It all seemed so promising; until it didn’t. The pieces all seemed to fit perfectly; until they didn’t. The team looked poised for a deep run; until it didn’t.
After an almost magical start to the 2019-20 College Basketball Season, the Western Carolina Catamounts have come down to earth a bit. They currently sit at a 7-6 record against Conference opponents, for the most part failing to win against teams above them in the standings (the lone exception coming against Wofford on January 25th).
The team’s latest home loss came February 8th at the hands of Furman, currently tied for first place in the conference. Jordan Lyons led the way for the Paladins with 33 PTS on 10-of-14 shooting. Alex Hunter chipped in with 21 PTS on 5-of-7 shooting; the team as a whole shot 50% from the floor.
The Catamounts, meanwhile, were led by Onno Steger with 24 PTS, who hit 7 threes. Mason Faulkner had 22 PTS.
This game was telling of some overarching issues for the Catamounts. The offense is certainly not perfect, but with shooters across the board sans Carlos Dotson, the offense is usually able to put them over the edge despite a mediocre assist to turnover ratio from Faulkner (1.74).
The defense, however, is another thing. To be quite frank, it is hard to believe in the pack line defense, instilled by Head Coach Mark Prosser, after such a large sample size. This team is small, with a rotation that features a raw 6’9” big in Xavier Cork as its tallest player, so it makes sense at first to make this your base defense. When put in practice, however, sticking to this strategy often brings more bad than good.
The Catamounts give up a high amount of threes as a direct result of playing the gaps, a necessary sacrifice in order to successfully clog the lane and prevent drives. In a modern age of basketball where threes are the driving force of most every team, it is hard to see how the math favors Western.
Often times, even clogging the lane is unsuccessful. Post defense is subpar, often getting beat with simple drop-steps by taller offensive players. The rebounding numbers are high, with Carlos Dotson leading the conference at 9.9 RPG, but the eye test does not quite check out. Often times Western will give up crucial offensive rebounds late in games, when energy levels just are not as high, to the dismay of Ramsey Center’s beloved “Cat Cage” student section.
And yet, this gets them by on most outings; no need to worry about defense when your offense is in full swing, right? But take February 12th’s crushing defeat to the UNCG Spartans. In this game, Carlos Dotson put up a career-high 32 PTS and grabbed 12 REB… in a twenty point loss. The rest of the team put up just 30 PTS, shooting a miserable 3–of-18 from three point range and a lowly 21-of-60 overall.
After the loss of starting wing Kameron Gibson about a month back, the team has not looked the same. Coach Prosser has tried plugging in Travion McCray, Marcus Thomas, and Tyler Harris, opting for the latter in recent matchups, but none have brought the same level of consistency Gibson provided. Before succumbing to knee surgery, Gibson averaged 8.6 PTS and hit the elite threshold of 40% from three point range.
This is not to say this season hasn’t been a great success for the Catamounts. Often the laughingstock of the Southern Conference, they‘ve beat the teams they’re supposed to and garnered respect from their opponents, who now game plan more thoroughly than in years past. Mason Faulkner’s growth has been a pleasure to watch up close.
Most importantly, the student body absolutely loves this team! It has reinvigorated a dormant fan base, who for years was dying to have someone to cheer for. #PackTheRAC has been nothing short of a success for an Athletics Department currently searching for a new director. This season has proved that a winning culture is something this school can get behind.
The seeds for this culture have been planted, and only time will tell how Western will choose to grow these seeds. For right now though, this team has a lot of question marks surrounding it. With only a handful of games left in the season, it’ll be interesting to see if Coach Prosser finds the right rotation come Tournament time.
Maybe then will this team fulfill its promise; maybe then things will click; maybe then they’ll go further than they’ve ever been before.