TERRE HAUTE —
Rose-Hulman coach Jim Shaw is enjoying — as much as the defensive perfectionist will show it anyway — one of the best seasons in his 18 years as men’s basketball coach.
The Engineers, who helped Shaw reach his third Division III Tournament in 2012, have built off the momentum of last season to crack the D3hoops.com Top 25 for the first time since 1999. Rose-Hulman (15-2 overall, 9-1 HCAC) is currently 27th, partially thanks to a loss to a very good Transylvania squad earlier this month.
Still, the Engineers’ plans for a second chance at the D-III Big Dance have been imparted — and they’ve been evidenced by the Engineers’ impressive work at the defensive end throughout this season.
With a mark of 48.8 points, Rose-Hulman leads all NCAA men’s teams in points allowed.
“Defense is always our focus in practice. We try to hold everyone under 40 points,” said Julian Strickland, who stands 6-foot-3 and is joined by 6-3 point guard Austin Weatherford and 6-2 James Pillischafske in the backcourt.
Reserve 6-4 forward Nate Gissentanner plays heavy minutes, contributing in the paint and perimeter for Rose-Hulman.
What is the Engineers’ formula for success?
It starts with discipline to play oustanding help defense in a man-to-man system.
“We can be a little bit more under control. Our defensive philosophy is don’t make mistakes, don’t give up anything easy, make the other team take challenged jump shots then rebound the ball,” Shaw said.
“With Julian, Nate and Austin, everybody that plays on the perimeter really, with the exception of Jordy — who’s a bulldog — has good length. We can challenge jump shots. I want to impose our will and break the people’s will at the defensive end.”
Jon Gerken and Brenton Balsbaugh also play a big part in the Engineers’ ability to keep opponents at a 38.3-percent field-goal shooting mark. But the fact that Rose-Hulman has 105 3-point makes to opponents 57 stands out.
“Our wing length and versatility really helps us defensively. That, and Balsbaugh and Gerken are about as good defensively as you see at our level,” Shaw said. “Strickland is a tremendous defender and we can back him up with a lot of length.”
The only statistic Shaw is terribly concerned with is the victories as the Engineers will have a dogfight from aforementioned Transylvania to stay atop the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference standings.
As good as the Engineers are defensively, they get the job done in an equally team-oriented way on the offensive end. For Rose-Hulman to put together an 11-game winning streak —a run ended with a home loss to defending regular-season HCAC champion Transylvania — coach Shaw’s squad had to be able to put the ball in the bucket.
Shaw credits the Engineers’ offensive execution for helping keep that points allowed number so low.
“Some of that’s a product of tempo and possessions. Because we run motion, we use a lot of the clock at our offensive end. It’s hard to get quick shot against us and we don’t usually take quick shots,” Shaw said.
Strickland leads the way at 14.4 ppg, while Weatherford connects for 11.9 ppg. Between those two and Pillischafske, the Engineers have a precise trio of outside shooters. Strickland is among the HCAC leaders at 41.3 percent as the trio has combined for 68 3-pointers in 17 games.
“As a team we have good shot selection. On defense we do a good job of knowing who their shooters are,” Pillischafske said. “Julian and Austin take away so much attention. Most teams concentrate on those two because they’re so good getting to the basket and scoring. When they help off of me, they do a good job of finding me. I’ve got the easy part: Just shoot the ball.”
The Engineers are back in action Thursday against Manchester at 7:30 p.m.
“We’ve got a lot of momentum going,” Weatherford said. “Guys were really motivated to come back and get better. That’s what we’ve done, the hard work we put in during the preseason’s paying off. Really happy with where we’re at, and hopefully we can keep getting better.”