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November 25, 2013
Aces from the outside
The outside shooting numbers for Marty Simmons' starting backcourt at Evansville through the first five games are simply staggering. Guards D.J. Balentine and Adam Wing have combined to knock down 21 of 31 from behind the 3-point line, a 67.7 percent rate.
As a team, Evansville's 3-point shooting rate of 54.8 percent against Division One opponents is well above any other Division One program. The only other team making half or more of their three pointers is the Purple Aces' in-state and Missouri Valley Conference rival Indiana State. The Sycamores are right at 50.0 percent (Division One games only).
"They are not hunting threes," said Indiana head coach Tom Crean on Monday. "They are a good spacing team. Our guys will see more cuts, screens, flair screens, curls, they will see more of that in 10 minutes than they will see in three weeks. They are very good at that. Right now they are shooting the ball with great confidence. They are very good at finding their isolations and being relatively creative out of a couple of actions that they run that you have to be prepared for. I think it's going to put a ton of pressure on us as a young group to go against that type of movement offensively."
A 5-0 start may have many Purple Aces fans thinking the 2013-14 season may not be the rebuilding year some labeled it following the departure of leading scorer Colt Ryan and other key veterans.That 2012-13 team earned 21 wins and a 10-8 conference record. The exodus has left a young team as evidence by a starting lineup that consists entirely of freshman and sophomores.
"This is the best Evansville team we have seen since we have been here," said Crean. "Their scoring average and their offensive abilities with shooting the three and getting to the foul line and their field goal percentage is tremendous."
Leading the way is Kokomo soph D.J. Balentine. To say the 6-foot-2 guard is blossoming is an understatement. He's now the nation's fourth leading scorer at 29.6 points per contest. And it's not like he's had a couple big games to skew his average. Balentine has scored 29 points in four of the five Evansville games and had 32 against cross-rate rival Valparaiso last Wednesday. Thus far he's knocked down 15-for-23 from beyond the arc, a 65.2 percent rate.
Balentine hasn't come out of nowhere for those that closely follow basketball in Indiana. He had recruiting interest from multiple Big Ten programs and helped lead his Kokomo team to the Class 4A state title game in 2011. He was an Indiana All-Star in 2012, one of the most heralded in-state classes ever. Balentine more than held his own, often scoring in double figures in the games against Kentucky and Junior All-Stars.
"To see where he has come, being a very good player in high school to being on the road to being an elite guard in college, speaks volumes about the way Evansville is developing players and coaching them," said Crean.
The 6-foot-4 Wing (13.4 ppg), also a sophomore, doesn't take nearly as many shots from deep as Balentine but has only missed twice this year on eight 3-pointers. He's also only missed twice in 22 free throw attempts. He came on last year to start the final 10 games of the year.
Besides the blossoming of those two sophomores, a big change over a year ago for Simmons is a boost from a pair of freshman point guards. 6-foot-3 Duane Gipson was the Cleveland Plain-Dealer Player of the Year last year as a senior at the well known Villa Angela-St. Joseph's program. He averaged 8.9 assists playing with a frontline with three 6-foot-7 and up players including five-star prospect Carlton Bragg. Gipson was the Division 4 state championship MVP after leading that team to the state title.
What Gibson has shown thus far at Evansville is those assist numbers in high school weren't just due to that big frontcourt. He had 10 assists last week in the 100-92 win over Valparaiso and 11 assists this weekend in a win over Anderson University. Unlike the other guards, Gipson is not a shooter (zero 3FG attempts) but can score when needed as his 23-point game against a Mercer team a week ago shows.
Fishers, Indiana native Jaylon Brown has also bolstered the point spot. His high flying ability helped him draw some high major looks in high school. He had four assists in the win over Valparaiso and seven points in the victory over Mercer.
That 89-76 win over Mercer shouldn't be discounted. The Georgia team has already knocked off Seton Hall of the Big East and nearly won at Texas to start the season.
The other true freshman making an impact is a guy that the program didn't have to travel to recruit. Blake Simmons, son of the head coach, is a 6-foot-5 forward who was an Indiana All-Star after averaging 24 ppg at Castle High. Like his father, he's an excellent shooter, hitting 40 percent and averaging 11.8 points per game game despite having to often do battle against bigger forwards.
The only true post to start for the Aces is 6-foot-10. 225-pound Lithuanian Egidiju Mockevicius. He's a bit raw and is only seeing about 18 minutes per game, but he does give Evansville some beef to throw at teams. Other guys with some size that play are junior forwards Ryan Sawvell (8.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Jaylon Moore (3.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg).
If early season numbers are an indication, defensive play is the major weakness for the Aces. Opponents are shooting nearly 48 percent against Evansville. That will have to change if the Aces want to compete for an MVC title.
Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. and Kevin Kugler and Stephen Bardo will have the call on the Big Ten Network.
For more on the Aces, check out the Hoosier Game Day page.
Projected Evansville starters and key reserves with current year stats: