Report card: Grading Evansville basketball’s non-conference performance

Chad Lindskog

| Evansville Courier & Press

EVANSVILLE — Although only one-quarter of the season is over, the Evansville Purple Aces are shifting their sights to the Missouri Valley Conference starting Sunday.

Throughout the non-conference slate, coach Todd Lickliter referred to games as “practice exams” for the Valley. The Aces passed a couple; they failed some. They, however, are at full strength and have shown glimpses of their potential lately.

UE (2-4) will play Southern Illinois (6-0) at 3 p.m. Sunday in Carbondale, followed by another game at 5 p.m. Monday.

These are the tests the Aces have been preparing to take. Let’s grade how they fared in the first month.

The good

UE realistically could be 4-2, perhaps even 5-1. That’s not the reality, but it’s a sign of progress and gives reason to be optimistic – especially with all the hurdles the coronavirus has forced them to maneuver.

The Aces were blown out by Louisville. Oh well. The Cardinals have never lost in November at the Yum! Center and cracked the AP Top 25 a couple weeks later.

Otherwise…

  • UE led by 10 before losing to Prairie View A&M.
  • It overcame a 14-point deficit to force double-overtime in a loss to Tennessee-Martin.
  • It won at home against Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri.
  • And it had a 10-point lead in last week’s loss to Belmont, a quality program akin to those atop the MVC.

While the team and fans alike surely would prefer to win, games have been entertaining. Plus, seniors Noah Frederking and Evan Kuhlman have been leaders to bring everyone along. Jawaun Newton has bolstered their defense after missing the first three games. Shamar Givance has been clutch running the show. And Samari Curtis appears to be a bonafide scoring option.

There’s depth emerging, too, though we’ll look more into that in a just a second.

The not-so-good

The Aces, like any team, are at their best when the ball is moving, shots are falling in rhythm and they’re defending the glass.

Yet, they rank last in the MVC in scoring offense (64.8 points), scoring margin (-7.8), shooting percentage (39%), defensive field-goal percentage (48%), rebounding margin (-7.8), assists (11 per game) and steals (4.2).

It’s clear they need to improve defensively to stay competitive, especially on back-to-back days against familiar programs.

They also now are playing at the fourth-slowest pace in the country. Tempo doesn’t necessarily indicate success either way — No. 16-ranked Virginia plays the slowest in the country. But it’s hard to win a low-possession game if shots aren’t falling or the other team is getting to the rim with ease.

Perhaps that will change in the MVC. It ultimately could end up being a strength by slowing down teams that love to run.

It also could save the legs for some of the Aces. Givance ranks second in the Valley in minutes per game at 35.5 while Frederking is third at 34.5. Newton doesn’t qualify yet, but he’s averaging 36.6 minutes.

UE has depth – the freshmen barely play – and rotations are far from set. The five Aces who’ve been on the team the longest simply are seeing the most minutes.

A sign of the times

Both of Valparaiso’s first two MVC series have already been postponed before league play even started. Cancelations and shutdowns certainly will continue even with everyone playing each other.

There were 24 non-conference games canceled or postponed for MVC teams. Evansville, of course, had two of those against IUPUI and Saint Louis, but only Bradley and Drake (seven games played) have seen more D-I competition than the Aces.

UE will face a hot SIU team to start. The Salukis can clinch their first 7-0 start since 1947-48 if they win Sunday. They’re the third-best 3-point shooting team in the country and coming off an upset victory over Butler.

KenPom has the Aces going 3-15 in the Valley, but it seems realistic to think most of these weekend series could wind up as splits. It’s hard to run it back the next day against the same opponent and win both times.

Who really knows what to expect over the next two months.

Midterm grade: C-

The Aces could’ve been better. They’ve come a long way from that blowout against Louisville, though.

Those first six games went about as expected. I think the pieces are falling into place and, sure, they should be .500, but they haven’t under- or over-performed to merit a drastically different grade.

If they would’ve played a normal non-conference schedule – usually about 13 games – and had been able to practice as “normal” in full groups, I think most of their hiccups would have been fixed by Christmas.

Six games down, 18 to go.

Contact Chad Lindskog of the Courier & Press by email, [email protected], or on Twitter: @chadlindskog.

MVC openers

Who: Evansville (2-4) at Southern Illinois (6-0)

When: 3 p.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. Monday, both at the Banterra Center in Carbondale

Broadcasts: ESPN+ (streaming), WJPS 107.1-FM

Scorching Salukis: They are off to their best start since 2003 and are coming off an upset victory over Butler, which had won a national-best 59 straight home games against non-conference opponents.

History: SIU leads the all-time series 73-57 after winning the last four meetings. UE last won in Carbondale on Feb. 11, 2017. The Aces are 17-44 at SIU.

KenPom says: The Aces are 11-point underdogs.

Latest posts