Vectren Community Classic kicks off exhibition season

Pat Hickey

If it were up to USI men’s basketball head coach Rodney Watson or University of Evansville’s Marty Simmons, the scoreboard would most likely be off Saturday night as the crosstown universities gear up for an exhibition game at the Ford Center.

But make no doubt about it – nobody is more fired up for the upcoming matchup than Watson, who added seven newcomers and much-needed height to the Eagles’ roster. Against UE, Watson will get his first true look at how to maximize the depth he and his staff have added.

“We have to keep each player’s role defined and simple,” Watson said. “We have 13 or 14 guys that we feel can contribute immediately. What’s most important to me is to use the whole pie, and not let part of the pie spoil. It’s one thing to have depth, but it’s another thing to use it.”

Last year, the final coaches’ poll said the Eagles (who finished 24-7) were the sixth best team in the nation – an admirable feat, but after being sent home early in the opening round of the Midwest Regional, it meant nothing.

“Here, in all reality,” Watson said, pausing to look up at the banners hanging above the gym at the Physical Activities Center, “there’s one blue banner in here. And every once in a while we’ll look up at that banner and think about all the resources we have and the support we’re given. We have what it takes to hang a blue banner. But, talking about it and doing it are obviously two different things.”

Even a month ago, after it had been announced that the Great Lakes Valley Conference men and women’s tournament would be returning to Evansville this season, Watson stressed that just because it’s right down the road doesn’t mean they’re invited yet.

The Eagles are 72-16 in Watson’s three years at the helm. He’s coming off a season in which USI beat the top-ranked team in the country twice, and won a conference tournament title.

Defensively, the team emphasizes intense man-to-man pressure on the ball, with the remaining four players in zone defense. Frustrating and upsetting the opposition’s flow will be a priority for the Eagles. But where there’s pressure, Watson said they would need to communicate well and play intelligent help defense, since the style is susceptible to the drive.

Offensively, expect a mixed bag of possessions, especially considering the fact that the team’s top two scorers from last year have exhausted their four years of eligibility. Watson said they are going to utilize the team’s newfound size and individual strengths in an up-tempo style of play. Finding combinations of lineups that work the best will be the Eagles’ initial challenge.

“I think it’s starting to gel,” senior guard Lawrence Thomas said. “Everybody knows what everybody can and can’t do. That’s what’s going to make us good – everybody doing what they do best and rolling it all into one.

“Everybody knows we were guard-heavy last year. This year, pick your poison. We can go down low or spot up outside. Teams are going to have their hands full, though.”