Game #9-066: Northern Illinois at Valparaiso CrusadersNovember 13, 2012 8:00 am
Our game writes its own narrative, if we can stand to get out of the way long enough to let it.
Long before I usually wake up on a weekday, much less eat breakfast, Valpo and Northern Illinois (brief conference rivals once upon a time) wiped the cobwebs from their eyes and played a little 5 on 5 for an ESPN audience as part of their annual near-season opening 24 hour hoops marathon. Going in, I had no idea what I would write apart from looking for evidence of sleep deprivation. These two teams spent but a year or two in the same conference back in the 1980's. If there's a back story here, it eludes me.
I choose to view this as a challenge rather than a problem. For it occurs to me that I've had enough of superimposed narratives from national and big-time pundits and play-by-play announcers. I consider it a plus, rather than a minus, that I experienced the game live without Beth Mowins and LaPhonso Ellis trying to fill my head with pre-determined narratives about this game (some of them are entirely predictable anyway). I don't mean to single them out, by the way. I would expect the same thing no matter who ESPN sent to do this game. I'll leave aside for this essay my expectation - also independent of the particular announcers - of the numerous narratives that would be force-fed to the audience that have nothing whatsoever to do with this game.
No, I endeavor to allow this game to speak to me unfiltered. Even without the announcers to cloud my mind, this is still a challenge, for I brought my own narrative to the game: I drove all the way from my current residence in St. Louis to my hometown to see this game, and I know how disappointed I would be if I made the long trip and burned a couple of vacation days just to witness a loss to an underdog team. But then the stands tell another story: the only reason this game tipped off at 7:00 am is because it's on ESPN, and this is where the game was slotted. There were 2 obvious reasons why the student section was filled when I got there: (1) free breakfast, and more importantly (2) the chance to be on national television. Super-imposed narratives can't be escaped, unless we narrow our focus to just the court.
One narrative that insists on insinuating itself from time to time is the injury bug. For Valpo, fans learned that IU transfer Bobby Capobianco had gone in for hernia surgery just recently and would not be available. Bobby is 6-10 and had shown himself quite capable of spelling the starters on the front line. A less common narrative took place on the Northern Illinois side as one of their players, Sophomore Abdel Nader, listed at 6' 7", had recently been suspended and was not eligible. This narrative is - below the red line, at least - often a sparse one, usually chalked up to "violation of team rules", with what exact rules were violated being left as a mystery to the outsider.
I'm not very good at reading body language of athletes, so I'm going to try to describe the performance and let that tell the story. Frankly, I've also had my fill of body language narratives. A certain NFL team that plays nearby has a QB whose body language has been analyzed by football fans within an inch of its life.
Honestly, if you didn't look at your watch, you wouldn't know this was an early morning game. Nothing happened in the game that has never happened in an evening game. There were plenty of imperfections begging to be blamed on the early hour by anyone trying to rationalize them away, but having seen enough basketball at this level, I find it very hard to accept such rationalization. Both offenses were sluggish in the early going - Valpo eventually found their shooting touch, but the half time score of 23-17 in favor of the home team supports the conclusion that both teams struggled on offense.
However - and I suppose this intuitively follows from the above - neither team struggled all that much on defense. Sometimes when offenses struggle, it's because defenses are active and effective. There were occasional defensive breakdowns -
Keith Gray scored on a breakaway layup off the opening tip to give Northern Illinois a quick lead, for example - but again, that's been known to happen in evening games.
The one thing I did wonder about is: would injury be more likely in a morning game. Injuries happened in this game. I asked my question of a high school classmate of mine who played on the varsity and he said he did think injuries were more likely. I do not have anything else to go on, however, so that rationalization I leave open for debate.
