By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
From coach Jamaal Jackson’s perspective, the Bluefield State men’s basketball team is getting noticed. It doesn’t show fully in the win-loss record, but coaches and knowledgeable basketball watchers realize the potential of the program.
As the Big Blues return this week to practice, after an extended break between terms, that is the message Jackson wants his team and their fans to hear.
“They’re doing some things I recognize, and that people who know the game recognize, will help the program produce wins,” Jackson said on Monday. “I’ve told the players that people recognize what they’re doing. They should be proud of that, and keep on working.”
The seniors on this year’s squad will not be around to “reap the benefits,” the coach said, “but our younger guys will be here for all of that when this program gets where it’s going.”
Playing as an independent school in the fall semester, Bluefield State recorded a 4-10 record, which Jackson said is deceptive.
“We could easily have been 7-7 instead of 4-10,” he said.
“We lost at the buzzer at Concord. We were up with a minute and a half left at West Virginia State. We were up by two points at North Greenville with four seconds left, and they called a shooting foul and they made two and we lost in overtime.”
“We’re not very far from having a much better record than what we have now. Our margin of victory is six points. If we make a shot here and there, if we make a defensive stop here and there, our record would be very different.”
He noted that many of the team’s losses were to schools with larger enrollments and full scholarship allocations to the basketball program.
In local “prestige” games, he noted, “We defeated Bluefield College for the first time in several years. We beat Concord University for the first time in a long time.”
In their last game before the break, on Dec. 18, Avery Holliday stole five balls and scored 14 points as BSC lost 83-76 to a traditional in-state rival, West Virginia State. The Big Blues fell behind 12-0 but kept at it and trailed by just four points at halftime, 43-39.
The Yellow Jackets made 53.8 percent of their field-goal tries.
Two days prior, the Big Blues beat Concord 72-64 in the Ned Shott Gym. Shakir Dunning had four steals, 22 points and a pair of assists to lead Bluefield State. Remar Brothers’ jumper with 7:56 left in the first half gave BSC the lead for good, starting a key 9-3 run.
Bluefield State’s first game of the new year takes them to Indiana to play Oakland City University (9-3) on Jan. 15.
Jackson said, “Our biggest challenge in scheduling is being an independent. Schools don’t want to play non-conference games in January or February. In order for us to get games, we had to schedule them early in the year. So our schedule was front-loaded ... with back-to-back games.”
“That meant not a lot of practice time, and a lot of road dates. We had nine games in November, a lot of those on the road,” Jackson said. “For our players, in addition to traveling, they had to keep up with school work. ... That posed a difficulty.”
After four games in January, eight games remain in February before the season ends at Francis Marion University in South Carolina on Feb. 25.
Jackson looks forward to having “more practice time between games,” he said, and strategizing against opponents “we’ve played already.”
Asked about the attitude of the team toward the rest of the season, he said, “We’ve had a prolonged break. The guys who’ve been in the gym even during the break, and the guys who’ve been working on their own at home, you know they’re serious about the game.”
“I’m confident that those guys who did that in first semester will be able to contribute for us.”
He also noted, “I’m a guy, every game we’re in, I expect to win.”
Treon Claiborne and Dunning provide much of the point production, while 6-foot-9 Sam Ouedraogo is the team’s rebounding machine.
Claiborne and Dunning are “both strong and quick,” Jackson said. Because of a lack of height, he said, “We’ll play four guards most of the time, (but) we don’t see that as a disadvantage.”
Claiborne’s play illustrates that point.
Claiborne is “just carrying on from what he did last year,” Jackson said. “Because we go with four guards, (opponents) have to put a ‘big’ on Treon. He’s too quick for a big man to cover. He’s too strong for a guard to cover.”
Ouedraogo has been a key contributor — and is being asked to do more.
“Sam is averaging 13 1/2 rebounds a game, which is third in the nation,” Jackson said. “We knew coming in we could expect that from Sam, doing that on the boards.”
“Going into the new semester, we expect a little more post scoring,” the coach said. “If you get the ball into him in the post, he can get 4 to 6 points, that will benefit us in other ways.”
Remar Brothers provides another scoring option.
“When he gets in a zone, he can add points,” Jackson said, “He’s averaging 15 minutes (per game). When he gets in, we know he’s going to put up a shot.”
“We want to give him more minutes. ... He just needs to improve on the defensive end. With him being a (shooting) guard, we have to have him to cover the 2-guard just about every time he’s on the floor.”
Holliday, Jackson said, “is playing real well the last few games and in the last few days of practice.”
The biggest need at this point is to improve on long-distance shooting.
“We’re shooting terrible from 3-point range,” Jackson said. “With us counting on Sam to rebound, we’re not getting the outside shooting from anyone on the floor. I think that’s what’s really hurting us right now.”
“The 3-pointers we’re missing are not forced shots, they’re wide open, and we’re not knocking them down. ... They knock down shots consistently in practice, but when we get to game time they’re not knocking down the 3s.”
Solving that weakness would “make a world of difference,” Jackson said. “It will open up more driving lanes for Dunning and Claiborne, and allow Sam more post touches.”
Any help will probably have to come from existing personnel. As of Monday, there have been no additions to the roster, Jackson said.
“I’m speaking to a few guys who are trying to get their paperwork in,” he said. “There are a few who have just taken their ACT and SAT (academic tests) and are waiting to get their grades in.”
Another factor is reluctance to commit to a collegiate program in the middle of a season.
“I’ve talked to some who didn’t want to use an entire season of eligibility for just (12) games,” Jackson said.
Losing 6-foot-9 Christian Jugah to injury early in the preseason meant that “we won’t match the size of anybody,” he said. “We tried to bring some guys in to get some size over the break but as of (Monday) that didn’t pan out.”
“We’ll just have to make adjustments and play with what we have.”
A new wrinkle is Bluefield State’s acceptance into the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC). The school became a member of the loose confederation of institutions “immediately,” BSC officials announced last month.
“The ECAC is something that provides our players with weekly and season awards,” Jackson said. “I think they have an all-star game at the end of the season.”
In the bigger picture, he said, “We really want to compete for conference championships and advance to the NCAA tournament. That’s our biggest goal ... .”
Though the ECAC does not have an automatic bid into the NCAA Division II postseason, Jackson still sees a pathway to the playoffs.
“In order to get to the NCAA tournament, we need to win 21, 22 games a season and impress the selection committee enough to get an at-large bid,” he said.
Ultimately, he said, “I hope we can get into an NCAA conference that gets an automatic bid.”
Through all the challenges the program is working to overcome, Jackson said, “We appreciate the support” from the community.
He noted the next game at the Ned Shott Gym on campus is at 4 p.m. Jan. 18, playing Ohio Valley University.
“We look forward to having the fans out,” he said. “We look to finish strong, but we need the support of our fans to do that.”
— Contact Tom Bone at firstname.lastname@example.org