Full-court press: Discussing Bears basketball

| Senior Sports Editor

Through one month of the season, the Washington University men’s and women’s basketball teams are off to a strong start. Ranked No. 9 and No. 13, respectively, the Red and Green sport a combined 7-2 record entering the chill of winter. Here are answers to five key questions to analyze what’s happened and evaluate the Bears’ outlook going forward.

1. Which was more impressive: the men’s team’s win over No. 6 Tufts University or the women’s team’s back-to-back victories over No. 25 Illinois Wesleyan University and No. 15 DePauw University?

The men’s win was championship-level–the Bears started with an 11-0 run, never so much as faced a tie score and led by as many as 18, then squelched a furious late rally to close out the Jumbos. But while Tufts certainly represents a quality win, early-season rankings can be deceiving–the Jumbos have since fallen out of the top 25 completely. Meanwhile, the women made a statement to the rest of Division III that there will be no slow start in the wake of former head coach Nancy Fahey’s departure. With a strong fourth quarter and then a last-second game-winner, the Red and Green came away with a pair of memorable victories that set the tone heading into a welcoming home stretch. And the manner in which they did it is important: After a lackluster loss the previous weekend, Wash. U. nearly doubled its interior production, upping its points in the paint from 24 to 40.

2. How has new women’s head coach Randi Henderson performed so far?

Henderson’s first month couldn’t have gone any better. Yes, Wash. U. lost a game it probably should have won, but the loss revealed her and her team’s ability to make adjustments. Despite shooting under 40 percent from the field in their first two games, the Bears have steadily improved to near 60 percent in their most recent win. The same has been true from beyond the arc–after making just 29 percent in the loss, it was 53 percent Sunday. There’s still work to be done–improving the 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio and rebounding more consistently, for example–but Henderson has her players winning and progressing at the same time, a solid combination as the Red and Green hope to hit their stride.

3. Who is the most important player on each team?

Senior forward Matt Highsmith has the ability to change the way the Bears attack opposing defenses. Entering this year, he had attempted 16 threes in 76 career games. Through just five contests this season, he’s already taken 18–and he’s making them, shooting 44 percent. Wash. U.’s starting guards, seniors Jake Knupp and Kevin Kucera, are shooting 50 and 37 percent, respectively, from deep, and freshman guard Jack Nolan is adding 40 percent of his own. If Highsmith can maintain his newfound jumper, the Bears can put three, even four shooters on the court at a time, becoming virtually unguardable. That said, Highsmith’s overall field goal percentage is a stunningly low 31, down from his career 53 mark. The Red and Green can’t afford to continue to give the majority of their shots to a player missing that much. A lot of elements that need to come together, but Highsmith has the potential to be a high-volume, high-efficiency scorer, inside and out. If he can put it all together, Highsmith can be the biggest threat on a powerhouse offense.
The women’s team has lost the rebounding battle on both ends. Defensively, opponents have outrebounded Wash. U. by a slim margin, 99 to 97. On the offensive side, the difference has been much more evident, 52 to 31. That’s where guard Natalie Orr comes in. Orr, the only senior in the starting lineup, demonstrates her veteran leadership by doing the little things. Specifically, Orr has steadily improved her rebounding over the years. She’s now averaging career-bests with 3.0 defensive and a team-high 2.3 offensive boards per game. If the rest of the Bears follow Orr’s lead, they can make life frustrating for the competition.

4. In what area does each team have room to improve?

The Wash. U. men have been great from deep in 2017, but the interior scoring has been lacking. Though they’re shooting 40 percent outside the arc, they’re shooting just 43 percent overall. By comparison, the Bears are holding opponents to 37 percent on threes, but allowing 49 percent overall. So far, the Red and Green aren’t harmonizing the sharpshooting with strength in the paint; they need to use their spacing to create clearer lanes to the basket. If they can do that, they’ll give opponents a more balanced look and that field goal percentage will rise.
We’ve already touched on the women’s team’s need to cut down turnovers and rebound more consistently. One other area where they can step up: steals. After an 11-steal opener, their numbers have dropped each game: nine, then six, then two. Coincidentally, they’ve allowed more points lately. After allowing 68 and 50 points in their first two games, they’ve allowed 89 and 77 in the latter two. It isn’t a stretch to conclude that the two trends are related. By getting back to their pestering nature, the Red and Green will force ball handlers to play tighter, slowing down the flow of opposing offenses.

5. Which team has the best chance to make a deep tournament run?

The two squads are similarly talented, but the edge has to go to the men’s team, which features five starting seniors. This group has lost in the first round, missed the playoffs and lost in the second round. In its final go-round, the Bears will be hungry to go out on top. They’ve already shown they can beat a top-tier team (Tufts) and face No. 2 Augustana College in another elite test a month from yesterday. If they show they can hang with a team of that caliber–or even win the game–watch out for these men.