It is interesting that all the injuries that were apparent happened to the home team who slept in their own beds the night before and walked across campus to suit up, while the visitors climbed into a bus from their hotel and climbed out at the Athletics Recreation Center (ARC) on the Valpo campus. Then again, one of those apparent injuries turned out to be no big deal. Ryan Broekhoff, Valpo's reigning Horizon League Player of the Year (2011-2012) beat his man to the basket, missed the layup, fell to the floor and stayed there. From my seat I immediately worried that he had hit his head and risked a concussion. During the media timeout, the Valpo trainer spent 2 seconds with him before patting him on the back and clearing him. I remarked to my companion, "I don't think you can administer the standard concussion test that quickly." However, when I watched the game again on my DVR, I saw that Ryan's head never hit the floor, but he did grab his neck. It's possible he got hit by a defender on his way to the hoop. Incidentally, the Huskies failed on the 5-on-4 "power play" on the other end, and by the time Erik Buggs had dribbled out of traffic with the rebound, Ryan was up and waving his arms. Of course Erik got him the ball and he laid it in. Valpo pulled this play last year once. Nice penalty kill, these Crusaders. For what it's worth, Ryan played most of the game and showed no obvious ill effects.
There was one play in the first half where Aksel Bolin, 6' 7" junior for Northern Illinois entered the front court as his point guard brought the ball up. On his way to his assigned spot, he bumped harmlessly into Erik Buggs, but he had his eye on the ball behind him so he didn't see him. Not quite awake? Again, it's possible, but I can't say for sure.
Vashil Fernandez, one of 4 new players for Valpo this year, was a walking advertisement for sleep-walking conjecture, except that he's somewhat raw and could be expected to look uncoordinated even in a conventional night game. Even he was fairly active on defense, blocking 4 shots and disrupting a few more. On offense, he had trouble catching passes and air-balled his one shot attempt (a 5-10 foot hook shot). When he did successfully catch the ball in the post, he usually looked to pass back out.
Then there was the standard chippiness that is bound to happen in any basketball game where one side or the other likes to play physical basketball, and that certainly describes Kevin Van Wijk, who found ways to frustrate his opponent on more than one occasion. At one point, one of the referees had to warn him and his opposite to settle down. Likewise, Matt Kenney has been known to get emotional. On one drive to the hoop in the 2nd half, he encountered more contact than he was prepared to put up with and started to get in his defender's face a bit. Neither of these situations ever came close to escalating, but by this time it should be clear that if you want to suggest that early morning basketball is not a good idea, you are going to have to work overtime to find supporting evidence in this game.
In the 2nd half, Valpo achieved huge separation. Their 3-point offense ramped up almost immediately. Several steals led to easy transition baskets. Valpo was able to play a more complete second half, and the Huskies were not able to keep up with them any longer. Twice, Kevin Van Wijk successfully led a teammate cutting to the basket for an easy layup, first with Senior Ben Boggs, later with newcomer Jordan Coleman. In both cases, the defense was caught off guard. In each case, Kevin and his teammate demonstrated mutual trust leading to near-perfect execution.
After widening the lead to 20 points, 42-22, provoking a Northern Illinois timeout, Ryan Broekhoff and Erik Buggs did one of those celebratory mid-air hip-bumps. Erik was then given an extended rest. He did come back and continued to lead the offense. Later in the 2nd half, with 15 to go on the shot clock, Erik dribbled right around an attempted high screen by Kevin Van Wijk, but Kevin's man slid up to block Erik's path. Trying to avoid him, Erik went down and laid on the floor for a few seconds. Meanwhile, NIU picked up the loose ball and converted a 3-on-1 break, aided by Kevin's goal-tend. As play resumed, Erik laid down on the floor at the end of the bench and Rod Moore, Valpo's trainer, went to work on him. It was later reported that he hurt himself in this game, though it was not enough to keep him out of the next game. It was that next game (on the road) where he aggravated it to the point that he had to sit in a wheelchair and returned to Valpo while the rest of the team immediately headed to the 2nd of two road games. However, Erik did join the team a day later and ended up playing major minutes in that 2nd road game. The stated injury: a hip-pointer.
