BOWLING GREEN - Nine games into the college basketball season, Bowling Green State University has lost just once. That success has been achieved by a team that coach Dan Dakich felt had the potential to be good, mediocre, or downright disappointing - depending on how it handled the nuances of the game.
The Falcons are 8-1, but not as a result of any top secret formula, the alignment of the planets, or the fact the basketball gods have decided to sprinkle good karma their way. It is much simpler than that, according to Dakich.
“We've played better defense, and I think that's a big part of it,” Dakich said. “And when we've needed a basket, we're not taking bad shots.”
Last year, when the Falcons started 4-5, the defense was suspect and the ill-advised shots rang out.
“I think a year ago right now we were giving up 80-plus points a game,” Dakich said. “You can't do that - ever, but we just didn't guard people. And we can't take bad shots, and last year when we needed a basket, particularly in the first 16 games, we took bad shots a lot of times.”
With two games left on the non-conference schedule (Detroit, Indiana State), the Falcons are holding the opposition to 71 points per game and 44 percent shooting from the field.
“We just made up our minds that we were going to play defense this year - period,” Dakich said. “Most teams, when they come into the individual work when school starts, most teams do skill work - passing, ball-handling, shooting. We did that last year, but this year we just decided to make defense our focus.”
Defense was the knockout punch in Saturday's 84-72 win on the road at Evansville. BG led 51-50 with 13 minutes left in the game, but built a 16-point advantage down the stretch by holding Evansville to just one field goal until the final minute of the game. It was the fourth time this season the Falcons had come back from a second-half deficit to win - always with defense.
“For the most part, we've played defense very well when we've gotten into the second half of games,” Dakich said. “We've put ourselves in position to be up double figures in the second half a number of times, and basically that's been because we've guarded people a little bit.”
Depth has been another factor, since BG had very little last season, but has received significant contributions this year from junior Cory Ryan, sophomores Josh Almanson, Jabari Mattox and Kevin Netter, and freshmen Erik Crawford, who has started eight games, Cory Eyink, Kris Wilson and Germain Fitch.
Seniors Keith McLeod, Len Matela and Brandon Pardon have been seeing about 30 minutes per game apiece, and senior Brent Klassen has been up around 20 minutes, but Dakich said the supporting cast has pushed the veterans to keep a certain edge.
“The way we practice and the way we play, I think it is really hard to maintain an intensity for 30-plus games and every day in practice,” Dakich said. When the more experienced players have not performed well, Dakich has gone to the bench and received quality minutes. “That's something we weren't able to do last year. We had to basically go with what we had and then beg, plead and borrow. This year we don't - and that's nice. You have to be able to have guys push each other to have a really good team over a 30-game period.”
The 8-1 record equals the best start for a Falcon team since the era of legendary coach Harold Anderson.
But this season's victories have not come against teams that BG played in the 1940s like Romulus Air Base, Crile General Hospital, and Toledo Naval. Although Anderson's 1961-62 team with Nate Thurmond and Howard Komives started 15-1 including wins over Duquesne, Michigan and Houston.
This year wins over established programs have brought some notoriety, but Dakich said there is still a chore list posted after each game.
“We get happier when we win, and ticked off when we lose - but that's just the emotion part of it,” he said. “There hasn't been a win yet where we've come in and said `Hey, you really played well, now let's move on to the next game.' There has been something bothering us after every win.
“I told these kids, let's relax in the middle of April - don't come to me now with being tired, and don't come to me with `Hey coach, you're never satisfied.' Let's see what happens and then we'll figure it out in April and see where we're at.”