The past two seasons have seen the Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles fall just short of the NCAA tournament. Consecutive 19-win seasons have left them wondering if just one more win could have changed their fates.
They are leaving no room for wondering thus far in 2016.
USI is 11-0 on the 2016-17 season, jumping into the last National Association of Basketball Coaches Poll at No. 24. With a bevy of returning starters and transfers, like forwards Julius Rajala and DayJar Dickson as well as guard Marcellous Washington adding to their depth, the hot start doesn’t surprise head coach Rodney Watson.
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“I think it’s kind of right where we want to be,” Watson said. “We have eight returning guys, a group who is really committed. We have very good guards coming back, and we were able to go get a couple big guys that have been impact players. The three transfers in particular have helped us solidify and bolster what we needed defensively.”
The Screaming Eagles are led by their three seniors. Jeril Taylor and Cortez Macklin transferred in before last season after winning the 2013 Division II JUCO national championship. Bobo Drummond had transferred in from Wright State the season prior. The three are building off their first campaign together last season and are really energizing this team.
“I think the one thing that my experience teaches is that you are going to be as good as your seniors,” Watson said. “We have three seniors that all have excellent pedigree. Jeril Taylor and Cortez Macklin were high school teammates. It’s an interesting dynamic. Then add in Bobo Drummond, it all starts with those guys.”
Taylor, in particular, is having a season to remember. He is leading the team in both points and rebounds per game with 19.1 and 7.7 respectively. He has already won two Great Lakes Valley Conference Player of the Week Awards, so his work has not gone unseen. His play both inside and outside the box commands opposing defenses' attention — both his man’s as well as his teammate’s — and that leads to more openings for everybody.
“The thing with Jeril is that we asked him to slow down,” Watson said. “He was going so fast a year ago. What he didn’t realize was that when he slows down, he’s still going really fast. He’s bought into doing more with less; fewer dribbles, fewer shot attempts and his results are impressive. He leads us in rebounding, and that’s a stat you can’t fake. You can never rebound too much. You can overpass, you can over shoot and you can over dribble, but you can never rebound too much. That’s what he really brings to our team.”
It doesn’t stop with their seniors, however. This season, the team voted sophomore guard Alex Stein their captain. Amongst a strong senior presence, Stein’s play and passion still warranted his teammates to put him in a role of leadership. He has responded by leading the team in points scored with 207 and assists at 49.
“We have a unique player in Alex Stein,” Watson said. “In all of my 35 years of doing this, no one has ever worked as hard as Alex Stein, and he has earned so much respect from our team. He’s such a leader by his presence.”
The 2016-17 rendition of the Screaming Eagles are deep. Eight players are scoring six or more points per game. Every team goes through cycles, losing big scoring seniors on an annual basis. Watson has an interesting philosophy, one in which he doesn’t believe one person has to step up and shoulder the load of the points lost from the season prior.
“We tell him to get us one more basket and maybe two more free throws a night,” Watson said. “Over the course of 40 minutes, that’s really doable. Then you take that approach to everybody, and if everybody can get one more basket, all of a sudden, it’s a really doable thing. Our guys have bought into that concept.”
USI comes out of the holiday break to face Bluefield State before entering the heart of GLVC play. The GLVC has teams that annually adorn the nation’s Top 25, with Bellarmine and Drury currently in the NABC Poll alongside USI. Six teams in the conference already have at least nine wins on the season, making it no easy task for any team to come out on top by season’s end.
“In this league, so much of your preparation is right now,” Watson said. “You have to be ready now. What’s important is that you can’t think about Truman and then Quincy. If you start thinking about that second game, you lose that first one. Every single night, you’re seeing very good players and excellent coaches. That was what really impressed me when I came here.”
Watson knows that despite this team meeting his lofty expectations thus far, his players are entering new territory. He knows his players have the talent to succeed, but now he has to focus on the mental aspect and keep his team level-headed and humble in order to survive through March.
“You watch a little bit of film,” Watson said of how he keeps his team grounded. “When you watch film, you are never as good as you think you are, but you are never as bad as you think you are. It points those things out. The fans get really excited about national rankings, and we love that for the fans. But we have to make sure that we understand that the rankings from one to eighty is really pretty thin.”