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Swag, speed and threes: Savannah State is the fastest team in college basketball

The Tigers lead the NCAA in three-point attempts and tempo, but miss a ton of shots. Still, that doesn’t bother them, and the style could lead Savannah State to a tourney appearance.

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Savannah State guard Jahir Cabeza rises up over a Maryland Eastern Shore player for a three-point attempt on Saturday, Jan. 13 at Tiger Arena.
Mitchell Northam, Mid-Major Madness

SAVANNAH, Ga. — A lot of folks say that the Golden State Warriors changed basketball with the way they use pace, space and a fire-at-will mentality from beyond the three-point arc.

It’s debatable whether that’s true or not - if Steph Curry and his fellow gunslingers truly altered the game - but what is an absolute fact is that they’ve started a trend. Take a look at the Houston Rockets, who are attempting 43.5 three-pointers per-game. Or try Villanova, Gonzaga or Marquette, who have all attempted more than 490 three-pointers this year.

And that trend has now trickled to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The Savannah State Tigers are testing the limits of relying on the three-point shot as the primary way to score points. The result has been a mixed bag of ridiculousness and artistry.

Savannah State is both beautiful and bad, both admirable and awful, and always fun, fascinating and – at times for opposing teams – frightful, because if the Tigers get on a roll, they can be uncatchable and unstoppable.

“We just get up a lot of threes,” said junior guard Dexter McClanahan. “We come in and do what we do. That’s shoot three’s, play fast, and try to outrun ‘em.”

The Tigers lead all of Division I college basketball in three-point attempts by a wide margin with 767 shots fired from beyond the arc. The next closest team is The Citadel, with 628. Savannah State is also the leader in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom, averaging 81.6 possessions per 40 minutes.

Savannah State wastes no time getting up and down the court and taking the first halfway decent shot that comes into view.

But here’s the downside of that: While the Tigers attempt more three-pointers than any other team, they have had the worst luck at making them. Savannah State makes only 28.7 percent of its threes, good enough for 346th out of 351 Division I teams. KenPom has the Tigers ranked 278th in offensive efficiency.

Those stats are enough to make the basketball perfectionist’s eyes burst, but the Tigers and their leader – head coach Horace Broadnax – pay them no mind. If blazing pace and a fire-at-will mentality are two things the Tigers play with, confidence is another.

“We got faith in our shot,” McClanahan said. “One day – Monday, next Saturday, might be in the conference tournament – all of our shots will fall. We’ll keep taking them. It’s fun.”

“I mean, they’re open,” Broadnax said when asked about the abundance of threes the Tigers have missed. “We’re committed to it, but we just started this about a year and half ago, so we have to find players that can make shots and like to run. Some of the guys that we got don’t necessarily fit the system, but we still want to run it.”

Broadnax’s side didn’t have much luck with their new system in non-conference play, going 3-12, but it’s worth mentioning they played a very tough slate during that stretch. The Tigers faced six teams ranked in the AP Top 25, and had the second toughest non-conference strength-of-schedule, according to KenPom.

Since MEAC play began, the Tigers are 3-1 with their only loss coming by a single point on the road against Morgan State, who was the preseason favorite to win the league title. The Tigers will get one more crack at the Bears on Feb. 10 in their comfy confines on the coast of Georgia.

The MEAC championship is something the Tigers have long coveted, but the clock on their chance to win it and advance to an NCAA tournament – which they have never appeared in – is ticking. Savannah State will move down to Division II at the start of the 2019-2020 academic year.

It was originally reported and believed that Savannah State wouldn’t have a shot at achieving that goal this year. USA Today and ESPN reported that due to APR sanctions, the Tigers would be ineligible for the 2018 postseason.

But Savannah State assistant athletics director for media relations Opio Mashariki told Mid-Major Madness that the Tigers applied for a waiver from the NCAA for the sanctions and it was approved. So, for the Tigers, the chase is on.

