KENNESAW, GA — The outcome of the contest had already been decided, but Tyler Hooker isn’t one to set his speed to cruise control.
Facing Division III Piedmont College, Kennesaw State was up by 18 points with 5:35 to play. That’s when Hooker — KSU’s backup point guard — corralled a rebound, cut past one defender, outran another, and disregarded a third as he elevated to the rim to throw down a one-handed slam.
Now the lead was at 20 points, but moments later, Nick Masterson extended it by flushing a three pointer. The KSU Owls would go on to win Thursday night at the Convocation Center, 77-54, for a decisive first victory of the season.
It was a win over a lower-level team, sure, but in this game, the Owls unveiled a recipe for how they will have to play this season in order to rack up more victories.
The tempo will have to be mixed. The scoring must be spread out. The offense must run through its guards. Three-pointers must be made — especially by Masterson — and the Owls must do a superb job of stopping the opposition from connecting on those deep shots.
Al Skinner said as much in his post-game press conference. The 65-year-old has seen a lot of basketball in his day, and just three games into this season, he is comfortable identifying the strengths and weaknesses of his team.
“We cannot afford on offense to have guys standing around,” Skinner said between sips of an orange Powerade. “Standing around, heads down, trying to go one-on-one, first pass, first shot. That’s not good basketball for us. When you have horses around the basket that can rebound then that’s not a problem, but obviously we don’t have that.”
There was some standing around in the first half Thursday night in Cobb County, which led the Owls to have just a six-point lead over the Division III side at halftime. But a 16-4 run over the first seven minutes in the second half put the game out of reach for Piedmont. And that run was the product of running.
Not just sprinting up and down the court and charging to the basket, but from quick cuts and smart passes in the half court. During that run, six of the Owls baskets were assisted.
“The energy from the jump was a lot better,” Masterson said.
Masterson was key for Kennesaw State on Thursday night, and will have a lot of say in which games they win or lose this season. The 6’6 senior led the team in scoring with 18 points and also added two assists, two steals, and two rebounds.
He’s a local product, having gone to high school just 10 miles up the road at River Ridge in Cherokee County. Masterson brings a lot to the Owls, as a leader, someone who can handle the ball, and someone who can shoot it better than most guys in the country.
And that last bit isn’t hyperbole. A season ago, Masterson was second in all of Division I in three-point field goal percentage at 54 percent.
What’s sort of strange is that he doesn’t take many three-pointers, though. Last season, he attempted 159 shots from deep, an average of about five per game. That might sound like plenty, but more than 100 players jacked up at least 200 shots from outside last season.
Skinner loves when Masterson knocks those shots down, but might enjoy it more when he sees defenses place a man on him or double-team him. Then, Masterson turns into one of the best decoys in college basketball.
“Teams are not going to allow him to [shoot a lot] as easily,” Skinner said. “The nice thing about it is, when he did have the looks, he put the ball in the basket. He runs the floor well, spot up, created. The reason [Hooker] gets the dunk is because they’re worried about [Masterson] in the corner. If he shoots a good percentage, teams are going to concentrate on him and it creates other opportunities for everyone else. Yes, we’d like to see him score more, but what’s most important is that we get good shots and we execute.”
Masterson attempted just four shots from outside in KSU’s first two games — losses to Butler and Hofstra — but fired up seven three-pointers against Piedmont and made four of them. Masterson credited his stellar shooting to distribution. Out of 32 Owls baskets, 19 were assisted.
“We were finding each other a lot better and there was a lot more sharing,” Masterson said. “The field goal attempts were more spread out in this game.”
Hooker, a sophomore guard who comes with an abundance of speed and swagger, was second in scoring for the Owls.
He poured in 17 points in 23 minutes and also led the Owls in assists with five and grabbed six rebounds.
The 6-foot guard from Simpsonville, South Carolina brings a different feel to the Owls when he steps on the floor. The starting point guard, 6’5 junior Kyle Clarke, creates offense with his size and vision. Hooker does it with his speed, racing up and down the court, cutting around defenders quickly, and whipping passes.
“We need to have that balance,” Skinner said. “I thought that tonight he made some pretty good decisions, and we had talked about [his decision making] and I was happy to see that progress.”
Hooker led a bench unit that scored 37 points against Piedmont, and much of the team’s fast break points (17) were a product of his shooting or passing. Last season, as a redshirt freshman, Hooker led the team in plus-minus with a plus-35 rating. His defense has been important too.
Through three games this season, the one thing the Owls have done well in each game is defend the three-point line. As important as it is for their players to make shots from deep, the Owls have been sure to stop the opposition from doing the same.
Butler beat the Owls 82-64 in the season opener for both teams, but the Bulldogs — who were fourth in the Big East in three-point shooting last year — made just 24 percent of their shots from outside. The Owls kept that defense up in a loss to Hofstra, allowing the Pride to make just 28 percent of their shots from behind the arc.
Piedmont shot 26 percent from three-point range.
“Something coach says a lot is that a lot of teams can’t beat us if we’re both shooting twos, so we make a point to run people off the line and make them shoot tough shots,” Masterson said. “But also, we have to play good defense on the drive. In those first two games a lot of people didn’t have to shoot threes, so we have to be more solid on defense and not allow them to penetrate.”
Kennesaw State joined the Division I ranks just before the 2005-06 season. In 2004, they won a Division II National Championship, but haven’t sniffed a postseason tournament since joining the ASUN.
But the team has improved in each season under Skinner, now in his 25th season of coaching college basketball. Some might remember him from his stint at Rhode Island in the 90s, where he led the Rams to two NCAA Tournaments. Others might remember him from Boston College, where he was National Coach of the Year in 2003, and guided the Eagles to seven dances in March, including a Sweet Sixteen berth in 2006.
In his second season, the Owls won their most games in Division I history with 14 and made the ASUN Tournament semifinals.
The team he has in his third season might not be the most talented in the conference, but the veteran coach knows what his team does and doesn’t do well. Having identified that early, and being able to build on those strengths as the season progresses, could make the Owls a tough out in ASUN play.
“As far as scoring is concerned, it’s going to be from my perimeter players,” Skinner said. “Not necessarily on the perimeter, but from [the guards]. Whether it’s man or zone, we got to get the ball moving and put teams back on their heels.
“Our interior scoring is not as strong as I’d like it to be, but we don’t need that in order for us to be successful. We need good ball movement, and for guys to stay aggressive.”