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Sam’s Mid-Major Crush of the Week: Abilene Christian Wildcats

The Southland may very well run through Abilene this season

NCAA Basketball: Abilene Christian at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I demand more good country songs that mention Abilene, Texas. The only one that my research could find actually references Abilene, Kansas, which sources tell me is not the same city as Abilene, Texas. Get to it, Nashville and/or Austin based country musicians (or wherever else in Texas those people are based, I am not an expert).

Maybe someone could write a ballad about the Abilene Christian University Wildcats. I would find that entertaining, just like I find this basketball team. I’ve been finding ways to try and talk myself off the bandwagon, but even in the loss to No. 17 Texas Tech on December 9th, I found myself cheering entirely for Joe Golding’s squad and entirely against the Red Raiders, which is strange considering my affection for Chris Beard.

The Wildcats actually share a mold, at least to an extent, to their Lubbock-based brethren. The Wildcats boast, according to KenPom, the 58th best defense in the country right now. Yes, double digits, not triple digits. Opponents are shooting 17.3% from three against them, good for 3rd in the country! That’s absurd, especially for a school this size. More crazy numbers? Sure.

They’re turning over opponents 31% of the time, good for 4th, yes 4th, in the country. That turnover rate can be broken down a bit further into steal percentage (13.3%) and non-steal turnover percentage (17.8%). Let’s think about this for, like, two seconds. Over one in every ten opponent possessions end in Abilene Christian getting a steal. Almost two in every ten possessions IN ADDITION TO THAT STEAL ONE end in the opponents being forced into a turnover. Abilene Christian is one elite transition offense away (22.1% of possessions, an effective field goal percentage of only 46.1% on transition possessions, so not great) from being nigh unstoppable.

The offense definitely takes a back seat to the defense, but stop me if you’ve heard this one before: plucky mid-major has a ton of good shooters. Including their two games against non-Division I opponents McMurray and Howard Payne, the Wildcats are pinging in almost 37% of their three point attempts. In their competitions against Division I opponents, they’re shooting even better, at 43.8%, good for 11th in the country per KenPom. And, for kicks, they’re getting to the free throw line with incredible consistency.

So, a team that plays incredible defense, can let it fly, and can hold its own against a known power conference defensive powerhouse? Hell yeah, I’m all in.

It sucks that I can’t write up a highlight section for each player, but there are two players in general I feel like deserve some mention: starting center Kolton Kohl and outstanding sub Clay Gayman.

Kohl is a legit seven footer that’s 2-3 from three, a top 40 player at getting to the free throw line (drawing over eight fouls per 40 minutes) with the free throw makes to match, and is ranked on KenPom in block percentage, offensive rebounding, and defensive rebounding. Much like the rest of his team (see below), he needs to make more of his shots at the rim, but he’s been a very strong interior presence with just enough ability to stretch the floor and be a threat.

Gayman is the real stretch-the-floor threat. Playing mostly at the four, he’s shooting 47.6% from three (57.1% against D-I competition). He’s also top 100 in steal rate and ranked in block percentage, too. A defensive Swiss Army knife and a legit stretch four is never a bad thing to have, especially at this level. You’ll see a consistent theme of “make your damn twos” here, too, but honestly, if Clay wants to stay beyond the arc, I’d hope someone on the coaching staff is telling him that it’s a fine and dandy idea.

Of course, the good cannot come without the bad. As good as ACU is at turning its opponents over, they’ve managed to be a mirror on offense, turning the ball over on almost 23% of their possessions.

Additionally, the Wildcats are MISERABLE at shooting from inside the arc (43.6%). That is a no-good very bad stat. There’s only two players with 15 or more two point shot attempts shooting over 50%. (Vomits into prairie grass). Oh, just to top it off, they’re also attempting way more twos than threes, even though they’re demonstrably better at shooting the three. The team is only attempting 34.1% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. If you’re good shooters, take more good shots.

Let’s pile on the bad shooting for a second: they’re also shooting 61.7% from the free throw line as a team, even though they get to the line with pretty high consistency.

So let’s recap that: awesome defense, good three point shooting, and getting to the line at a high rate, but not benefitting from those three things because the Wildcats either turn the ball over or shoot poorly from two or at the free throw line.

I’m no expert here, but it seems like the answer is pretty obvious here. The Wildcats don’t exactly play at a high tempo, and honestly extra possessions feel like more opportunities to take bad shots or turn the ball over. So, the recommendation is twofold, both of which very much feel like basketball clichés.

One: BE STRONG WITH THE BALL AT THE RIM. Going back through the tape, the Wildcats have had a lot of misses that came after being contested on the interior. They don’t get blocked at a high rate, and they’re getting a good number of free throws out of it, but still. With an atrocious free throw percentage, being strong through the finish and getting the initial shot to fall is even more crucial than normal for ACU.

Two: HANG ON TO THE BALL. Like I said, cliché as hell. Don’t turn the ball over, good things will happen. Hard hitting analysis by basketball expert Sam Newberry. Thank you, thank you (takes bow).

Abilene and Stephen F. Austin look like the class of the Southland this year. Abilene played it’s best game closer than SFA (who got boatraced by Baylor, so I’m not holding that against them in the slightest), and they’ll get a chance to test themselves again before the Southland conference slate by taking on the Arkansas Razorbacks on December 22nd. I won’t pretend to pick a victory, but considering how tough the Wildcats played Texas Tech, I’m not devoid of all hope. If Abilene can take good lessons from the two high-major tilts it has before conference play, I think I feel pretty good about taking the Wildcats over the Lumberjacks in the regular season (hides from SFA fans).

That being said, there’s still a lot the Wildcats aren’t doing well, and if any of their problems really rear their heads in conference play, regular season or tournament, ACU may be on the outside looking in come March. The two Stephen F. Austin matchups will be appointment television, because I’d be shocked if it’s not one of these two teams hanging a conference championship banner. Right now, I’m taking the ‘Cats.