Bulldogs have put together a 6-2 record against SoCon teams with a lower Pomeroy rating than theirs, with both losses on the road.

What's gone right: Perhaps the best news for Samford is that the stage is set for a big step forward next year. Their top five scorers all return, including the "inside-outside" tandem of forward Bryan Friday and guard Trey Montgomery, both juniors and the only Bulldogs averaging double digits a game. (Note that because of Tillette's offense the traditional post/perimeter roles can get a little twisted; Friday's shot just as many threes as Montgomery has). Samford fans also have to be salivating at the potential of freshman 6-4 guard Josh Davis, already the team's third-leading scorer at 9.8 points a game. Thanks to some impressive accuracy inside the arc--he's only taken 40 such shots, but he's hit 27 of them--and a 40 percent clip outside it, he's got the nation's 35th-best eFG mark.

In fact, because of their insistence on only shooting inside the three-point line when they've backdoored their way into a layup, Samford shoots the nation's fourth-best percentage on 2's ...

What's gone wrong: ... which makes it too bad, then, that a whopping 49.1 percent of their shots are 3's. Only two teams in D-I shoot the 3 more often. Even a slight uptick next year in their 3-point percentage (currently a mediocre 34.1) would mean huge gains for an offense that's already above the league average. Friday, in particular, should probably jack up from outside less often; 62 attempts is too many for a 25.8 percent shooter from out there.

The Bulldogs will also have to do some major work on their rebounding; Princeton systems don't care about grabbing offensive boards, but Samford also gives up an offensive rebound on 38.9 percent of their opponent's shots, the 331st-best (or, rather, 12th-worst) mark in the country. The Bulldogs do a good job of forcing turnovers and not sending opponents to the line, but they don't force a ton of misses and all the extra attempts on the misses they do force leads to a defense ranked 267th in efficiency.

What's next: As for the rest of this year, three straight road games to end the season mean that the Bulldogs won't carry much momentum into the league tourney, and their rebounding and shooting woes mean there's not much chance they'll catch the kind of fire needed to win four-games-in-four-days for the auto-bid. Besides, assuming Curry's healthy, the chances of Davidson losing with a bid on the line seem virtually nil.

If the Bulldogs can wrap up the year by picking off a win or two in those road contests and grabbing an upset at the SoCon tourney, I have to think that'll be enough forward steps for Tillette to look back on this season as a success. Next year, however, the goals will be a little loftier.

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