Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Damien Blair knows his team is close. But that final step can be a tough one for a young team, going from the group that can win to one that does with regularity.
Blair, the West Chester men’s basketball coach for the last 14 years — technically in his 13th year as head coach, thanks to the canceled COVID season — has seen plenty of success in his time with the Golden Rams. Four NCAA Tournament appearances since 2014 are proof enough of that.
This year’s WCU squad isn’t quite ready to go dancing, at least not as it sits in mid-to-late January. But they’re not far off, either.
“If we can continue to get better every day [...] anything can happen,” Blair said. “We’ve had some COVID issues, we had some injuries — you name it, we’ve had it. It’s been a very difficult year to kind of manage it all, and the kids have done a really good job of just keeping their head down and continuing to grind.”
Matt Dade (above) and West Chester beat Lock Haven 93-82 on Wednesday night. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
The Golden Rams sit at 10-6 overall in the 2021-22 season, with a 5-6 record in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) following a 93-82 win over Lock Haven on Wednesday night at Hollinger Fieldhouse. That has them in fourth place in the PSAC’s East Division, behind Shippensburg (13-5, 10-3), East Stroudsburg (11-5, 9-3) and Millersville (15-4, 9-4).
Though the differences in records seem sizable, a few points here and there would have made a huge difference for WCU. There was a 73-72 home loss to Millersville last week, two days after a 94-92 loss at Kutztown, and a four-point defeat at ESU on Monday. A total of 10 more points for the Golden Rams, or a few more stops here and there, and West Chester’s right in the mix.
“We’re young, a lot of these teams have been together for a while, they’re disciplined,” third-year sophomore Matt Dade said. “We’re just trying to get better every day, young teams normally play well in the beginning; middle of the season, [they] see where they’re at. Our biggest goal is just when it’s February, playoff time, we’re the team that’s the one to beat.”
There are quite a few reasons for Blair to be optimistic that his group can still figure it out.
Primary among them is that the Rams are indeed young, with six true freshmen on the roster, quite a few of whom are playing significant minutes. One of those true freshmen, Bishop McDevitt product Robert ‘Man-Man’ Smith, is leading West Chester in scoring (15.4 ppg); his classmate since McDevitt, Jamil Manigo, is fourth at 12.3 ppg. Smith had 17 points against Lock Haven on 7-10 shooting, including 3-of-3 from downtown.
Elijah Allen, now healthy after injuring his meniscus in the fall, has been a boost to the Rams. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Another intriguing newcomer is Dover (Del.) native Elijah Allen, who scored 18 points to lead WCU in its win over Lock Haven. Allen started his college career at Wagner, where he averaged 6.8 ppg in 17 games (16 starts) last season, but he left the team after the season and ended up coming back closer to home.
The 6-foot-3 guard suffered a setback just before the fall term began when he tore his right meniscus during a workout, knocking him out the early part of the season. He returned to the court for the first time Jan. 15 against Mansfiled and moved into the starting lineup two games later; he’s now averaging 13.2 ppg and 5.8 rpg through six games.
“I’m still trying to get my flow, trying to get my game back,” he said, “but I’ve got my teammates, they bring me up when I’ve got down days, coaches bring me up when I’ve got down days. We’re just going to keep pushing it day by day."
(Allen isn't the only WCU player who's missed time this season; only six players have seen action in all 16 games. That the Golden Rams are returning to full health is another reason things are looking up.)
Along with the freshmen, there’s a large sophomore contingent, most of whom started their college careers in 2019-20 but sat out the 2020-21 year along with the rest of the PSAC, and who now form the core of the team, along with a few third and fourth-year juniors. Nobody on the team is in their final year of eligibility.
“We’re a new team,” said Dade, the team’s second-leading scorer (14.1 ppg) and leading rebounder (8.9 rpg), who contributed 11 points and 8 rebounds against Lock Haven. “We’re just trying to mesh as soon as possible, and we know it’s definitely a process. Time is definitely ticking, but I feel very confident that when it’s the end of the season, that we’ll be ready to beat everybody.
“I think the more we play, the more we start to trust each other and just staying disciplined as a unit, we’re doing a lot better job of communicating with each other,” the Episcopal Academy product added. “You see these teams in the PSAC that have been with each other for a long time, they know when it’s time to lock in as a unit, get three stops in a row, don’t let them score. We’re just working towards that and trying to do it every time we play, keep it consistent.”
Another positive for Blair’s group is their ability to light it up from anywhere on the floor.
Wednesday night was an offensive show for West Chester for the first 30 minutes, as the PSAC’s highest-scoring offense (85.6 ppg) was on pace to score 110 points for much of the evening. Though they cooled off near the end, the Golden Rams still had nine players score six-or-more points, shot 13-of-19 (68.4%) from 3-point range and 33-of-63 (52.4%) overall, with 23 assists against 12 turnovers.
Robert 'Man-Man' Smith has been West Chester's leading scorer as a true freshman. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
For a while, it seemed like every WCU shot that went up found nothing but the bottom of the night, from turnaround 3-pointers off the fingers of junior Josh Samec or a couple Smith floaters, freshman Cam Polak’s 4-of-6 outing from deep or pull-up jumpers by sophomore guard Kyle McGee.
“I’ll tell you what,” Blair said, “there’s one thing this group can do, and that’s put the ball in the basket.”
The other end, at the moment, continues to be an issue. West Chester’s allowing 81.4 ppg, fourth-worst in the PSAC. They’re in the middle of the pack in terms of defensive field-goal percentage (.437, 10th in the conference) and fourth in the PSAC in 3-point defense (30.9%), but their opponents have made more foul shots (288) than anyone else in the conference except Seton Hill, with whom they’re tied.
“The areas that we struggle with are guarding the ball, and then finishing plays,” Blair said. “There are times that we do a decent job of keeping people in front and we get some help from our post players and our rotations, and then the ball goes up, and we don’t finish the play and box out.
“I think that’s our youth, they’re used to just watching the ball rather than putting a body on a guy, securing the ball, then coming down the other end and executing.”
With all the youth and upside the Golden Rams have, it’s hard not to think that they’ll at least be ready to challenge for a PSAC title next season, assuming the majority of the talent returns as expected.
But they know that they don’t have to wait a year. There’s still plenty of time to rise up the PSAC standings and into the league playoffs, with 10 league games remaining, including two opportunities against Shippensburg (Feb. 9, Feb. 14), a home date with Kutztown (Feb. 16), a trip to Millersville (Feb. 23) and a visit from East Stroudsburg (Feb. 26) in the season finale.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that we have a young team coming back for the years going on, but we can’t really worry about the future,” Allen said. “We’ve got to handle the task at hand right now.”