Blazers never looked right in 17-7 campaign
The Vincennes University men's basketball team may not have the yearly talent to compare to teams like Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, but the Trailblazers can relate to what that trio went through this past season.
All three of the so-called "bluebloods" of college basketball had a significant drop-off in wins as COVID-19 dictated play as much as any defense. Duke, at 13-11, was just percentage points ahead of 15-13 Michigan State. Kentucky was a ghastly 9-16.
The Trailblazers, the 2019 NJCAA champions, were better than that. But the 17-7 mark was their worst since coach Todd Franklin's first year at the school in 2010-11. That 18-13 team was almost all players the coach didn't recruit as he wasn't hired until late summer.
The lack of a routine season bothered VU and Franklin throughout the year. The Blazers, despite qualifying for a NJCAA record ninth straight national tournament, never looked right and even when they won games, the offense sputtered like a lawn mower in spring after taking the winter off. Their season-high in points was 84, which was very un-VU like.
That makes this offseason a little more important. Franklin noted with the season going an extra month, it limits the time to sign recruits, but he didn't agree that this offseason is much different than in the past.
"It's a big summer for our players, but it's always a big summer. We usually deal with it," Franklin said. "There's a reason why the record is only nine in a row for a team to go to Hutch. It's because it's hard.
"We had a funky year with COVID. We did OK, got back to Hutch, survived, and we thanked everybody for the effort," he said. "But it wasn't normally what it is for us. We didn't look the same. There were a lot of reasons for it, but we need to get back to the standard we have here."
Like every year, the Blazers are going to look a lot different. Given what happened this past season, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The only sure returnees are 6-1 freshman Brevin Jefferson, 6-5 sophomore Christian Wells, 6-4 sophomore Nigel Martin and 6-10 sophomore Deatrick Pashell. The latter three players are taking advantage of colleges granting an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
It's still questionable if last year's leading scorer, 6-7 freshman Justin Archer, is coming back. Franklin said he's going to meet with his center next week.
It makes for perhaps a double-digit recruiting class, but it's similar to the one a year ago. If Archer returns, that gives the Blazers four main rotation players, which is at least two more than last year.
"We have a good base to start a team, and we'll get some talented players in," Franklin said. "I'm looking for players who are going to be excited about being here and give a committed effort."
Given what he saw last season, the coach has a good idea what he needs.
"We need perimeter players who can break people down, get in the lane and score, or draw and kick," Franklin said. "It's hard to play today's game without it, and we did. We need to really upgrade our guard play. We have to have more physicality on the interior too. Those two areas we were really deficient compared to years in the past."
While Franklin said he likes his returnees, they have to make upgrades if they're going to be the focal point of the team.
Jefferson was the most solid player on the team, leading the team with 3.4 assists per game and had a favorable 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. He also was the team's best 3-point shooter at 40 percent and a sturdy defender. His 8.1 scoring average didn't stand out, and he wasn't the creator on offense that Franklin covets.
"Brevin had areas where he wasn't good enough, but he played a lot of high-level minutes and played pretty well in the tournament. He did his job," Franklin said. "He needs to work on his body, get quicker, more explosive. The thing is he knows where he is and can take that knowledge and be the voice of our team, be the leader when I'm not around. That's so undervalued."
Wells returning for his third season with the Blazers is a surprise. The son of former NBA player Bonzi Wells has been the player of the game more than once for VU and also the player who hasn't gotten on the floor. Wells averaged 9.2 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds last season, and with a healthy season, he's going to end up with the most games played for the Blazers in school history.
"Chris has had an up and down two years, but he wanted to be back here," Franklin said. "If he works and locks in, these next 365 days can be huge for him. He was a 9-and-7 guy last year and was not in the mix at times. We need him to sharpen his game. I'd like to see him evolve where he can stretch the floor and hit a 3 from the top or in the corner, and then punish players inside. He's capable of doing all of those things."
Martin and Pashell were sophomore transfers last year. They showed glimpses, but aren't as proven as Jefferson and Wells. Martin's odd season ended with him scoring 34 of his 56 points in the last two games. Pashell was in and out of the rotation before missing the last seven games due to injury.
"Nigel didn't have an offseason with us and was kind of in limbo land between playing the 3 or 4. Later in the year, he started to get some of it. In a normal year, he would have figured it out sooner. He could be a solid guy if he builds off of it. He has an opportunity," Franklin said.
"Deatrick is a wild card. He may not be a 30-minute player, but maybe something like 18 good minutes, like when (Romaro Gill and Dainius Chatkevicius) were here."
Then there's Archer, who showed a lot of promise with his team-bests 11.5 scoring average, 55 percent shooting and 1.4 blocks per game. But the center scored seven points in the last two games and his production ebbed and flowed throughout the season.
"Justin has a chance to make a big jump too, but he's going to have to convince me he wants to do the work," Franklin said. "His intensity needs to improve and he plateaued this past year. I don't need that."
The Blazers need to improve too. While 17-7 and a ninth-consecutive trip to the NJCAA Championship would please a lot of teams, it's not good enough for a junior college blueblood like Vincennes.
Blazers' last five seasons
Year: W-L|NJCAA Finals result
2020-21: 17-7|Lost in first round
2019-20: 28-5|No tournament played
2018-19: 34-2|Won championship
2017-18: 34-3|Finished fourth
2016-17: 32-3|Lost in 2nd round