Just past the midway point of the 2008-2009 basketball season, the Millersville Marauders are in some unfamiliar territory.
Following two straight appearances in the Division II national tournament, the Marauders have found themselves struggling to stay afloat and away from the bottom-feeders of the PSAC East this season.
After falling to Kutztown Saturday, 88-65,—their third loss in a row— Millersville currently shares last place with Bloomsburg and Shippensburg in the PSAC East, sporting a division record of 0-2 and an overall record of 6-9.
Although the season is not unraveling quite like many hoped, it would be unfair to not recognize some of its brighter spots.
The season is still relatively young.
The Marauders are currently only two games back from first place, and still have twelve straight matchups against East opponents before the end of the regular season.
With a strong run in divisional play, the Marauders could secure a spot in the PSAC tournament where they would compete for their third consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“To go to the playoffs you have to win all your conference home games, and you have to steal a few of the away games,” head coach Fred Thompson said. The task may prove difficult for the Marauders, a team that is just 2-7 on the road this season.
It is not very far-fetched, although it may be easier said than done. High expectations heading into the season due to the success over the last couple of years may have clouded some of the realities about this year’s team.
Although many on the team would be unwilling to admit it, this is a team that is going through somewhat of a transitional stage.
The Marauders lost nine letter winners to graduation, four of whom were starters on last year’s team. Losing so many contributors has clearly had its affect.
The team’s numbers are down in many of the offensive and defensive categories from recent years. Perhaps the most disturbing figure is how much the team’s defense has struggled this season.
A physical and tough defense has become a staple for teams under Head Coach
“We need a lot of improvement. We need to improve our defense, teams are scoring at will on us,” Thompson said. “We’re also not rebounding like we were earlier in the season.”
Millersville currently allows 74.5 points per game, a significant six more points a game than last season, leaving them in 11th place out of 12 teams in the PSAC. Teams are shooting a healthy 45 percent from the floor, and steals are down from 10 a game last year to six a game this season. Millersville has also experienced their fair share of struggles on the offensive end as well.
The Marauders are 5-0 when they score at least 71 points a game this season, but 1-9 in all other games.
Although the team has improved its shooting percentage from the floor this season, the Marauders average just 69.2 points per game this year compared to 72.0 points per game last season. The drop-off in production could be due to many things.
“We have to execute better on offense as well,” Thompson said.
The Marauders rank 241 out of 270 teams with just 11.1 assists per game, a number down from the 13.3 assists per game they averaged last season.
Millersville was also ranked 225th in the assist to turnover ratio with just 0.7 assists for every turnover.
The numbers do not lie, but they do not tell the whole story either. The Marauders could easily have more wins under their belt. They have proved themselves capable against tough opponents as witnessed when they led IUP for most of the game before losing, or when they took then 21st –ranked Mercyhurst into overtime before losing a close four point game, a game in which they received a career-high of 19 points from freshmen Brandon Wiedener.
The team has reason to believe they can reach the postseason again because of the play of senior starting center Makal Stibbins. Alongside the team’s leading scorer and first team All-PSAC selection senior Reggie Bates, Stibbins has had a breakout year. A starter in 11 games last year and a double-double machine, Stibbins is the only Marauder to start all 15 games this season.
He is currently posting career-highs in points per game (14.8), rebounds per game (8.7) and blocks per game (2.0). Stibbins also has already collected seven double-doubles. Makal currently ranks 48th in the nation in rebounding, 33rd in blocked shots, and 13th in field goal percentage at an impressive 63 percent from the floor.
Still coach Thompson would like to see improvement from Stibbins on the defensive end.
“He’s been really good offensively, but he needs to improve defensively and as a leader.”
The Marauders face Bloomsburg Saturday in what has become almost a must-win situation for Millersville for the rest of the season.
Hopefully they are up to the challenge because the last time they started off 6-9 was in 2005-2006, where they finished 10-17 on the year.