It’s less than 24 hours before the college’s men’s basketball team tips off the first round of the District V playoffs against Labette this Saturday, March 2. Merely seconds into a Thursday afternoon practice session, head coach Mike Jeffers is already encouraging his team to do better.
“Let’s get it right the first time,” the Cavalier coach, who is on his 27th season with the college, shouts while a layup drill breaks out.
This type of preparation is paramount for the Cavs, who ended the regular season at 26-4. They’ll enter the playoffs a man short following freshman Isiah Sears’ season-ending knee injury, which he sustained two weeks ago. The 6-foot-8-inch, 220-pound forward played an important part in the team’s production this season, averaging 8.5 points, 4.1 rebounds on 42 percent three-point shooting in the 28 games he played.
Down, but not out, the team now begins to adapt without one of their front-court pieces during the most stressful part of the season.
“You’re never prepared for an injury, but it’s a big loss this late in the season, now having to find a rhythm going into the playoffs,” Jeffers said. “[Sears’ injury] now affects our rotation [during games], it affects our guards on the floor because we’re playing guys they aren’t used to playing with.”
Even though roster continuity is still in flux, Jeffers believes utilizing the game plan he’s done all season, by playing ‘inside-out,’ is key to preventing a slip-up in the playoffs.
“If you lose someone [of Sears’ caliber] you’re going to have to go with a smaller lineup,” Jeffers said. “[But even then] we’re always focused on playing inside-out: we’re either posting or driving to the basket for layups and not settling for jump shots.”
Much of Jeffers’ concern of playing from the interior stems to the drop-off in offensive efficiency lately. After averaging 92 points per game on 52.1 percent shooting throughout the season’s first three months, the Cavaliers’ offense dipped in February: averaging 71.4 points on 40.8 percent shooting. The last two contests came without Sears, in which they only averaged 60.5 points.
“We need to find our offensive rhythm again; there is so much that goes into offense in basketball, it’s harder to put together,” Jeffers said. “You don’t go from shooting 50 percent on the year to 34-36 percent in some games with the same shooters. Our shooters didn’t suddenly become bad shooters, but we have been taking bad shots, we’re taking pressured mid-rangers instead of making the extra pass to an open player.”
While Jeffers thinks the Cavs “can beat teams with a variety of guys a game,” he still hopes that the team’s two mainstays, forward David Turner and guard Nick Larkin, remain consistent in the playoffs.
“Our balance and depth have been our strength all year long; we have started 10 different players,” Jeffers said. “It’s been different guys on different nights, but it really helps when Nick Larkin and David Turner have great games. When those two guys have really good games, we’re on the left-hand side column.”
Turner has transformed his game this season. While his strength is sending opponents’ shots into orbit, evidenced by his 2.7 blocks per game, Turner has proved to be more than just a mobile rim-protector. His ability to rebound (8.7 boards per game) and score (13.3 points per game) has galvanized the Cavs’ attack.
“Now that the playoffs have hit, I’m looking to step up my game any way possible,” Turner said. “I’ve got to be a bigger factor than I already was in the regular season. I’ve been priding myself on defense this year. We’re a lot bigger now, which translates to more help in the paint, but even then, I have to keep my man in front of me. If my offense is not there, I always make sure my defense is. I can’t be off on both sides.”
In addition to Turner’s attention to detail on defense, Larkin’s ability to do a little bit of everything has propelled the Cavs as a whole. He leads the team in assists (6.4), steals (1.7) and is second in points (12.6) and rebounds (6.3), all despite being listed at six feet.
“Nick’s biggest thing is when he locks in and rebounds,” Jeffers said. “For a six-foot guard to have games of 14 and 16 rebounds is out of sight. When he does that, the scoring and the assists fall in line.”
To go along with that, Larkin is also one of only two players on the team (the other is Turner) to shoot over 50 percent from the field on at least six field-goal attempts per game. Larkin credits his proficient shooting to the team’s stellar defense, which allows him the opportunity to score in transition run-outs.
“Just playing defense, stopping the other team and being aggressive, by doing that, it gets our offense going, and it puts me in a good position to score,” Larkin said.
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, Jeffers said his biggest concern heading into playoffs is mental preparation.
“It’s a two-edged sword: you’ve got to stay sharp, you’ve got to practice hard, but you want to stay healthy,” Jeffers said. “We’ve had a week break, but we just need to focus on us and what we do well.”
For Jeffers, the length of the season contributes to mental and physical weariness, which makes the playoffs harder than the regular season.
“The biggest thing right now, when it comes down to it, is which team has more guys that want to keep playing,” Jeffers said. “It’s such a long season, it’s such a grind. There are players on every team, at any level that want their season to be over. It’s about how many guys on your team that is ready to extend it another game, another day, another practice. If we want to keep playing, we’ll come out and give the effort to keep playing.”
If the Cavaliers extend their season, they’ll play for the District championship in Park City, Kan., on Tuesday, March 4. A win there guarantees a trip to the National tournament in Danville, Illinois from March 19-23.