By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: SU junior point guard Blair Davis guards the CNU offense. Emma Reider photo
With three games left in the men’s basketball season, it is looking more and more likely that the CAC Championship will go through York College (Pa.). Despite a rough two-game losing skid, the Spartans (20-2, 13-2 CAC) have a solid NCAA Tournament profile and a two-game lead in the CAC entering Saturday.
Earlier this week No. 7 York came out on top of the initial NCAA Regional Rankings with fellow CAC-team Christopher Newport University (17-5, 11-4 CAC) coming out in fifth so far. This set of rankings is used by the committee to select NCAA Tournament at-large bids.
While York seems to be racing towards the No. 1 seed in the CAC Tournament and home-field advantage with it, their final three-game stretch does not offer any respites. The Spartans host Salisbury (15-7, 11-4 CAC) and St. Mary’s (Md.) (3-19, 2-13 CAC) before travelling to CNU for their regular season finale.
That is two of the CAC top-four within a three-game stretch. On Saturday, it will be SU Head Coach Andy Sach’s Sea Gulls that will take the next jab at the surging Spartans.
Benefitting the Gulls is that York will be playing the game on one-day of rest instead of the typical two or three-day period. This stems from the postponement of York’s Wednesday game at Penn St. Harrisburg to Thursday night because of wintry weather in southern Pennsylvania.
“You’re going to come back [Thursday night] probably at like 11 pm, and then you have one day to get ready for us after classes. It ain’t easy,” Sachs said.
At this point in the season, York will face a Salisbury team with their backs up against the wall. Without a CAC Championship automatic berth, the Sea Gulls will likely not see the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four seasons.
However, Sachs’ Sea Gulls have shown to be a streaky side with their overall youth. On Jan. 3, Salisbury nearly ‘upset’ York in Maggs Physical Activities Center. It was a tight 84-81 win for the Spartans that came down to the final play of the game.
“I thought in the first half we did a great job on [Blayde] Reich. [Dalton] Myers got free, didn’t get a lot of points facing up. Defensively in the second half we weren’t great,” Sachs said. “We scored the basketball.”
For the Sea Gulls to complete a major upset in the rematch, many variables would need to go their way, but there is some life within the hope.
York’s undefeated season came to an end in two consecutive games, at Mary Washington and then at Frostburg State. They were two very different games with a combined 116 points and then 180 points respectively.
For Mary Washington, the Eagles were the beneficiaries of a slow shooting night for the Spartans. For Frostburg State, the Bobcats hit almost all their shots on the way to 95 points on the night. In both games though, there was a commonality.
While York displays veteran depth and scoring, they do not seem to have overall team depth. Six Spartans average over 20 minutes-per-game. In contrast, Salisbury only has two such players.
Within the Spartan squad, senior forwards Blayde Reich and Dalton Myers are the ones of focus inside the paint. Early foul trouble in games has benefitted opponents this season. The duo averages a combined 34.8 points-per-game this season, so it can be problematic for the Spartans.
“They have the best duo certainly that we’ve played all year. In film, I haven’t seen anybody better than those two guys. They have really good balance,” Sachs said.
“They try to protect Reich and Myers to keep them out of foul trouble. They have to have at least one of those dudes in the game. Each of them are hard to deal with. It’s a match-up issue for us.”
One method to get after the two inside the paint will be the driving ability of junior point guard Blair Davis. The Lincoln University (D-2) transfer as emerged beyond his facilitator role and into a reliable scorer, netting 10.9 PPG.
Other than his three-point shooting ability, senior forward Chad Barcikowski has also grown inside the paint this season by leading the Sea Gulls in rebounding. His short-range game may come in handy to get to the free throw line.
Getting to the line has not been a problem for SU. Instead, scoring at the charity stripe has not been ideal. Salisbury is shooting 65.5 percent at the line this season. The entire CAC has struggled with eight of the 10 teams under 70 percent.
In the fouling department too, SU has ranked last this season in personal fouls-per-game with 20.9. They have had their own issues with players in foul trouble during games.
“The problem is that Chad [Barcikowski] and Blair [Davis] have to stay out of foul trouble. They’re probably two all-league players,” Sachs said.
Taking the top-two SU scorers off the court is certainly going to be a focus for the Spartans as they face the most aggressive defense in the CAC.
Salisbury still dominates the conference in steals-per-game and forced turnovers-per-game. When successful, SU is relenting and can go on long runs in games. Despite the road atmosphere, Sachs says that his young guns do not fear the challenge.
“There’s not going to be any fear from us. We really haven’t played well in my two years down there. I think they’ll have a good crowd,” Sachs said.
The Sea Gulls have not won in York since Sachs has taken over.
It will be a tough challenge for a younger Salisbury team, but if it can be accomplished, the CAC could be turned around once again with SU charging at a first round conference tournament bye.