Coleman did receive an inadvertent hand to the face after grabbing a defensive rebound, but also showed no ill effects. By the final media timeout in the 2nd half, Ryan Broekhoff, Kevin Van Wijk, and Erik Buggs had already been retired to the bench for the rest of the game, with Valpo sporting a 23-point lead. The final 3-4 minutes amounted to coaching for future games.
The one true mystery to arise from this game was the fact that 9th man and newcomer Alex Rossi did not see any action until late in the 2nd half. In a game with lots of banging going on and a couple of spills, it is curious that he was left out of the rotation for much of the game. I think I heard something about him feeling under the weather a bit, but I don't remember for sure.
Valpo took off once they caught fire from beyond the arc. I'm not very good at strategy, but it is child's play to see the impact of deadly 3-point shooting on the game. It helps when you find yourself wide open. Several times Valpo found ways to penetrate and kick out for wide-open 3s. So, just having great 3-point shooters is not enough. Also important is the inside game, but scoring in the paint is not as lethal as scoring from beyond the arc unless you can achieve the proverbial "and-1". That means getting fouled, and possibly banged up. Shooting a wide-open 3 is much easier on the body, and it is 3 all at once without the pain and the free throw line pressure. With IU transfer Bobby Capobianco on the mend from hernia surgery, it stands to reason that in some games, Valpo will gladly settle for a productive night from downtown.
Valpo also took off in the 2nd half after struggling through the 1st half against a team that appears to have been a significant underdog. That's a less compelling narrative because this is the only game so far this season that obviously fits it. It has happened that way in previous seasons, but there have also been games when Valpo has started off strong from the opening tip, and then came out of halftime sleep walking.
So, what narrative does this game suggest to us? There's the "live by the 3" narrative (with its flip-side "die by the 3" lurking in the shadows). There's the "Slow start" narrative, which so far is indistinguishable from the "First half cobwebs because it's 7am" narrative. Then there's the narrative provided by the assistant coach in the post-game interview: "At halftime, we told them, 'we expected this. We've had a few early morning practices, and each time we started out sluggish. We're still up 6, and now is when we wake up.'"
The most compelling narrative I can come up with is of a team whose coaching staff knows its players well, is patient with them, and has confidence in them. Similarly, the players showed confidence in each other, highlighted by those two back-door assists by Kevin Van Wijk. at VALPARAISO 69, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 46
NORTHERN ILLINOIS 0-2 (0-0) -- A. Bolin 4-8 1-2 10; D. Balls 4-10 0-0 9; A. Springs 3-10 0-0 8; T. Baker 1-7 1-3 3; K. Gray 3-7 0-0 6; S. Mader 2-6 0-0 4; K. Gray 0-2 0-0 0; M. Davis 1-7 2-2 4; D. Bowie 0-4 0-0 0; J. Cravatta 1-4 0-0 2; A. Christian 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-65 4-7 46.
VALPARAISO 2-0 (0-0) -- R. Broekhoff 6-12 4-4 20; E. Buggs 2-4 0-0 4; W. Bogan 1-4 0-0 3; B. Boggs 4-7 0-0 11; M. Kenney 6-8 1-3 16; J. Coleman 2-6 1-2 6; K. Van Wijk 2-4 0-0 4; V. Fernandez 0-1 0-0 0; A. Rossi 2-2 0-0 5. Totals 25-48 6-9 69.
Three-point goals: NIU 4-18 (A. Bolin 1-2; T. Baker 0-3; D. Balls 1-4; J. Cravatta 0-2; M. Davis 0-1; S. Mader 0-1; A. Springs 2-5), VALP 13-24 (W. Bogan 1-3; E. Buggs 0-1; J. Coleman 1-1; B. Boggs 3-5; M. Kenney 3-5; R. Broekhoff 4-8; A. Rossi 1-1); Rebounds: NIU 32 (A. Bolin 9), VALP 31 (R. Broekhoff 13); Assists: NIU 7 (T. Baker 3), VALP 16 (E. Buggs 7); Total Fouls -- NIU 12, VALP 9; Fouled Out: NIU-None; VALP-None.