ANN ARBOR, MI — The Dustin Kerns era has begun for the Appalachian State Mountaineers. Picked ninth in the Sun Belt preseason poll, the Mountaineers have plenty of people to prove wrong. They started the season Tuesday at Michigan, giving fans an opportunity to see what they can do to outperform the projections. For a few minutes, it looked like they might even pull the mammoth upset.
Trailing by as many as 30, Appalachian State stormed back, using a 21-2 run to pull within five in the closing minutes. Justin Forrest had 27 points on 10-21 shooting to lead the way. He was the only Mountaineer to score in double figures as the Wolverines escaped, 79-71.
Despite coming up short, Appalachian State showed exactly what it must do to compete this season:
Pack the paint
With the lack of size in the Mountaineer lineup, they need to fill the paint. With no one on the roster taller than 6’9, there’s no one man to feed down there, so they need to put multiple bodies in the paint. Isaac Johnson and Hunter Seacat both got the start in the season opener and combined for 15 points and nine rebounds.
If the Mountaineers played the whole game like they played the final six minutes on Tuesday, they would have escaped Ann Arbor 1-0. It seemed like they didn’t get off the bus until the under-8 media timeout in the second half. To beat anyone, they’ll need to put together a whole 40 minute performance, not just a hot streak for the final six. Kerns harped on this after the game, not making excuses for his team going on the road against a Big Ten school.
“We need to play the full game,” he said. “You can’t just pick it up in the second half.”
Pick and roll success
The pick and roll is one of — if not the most — common plays in basketball. Trying to get space and a mismatch is key when it comes to this. Appalachian State tried multiple times, unsuccessfully, to run the pick and roll. If they’re able to consistently find the open man on the roll or come off the screen on their own, the Mountaineers could be more efficient offensively.
Preventing simple mistakes
Appalachian State had 19 turnovers on Tuesday, many of which came early. Sure, Michigan had something to do with it, but going up against more talented teams on a routine basis gives the Mountaineers a slim margin for error. If they want to do well, they can’t be giving the ball away, especially with no defenders in the area.
The Mountaineers return four starters from last year’s team, but still looked like a brand new group at times on Tuesday. After the game, Kerns told reporters that “four starters from an 11-win team doesn’t mean anything.”
There wasn’t a ton of communication, and the game looked slow at spots, almost like players didn’t know what to expect from their teammates.
Perfect the zone
This proved to be key in the fourth quarter for the Mountaineers. The 3-2 zone that they ran all game finally came together and helped anchor the 21-2 run in the second half. They gave up too many uncontested corner threes, then left the middle open when the zone got spread out. Finding the happy medium between the two is important, as we saw at the end of the game.
The Mountaineers have what it takes to shock people and do well in the tough Sun Belt Conference. What they showed at Michigan proves that if they put it all together, they can be a real problem. They travel back to Boone for a matchup against D-III Ferrum, a good opportunity to get some reps before their next real test against East Carolina.