A year ago, the Tigers were indeed ineligible for the postseason and found themselves with nothing to play for in the 2016-17 season. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because there was no title to strive for, there was no expectations for the Tigers, which gave Broadnax some room to experiment.

“Last year was really a lot of fun because you’re just playing,” Broadnax said. “There wasn’t any pressure.”

Broadnax is now in his 13th season coaching at Savannah State. A native of Plant City, Florida, he played his college ball at Georgetown where he was the backup point guard for a national championship team in 1984. When he got into coaching, he adopted “Big John” Thompson’s philosophy that toughness and smothering defense would result in wins.

And for a while, that worked for Broadnax. Three times he has been named MEAC Coach of the Year, he’s led the Tigers to a pair of CIT appearances, and in 2012 the Tigers won the MEAC regular season title with a 21-10 record behind a defense that allowed less than 59 points per-game. For that mark, they appeared in the NIT for the first time in school history. Earlier this season, he notched his 200th career win.

But the 53-year-old coach saw the game changing. So, in a year where the Tigers could take risks, he took a big one and traded in his defense-first coaching style for one that emphasized speed and threes.

The Tigers ended last season on a three-game win streak and with a 10-6 MEAC record.

“If we get it up quick, that makes the other team run. We want to speed the game up. We want to be in better shape than the other team,” Broadnax said. “The shot goes in when there’s no pressure and I try not to put pressure on them. I tell them to take shots, and you’re not going to hear nothing from me like, ‘Hey, that was a bad shot,’.”

With 79.6 points per-game the Tigers have the No. 1 scoring offense in the MEAC this season and lead the league in assists with 15.9 per-game. But they haven’t completely abandoned defense. Broadnax, in a nod to those Hoyas teams that pressed constantly, orders his Tigers to press and trap often. That’s resulted in them leading the MEAC in steals per-game with 9.4 – seventh in all of college basketball – and to lead the league in turnover margin with a +3.89 mark.

In a Jan. 13 game against Maryland Eastern Shore, the Tigers trailed Hawks early, but then the Tigers put the pressure defense on by trapping in the back court, and then kicked in an extra gear on offense. Savannah State built a big lead and could coast for the final few minutes to an 87-59 win.

“The first half was tight game and (Eastern Shore) controlled the tempo,” Broadnax said. “We tried to get our guys to buy in to how we can control the tempo. We wanted to trap, and if they threw over top of us, so what? Give them an open shot, and if they make it, so what? We want tempo, tempo, tempo. We want a fast tempo, and that helps us as games progress.”

While there is a nod to Georgetown with the Tigers’ defense, they don’t look like Big John’s Hoyas in any other way. There’s no Ewing, Mourning or Mutombo. Savannah State has just two players listed at 6-foot-8 or taller.

But there are a gaggle of players with swagger. Guys that’ll flush a three in your grill and tell you all about it while pressing you on the other end until they steal the ball and race back down the court for more buckets.

“A lot of teams don’t want to run fast,” McClanahan said. “And they’re not ready for that.”

McClanahan, a native of Stockbridge, Georgia, is someone who does it all for Savannah State. A 6-foot-5 guard, he leads the Tigers in scoring with 14.2 points per contest, is second in rebounding with 75 boards, and embodies the team’s gunslinger style, leading them with 133 three-point attempts while just making 30 percent of those shots.

But for the McClanahan and the Tigers, their game is their game and they’re sticking to it.

Since conference play started, speed and threes seems to be working for them. It could lead the Tigers to trash their membership to the “Never Made the Tournament Club.”

Besides, even if it wasn’t working, the way Savannah State plays — even when the shots don’t fall — is still loads of fun.

“You see Duke and North Carolina, and it’s cool to play for those top tier programs but you know, they play slow,” McClanahan said. “Here, you get to play fast, you get to take shots you would take in a pick-up game. It’s kind of playground.”

McClanahan is a little off. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels are 35th and 32nd in adjusted tempo, respectively. But when compared to the 2018 Savannah State Tigers, everyone else plays a step or two slower.