Friday, 30 December 2011

Defense challenges offset Saint Mary's array of offensive talent

With a stable of explosive, scoring wings and forwards, Saint Mary's Huskies have the offensive firepower to make the final season of Coach Ross Quackenbush's career an eventful one.  Unfortunately, the Huskies have been pourous defensively, allowing 91.1 ppg and allowing teams shoot 48% from the floor, both worst in AUS, the main reasons why SMU was an un-Huskie-like 2-5 in the AUS first half.  Defense was a limiting factor last season also; as Coach Quackenbush puts it "we have a hard time keeping people in front of us and we simply need to guard the ball better" in order to have a stronger chance of having the much-decorated and highly-successful Coach go out a winner.

As has been the case in several of his 20+ seasons as Huskies Head Coach, Quackenbush has generally kept his bench reasonably short, playing his best guys major minutes.  Having to deal with a back injury to 6'5" starting post Harry Ezenibe that kept the Nigerian native out of the first 4 games of the AUS regular season (including a pair of losses at UPEI) with a hip flexor, Quackenbush has since been riding his top five of 6'5" sophomore Torey Fassett, 6'1" veteran Jerome Smith (Hamilton, ON), 6'1" freshman Brian Rouse, 6'0" three-point specialist Miguel Pink, who comes off the bench and Ezenibe.

The 2-5 record is somewhat deceiving as Huskies blew a late lead vs. St. FX at home to lose by 3 and lost both to UPEI in Charlottetown without Ezenibe.  But the loss at Cape Breton to close the first half was especially disconcerting as SMU allowed the Capers to shoot 56% from the field and grab 10 offensive rebounds in a resounding loss.  In a bit of a scheduling quirk, the Huskies played only 2 of their 7 pre-Holiday league games at home at The Tower in Halifax.  Saint Mary's is happy to already have completed the longest trips geographically on their AUS schedule and look forward to a second half with a lot less travel and games better spaced.

Fassett, the second-year wing forward from Columbia, MD (23.4 ppg/6.4 rpg/32 mpg) is Huskie's most explosive scorer (season-high 34 at Cape Breton) who coach Quackenbush feels has "matured alot from last year... he is playing better without the ball and making mid-range jumpers off the dribble", a lost art from the perspective of Quackenbush, one of Canada's top players in his day during the late 70's and early 80's with numerous National team appearances.  Fassett's best talents are on display in transition when playing at high speeds.  Smith (32 mpg, 10.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), a transfer from Mohawk College in his second season at Saint Mary's, and generally runs the point and starts the offense. 
Ezenibe (11.3 ppg/6.0 rpg) is a difference maker for Saint Mary's at both ends, offensively with his quick jumping ability on the glass and defensively as a shot blocker.  The athletic forward had 23 points/11 rebound in the tight loss to X and his hip is back to full strength.  Saint Mary's got one of the better potential talents to enter the CIS this season is 6'1" Rouse, a freshman guard from Mississauga Ascension H.S. averging 17.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg in 31.4 mpg as an immediate starter.  Rouse is a prototypical scoring slasher who is learning to make decisions when he can't get to the rim and will be even more difficult to check as his perimeter jumper becomes more consistent especially off the dribble.

Knocking shots down is not a problem for Pink (13.7 ppg/31.3 mpg), the slick four-year sharpshooter from Whitby, ON who comes off the bench with Ezenibe's return but usually is on the floor at the end of games.  Shooting almost 50% from 3's even with attempt ~8 3's per game, Pink's first-half highlight was a 6 for 11 performance from beyond the arc vs. X.

Three role playing big guys help to provide rebounding and protection of the paint including 6'8" Iain Robertson (3.3 ppg), now in hid 5th year out of Halifax, NS, who usually starts and his minutes will be determined by how well he complements the scorers on the glass, defending, setting screens and, when needed, the odd finish or put-back inside.  6'8" Riley Halpin another Halifax product in his third season provides 6.9 ppg off the bench and has made one start.  Unfortunately, another forward counted on to be a rotation guy, Simon Marr (4th Year, Saint John, NB) disclocated his knuckle and broke his finger at the pre-season St. FX NIKE tournament, had surgery and is likely out for season; he should have 2 seasons of eligibility remaining assuming he doesn't play again this season.

In addition to Rouse, Quackenbush's final recruiting class included 5'8" Kadeem Scott (2.7 ppg), a point guard from Oshawa G.L. Roberts and an Honorable Mention Toronto Star All-star in '08-'09, who is quick and strong, learning to play effectively at this level as somewhat undersized guard.  Quackenbush is high on 6'5" Warren Liang (1.7 ppg) from Charles Tupper H.S. in Vancouver, B.C. who is a true freshman directly out of Grade 12 and should continue to push for time and, as he matures physically, expect Liang to be an effective AUS four man.  Another promising freshman, 6'0" Asher Lewis, from noted Ontario high school power Pickering H.S. is another true freshman who will likely redshirt this season.

Saint Mary's under Quackenbush always seems to find a way to make noise as the AUS tournament nears and as long as Quack can get his guys to commit to defending and rebounding, expect their offensive firepower to keep them in the mix for a wonderful send off for their long time coach that includes a final appearance at the Halifax Nationals.

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