Marist Men’s Basketball is Dying, Not Living, by its Guard Reliance

Two non-guards appear on the top-ten all-time scoring list for the Marist men’s basketball program. Alan Tomidy (he scored 1,508 from 1992-1996) measured out to 6 feet 11 inches tall. Rik Smits – maybe you’ve heard of him – scored 1,945 from 1984 to 1988 and hit 7 feet 4 inches in height. The rest of the list is made up of guards, none of whom measure above 6 foot 6 inches. The last guard in the top-ten is Jared Jordan (1,538) and the first is the all-time leader, Chavaughn Lewis (2,119). Dating back as far as the program can, they’ve been principally dependent on guards – for scoring, passing, and production overall. 

The numbers, though, don’t necessarily support this unrelenting approach. Specifically, the numbers argue that this season, so far, is the team’s least productive, at least in terms of guard play. That idea is a bit jarring, considering that their recent history is nothing to write home about. 

Lewis, who was Marist’s best success story and received tryouts and summer gigs in the NBA, never led a team that won more than 14 games. Khallid Hart also never won more than 12 games, and won a total of 22 in three years. Brian Parker, who came as the next, de facto guard leader (even if his production was notably stunted by an insistence upon shooting the ball), won 25 in his first three years and 12 his last year (his only under John Dunne). It looked like there was a natural, imminent upward trend for the team’s impending overhaul; while not entirely prosperous, Dunne’s first year at the helm did result in the team’s best record since 2013. 

And yet here we are, watching the same stuff. Just different men wearing different numbers, playing in what’s supposed to be a different scheme, while the results stay the same as they were before.

The fourth game of the year hasn’t even been played yet, but as per the program habit, the top five players in terms of minutes played are guards. Matt Turner (96), Michael Cubbage (86), Matthew Herasme (76), and Tyler Saint-Furcy (73) receive a bulk of the workload. Other players receive sporadic minutes, notably Darius Hines (58) and Zion Tordoff (56). But primarily, Dunne has elected to keep up what was instilled prior to his arrival: a reliance on guard play and ball dominance, as a sprinkling of touches for bigs who might, if given the chance, prove more efficient. 

It’s not just about minutes; it’s about what a player does in those minutes. A particular statistic, PER, or player efficiency rating, examines just that. It’s a per-minute measurement of a player’s production over the course of their time on the court. According to its architect, John Hollinger, it “sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.” 

It’s a mite subjective, but at its core, it’s the best way to actually calculate how effective a player is (other than physically watching them play). Take Russell Westbrook’s 2016-2017 season as a sample of how effective a player can be. Per Basketball Reference, he led the league in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (10.9), total plus/minus (15.6), Value over Replacement Player (12.4), usage percentage (41.7), and PER (30.6). If those numbers and names are meaningless to you, it can be summed up bluntly: that year, Westbrook had one of the single most efficient seasons of any player in basketball history. A PER of 30 for an NBA player has only been eclipsed 21 times. 

Comparing Russell Westbrook to Michael Cubbage isn’t even apples and oranges; it’s comparing a bag of pretzels to a Tesla. They aren’t of the same breed. So let’s bring it closer to home: Malik Johnson, Quinnipiac’s 5-foot-10-inch stud, averages 13.7 field goal attempts and 37-minutes per game. He’s scoring 20 points per game and maintains a PER – again, considering everything – of 27.4. 

Match that up against some of Marist’s guards who, albeit less offensively gifted, receive their fair share of opportunities on offense. Cubbage plays 29-minutes per game and takes 14.3 shots per game. He averages 11.3 points off of those shots and holds an abysmal PER of 11.1. Saint-Furcy, a freshman who took home the MAAC’s Freshman of the Week honor after the team’s lone victory over VMI, doesn’t shoot an awful lot (only 3.7 attempts per game) but still receives minutes aplenty (24.3 per game). He scores 5.7 points per game and sits close to his teammate on the PER list (11.4). To make matters worse, both accounted for a -15 plus/minus performance against Hartford in the team’s first loss (this indicates that while Cubbage and Saint-Furcy were on the court, Hartford scored 15 more points than Marist). But their lack of efficiency is the startling figure; it sits four below the national average (15), and well outside of the top-100 in the NCAA (the final number on that list is 29.7).

It doesn’t get better when you look at Turner (8.4), Herasme (2.9), or Hines (-3.5), the other main guards that Dunne rotates through. Where it does improve is with the big men, chiefly Tordoff (19.4) and Jordan Jones (17.6). Their efficiency might be attributed to a lack of shots, as it doesn’t give them much of a chance to be inefficient (Tordoff only takes 6.3, and Jones a mere 3.3), but the lack of shots can, in turn, be attributed to the influx of shots being taken by their nimbler, quicker teammates. Those nimbler, quicker teammates, though, can’t seem to score, let alone hit their shots. Who’s to say Tordoff’s PER wouldn’t skyrocket if he was given the volume he seems capable of having?

By the numbers, this is easily Marist’s worst guard-led season in years, even though the trend of relying on that position has persisted for years. Brian Parker maintained a PER above 15.0 in each of his four seasons and shot startlingly well considering what the eye test would tell a fan. By their final season at Marist, Parker’s right-hand men, Ryan Funk and Isaiah Lamb, both reached career-best PERs (16.6 and 14.6, respectively). Khallid Hart had an average PER of 18.9 for his career, Chavaughn Lewis wasn’t far behind at 18.8. Though the stat wasn’t measured while Jared Jordan played, he’s widely considered one of the more underrated players in college basketball history in terms of passing and efficiency.

None of their teams were absurdly successful. This current team, on paper, looks like it should be able to work cohesively and surpass those teams in terms of success. The numbers say the exact opposite; they say this could quite possibly turn out as one of the most frustrating seasons in recent memory. 

It’s difficult to judge a book by its cover. It’s a little easier to judge a book when you’re three chapters in. But everything that has happened so far in this story makes it feel like a sequel or a third or fourth or fifth installment in a bumbling series. As for the book Dunne’s currently writing, perhaps it’s nearing the time he throws that out the window and starts from scratch. The last couple didn’t sell all that well anyway.

Edited by Craig Conway & Bridget Reilly

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