TERRE HAUTE —
A 60-46 loss at Transylvania on Saturday did not help Rose-Hulman’s chances, but coach Jim Shaw’s Engineers are still in their best position to capture a Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference men’s basketball championship and earn an NCAA Division III tournament bid in several years.
Saturday’s setback dropped Rose (12-3 overall) out of a first-place tie with Transylvania and into a three-way tie for second with Hanover and Franklin, all 6-2 in HCAC play and one game behind 7-1 Transylvania.
“Transylvania is really good,” Shaw stressed Sunday. “When you play really good teams, you have to play well. I don’t think we played terrible, but we didn’t play well enough to beat a really good team on its home floor when it’s playing well like Transy was.”
The Engineers have a key home matchup with Franklin (9-6 overall and riding a three-game winning streak) on Wednesday, starting at 7:30 p.m. in Hulbert Arena. On Saturday, they’ll travel to Bluffton (10-5, 4-4) to start a three-game road swing that also includes trips to Manchester (Jan. 25) and Mount St. Joseph (Jan. 28).
“We’re in the middle of a tough stretch, playing really good teams,” Shaw noted. “This Wednesday, we play a really good team at home, but playing at home is no magic elixir. We have to play well. The conference race is tight and it’s going to remain that way, so every game is important to everyone. We can’t pout about getting beat at Transy. We have to come out and play Wednesday.”
Last Wednesday, Shaw’s squad put itself into the first-place tie by winning a 71-70 decision at Anderson. Julian Strickland, a 6-foot-3 sophomore guard from Pike High School in Indianapolis, led the Engineers in scoring that night with 24 points.
Asked what he did well against Anderson, Strickland replied: “Just getting it to the hole. Lately, I had been settling, so coach [Shaw] stressed to me to stop settling … stop taking jumpshots when I know I can get closer to the basket. If I keep taking it to the basket, I think I’ll have a lot of success.”
Strickland and 6-2 sophomore guard Austin Weatherford have emerged as the Engineers’ top scorers this season with averages of 12.7 and 11.0 points per game respectively. Strickland also tallied a team-high 15 points against Transylvania.
Strickland said the primary reason for Rose-Hulman’s recent success has been players “playing to our potential.”
“In practice, coach pushes us real hard, harder than the games — makes the games seem pretty much easier than practice,” he explained. “We look at our opponents as harder than they really are … then we come in and play hard.”
Shaw praised the effort of his players, although he added there is plenty of room for improvement.
“I think that we have generally defended pretty well,” the veteran coach assessed. “There have been a couple times when it’s taken us a while to figure out exactly how to defend people. Wednesday night [at Anderson] was one of those times. It took us a while to figure out how to guard Anderson a little bit better.
“And the other thing that I think has really helped us is our depth. We have a number of guys who can contribute. What’s happened a few times is there’s a few guys MIA [missing in action], as I say, but there’s been some other guys who have picked us up. Pretty much every night, at least a couple guys have played well enough to give us that push to win the game. What we really want is for everybody to start showing up every night. That’s when we’ll truly reach our potential, which I think is pretty high.”
The Engineers clearly didn’t reach their potential against Transylvania, but they’ll get another chance to face the Pioneers — this time in Hulbert Arena — on Feb. 4.
Looking ahead, Shaw insists — quite believably — that he is not thinking one bit about the NCAA Division III tournament, which Rose has not been a part of since 1999. The Engineers also went to the Division III version of the “Big Dance” in 1997 and 1996 under Shaw.
“We’re not worried about that,” he emphasized. “There’s a long way to go. We play in an extremely tough conference. We’re not even halfway through the conference season yet.
“We’ve got a conference tournament at the end [which takes in the top six teams from the regular -season standings], so the NCAA tournament is every team’s goal. But if you lock in on that, you’re making a big mistake. You gotta lock in on the next game and conference play. That makes each game fun because they’re all important.”
On a personal note, however, Shaw admits that he’s missed the thrill and excitement of NCAA tournament atmosphere for his teams over the last 13 years.
“I miss it,” he said. “It was nice to go those years. Going to the NCAA tournament is a tremendous experience for the kids. I certainly want this group of guys to have that experience. But it doesn’t just come. You have to earn it and you have to earn it over time, then be ready to go and keep improving by the end of the year. That’s what we’re focused on. The NCAA tournament is the furthest thing from my mind right now.”
Despite the occasional loss, Shaw also acknowledged this has been a fun season for him.
“Yeah it’s fun because I’ve got a bunch of guys who are really committed to the same goal,” he pointed out. “Anytime that happens, it makes it fun every day.”
Based on the score of Saturday’s loss to Transylvania, there may be a few not-so-fun moments for players during Rose-Hulman practices over the next few days.
“I think we need more consistent inside play, particularly offensively,” Shaw said during a calm moment late last week. “We’ve got to get some production from our post players offensively. We’ve got to finish opportunities better at the offensive end and just get a little bit more consistent.”
One thing is for sure: Rose players aren’t ready to provide opponents with bulletin-board material about how they’re going to win the conference, although they believe it is a realistic goal.
“We’ll see,” Strickland remarked. “I’m not going to speak too soon. I know we can do really well if we keep playing to our potential.”