The sun came up this morning, and CSU Bakersfield is playing stifling defense.
Which is more surprising?
On the same day New Mexico State made headlines knocking off Illinois at the United Center, the ‘Runners quietly picked up one of the WAC’s most impressive non-conference wins. CSUB manhandled a quality Georgia Southern offense and held on for a 55-53 win at the Icardo Center.
It was a top-86 KenPom win for the ‘Runners and for Rod Barnes, it was his blueprint at its finest.
“Our defense was where we wanted it for us and that's what we built our program on. I told our guys at the beginning of the game that this team has built its own identity, our program has been known to play hard, play great defense and figure out ways to win and the guys really responded."
The ‘Runners avoided a sweep at the hands of the Eagles, after losing a lopsided 77-53 road contest on Nov. 13. In that game, Georgia Southern scored at will from deep (9-20 3FG) and got big efforts from all-Sun Belt guards Tookie Brown (24 points) and Ike Smith (21 points).
CSUB’s defense was more a factor in the return game win. Rickey Holden (36 minutes, 16 points) was especially tough on the Eagles’ guards, helping hold Brown to just seven points and Smith to just two points in 19 minutes (though Smith was returning after missing three games with an ankle injury).
As a team, the rebuilding ‘Runners are starting to peak on the side of the ball that has become their bread and butter. They’ve had their best two defensive performances of the year in the past two games, holding Idaho (0.82 PPP) and Georgia Southern (0.88 PPP) to under 0.90 points per possession in back-to-back quality wins. Those marks haven’t come against flimsy offenses either, as the the Vandals have a dynamic scorer in Victor Sanders, and the Eagles boast one of the better collections of mid-major guards.
That the ‘Runners would be able blow up game plans like this wasn’t a guarantee. But despite losing so much to graduation during the offseason, it’s looking more and more like Barnes has in fact created a defensive identity at the program level.
“Never fun. It’s never fun playing with them,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said after beating CSUB on Dec. 5. “We’ve been playing Rod since I’ve been here. We’re going to have to take a couple years off since we’re tired of battling each other.”
Barnes’ roster evaluation should be praised as much as anything.
From day one, he gave newcomers Rickey Holden (JuCo) and Jarkel Joiner (freshman) big-time minutes in the back court, which was somewhat of a surprise with a pair of experienced guards returning in Brent Wrapp and Damiyne Durham. He’s stuck with that plan, as Holden (33.3 MPG) and Joiner (28.8 MPG) lead the team in minutes per game.
They’ve both looked like recruiting wins. Holden has stepped right into the shoes of Dedrick Basile as a tenacious on-ball defender that thrives in clutch moments. In the Georgia Southern win, he knocked down the winning free throws with 10.9 seconds left in a tie game. For his part, Joiner’s high volume high school scoring has translated to the next level, with great efforts against UCLA (20 points) and Lamar (18 points). Moataz Aly has remained an elite rim protector, and Shon Briggs has been a rugged presence in the paint.
Is that good enough for CSUB to entertain thoughts of yet again contending in the WAC?
The ‘Runners have a tall mountain to climb, with NMSU, Grand Canyon and Utah Valley all having impressive moments during the non-con. And CSUB’s cold-stretch susceptible offense can hold it back at times.
But as the defense continues to improve, the ‘Runners are growing into a team no one will look forward to playing.