Marcinek's Crusaders a work in progress

Ah, Division III ball.

Short white kids. Cheerleaders who sit on the sidelines on bleachers that pull out of the wall. Hand-lettered banners proclaiming school spirit adorning the walls of the gym. Forty minutes of basketball without a single dunk.

Yes, it is a lot like high school ball. Or at least that is how it can seem at first. Matter of fact, back in our first job as a sportswriter, that was how we regarded it. The only reason we ever covered a single game was that the boss had a quota for local stories and, some nights, it was the only game in town.

Then came the first incarnation of Hoop Time, the old decaying dinosaur bones on dead trees version. Looking to be a complete Central Pa. basketball publication, we started covering schools like Susquehanna, Lycoming and D-II Bloomsburg on the nights Bucknell and Penn State were either off or too far away for us to get there.

And guess what we learned: those lower level teams play some pretty damned good ball. No, they might not be as athletic as the D-I kids. But they still have game.

That is why, with the turnpike strike settled too late for us to arrange credentials for the Bucknell-Penn game, we decided to head out to Elizabethtown to see our old friend Frank Marcinek’s Susquehanna ballclub take on the three-time defending Commonwealth Conference champion Blue Jays.

It was a long night for Marcinek’s Crusaders, who are definitely in the rebuilding, not reloading, mode. Three seniors who scored in double figures a year ago, and a fourth who averaged 9.9 per game, graduated from last year’s underachieving squad that finished 15-9, after a 10-2 start, and missed the Commonwealth playoffs after being picked to win the league in the preseason.

Only two guys who averaged more than 10 minutes a game return this season for the Crusaders, who dressed five freshmen, one of whom was in the starting lineup against an E-Town team started as many seniors (3) as SU has on its entire roster.

The difference in experience was obvious in E-Town’s 76-61 win. Alternating between a sophomore and a freshman at the point, Susquehanna (2-2, 0-1 Commonwealth) turned the ball over 20 times against the Jays 40-minutes of full court pressure. And we are pretty sure that total, taken from the official box, is well below the real number of giveaways the Crusaders had.

The official box had Susquehanna frosh Moose Marshall with 6 turnovers. But he had four at the half and by our count at least as many in the second half. Given the fact that the box we got from E-Town's SID showed Susquehanna’s Walter Fowler playing 30 minutes, when he sat the entire second half, we are skeptical about some of the stats aside from the scoring totals, which had to match the official books.

“We’re fairly immature,” admitted Marcinek after the game. “There were times when I had four freshmen on the floor at the same time.”

Compare that to E-Town (4-1, 1-0), which didn’t even have a freshman in uniform for the varsity nightcap.

That immaturity was especially apparent at the point, where Marshall and sophomore starter T.J. Parry struggled to get the ball over the timeline against the Jays’ press.

Parry started, and was credited with 29 minutes of PT in the official box. We know that cannot be right, since he only played 9 minutes in the first half and sat for long stretches of the second. In the real world, Marshall saw at least as much time, if not more. Parry’s 2 assists to 1 turnover looked marginally better on paper than Marshall’s 3 assists and 6 turnovers. But Susquehanna definitely played better at both ends with Marshall, who finished with 6 points, three steals and 2 rebounds, on the floor, than it did with Parry, who had goose eggs in every column of the box except personal fouls, and the above mentioned assists and turnovers.

That is a big problem for SU. Marshall, the nephew of Randolph Macon coach Mike Rhoades, a former D-III All America point guard on Pat Flannery’s National Championship Lebanon Valley team, shows the potential to be a decent D-II point some day. But as Marcinek pointed out, “He should have been playing at 6:00 (the jayvee preliminary) instead of 8:00 in an ideal world.”

Marcinek knew it would not be easy to replace last year’s point guard Chris Zimmerman, the Bucknell transfer who led the Crusaders in scoring, assists and steals last season. When a D-II kid who was planning to transfer in e-mailed him late in May to say he’d had a change of heart, Marcinek knew he was in trouble.

“I knew I didn’t have a point guard,” he said. “I just hope kids who come to see us play that we are recruiting notice that.”

What Marcinek thought he did have was a potent 1-2 punch inside in 6-5 senior Bubba Mills and 6-9 junior Walter Fowler. SO far, though, he’s been only half right.

Mills, who leads SU in scoring through four games, and was a one-man gang against E-Town, pouring in 28 points to lead all scorers. Two E-Town post men picked up four personals trying to defend Mills, who was 9-of-13 from the floor and 10-of-11 at the line.

Fowler, on the other hand, was a non-factor. Fowler did manage to pick up 6 points early in the first half, before taking a seat with two personals at the 10:52 mark. But he also turned the ball over at least the two times officially credited to him the final box (we’re pretty sure that is a conservative figure) and his two personals doubled his rebound total.

With a good four-inch height advantage on the tallest Blue Jay, Fowler should have been dominant on the boards and at least an obstacle on defense. But until he learns to catch and handle the ball better and to move his feet, the only thing he can get in the way of is his own team’s offense.

That is why Marcinek sat him the entire second half.

“He’s just not intense enough,” Marcinek said. “And he and Mills do not play well together. He clogs things up on offense. Walter has to play exclusively in the low post and that is where Mills is most effective.”

Until Fowler learns to handle the ball well enough to play in the high post at least on some possessions, it appears minutes might be hard to come by.

Despite the loss, Marcinek was upbeat after the game. He said his team, at the moment, reminds him of when he remodeled his home. In the early stages, when the old spaces are gutted and all you see is wires, ductwork and some framing, it is hard to imagine what it will eventually be. Later, as you put up some drywall and lay the carpet, it starts to take shape.

“I hope by January we will see some improvement,” he said.

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