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Men's Basketball: The Case for Conference Awards

Men's Basketball: The Case for Conference Awards

When the Southwestern University Pirates men's basketball team rallied in dramatic fashion against the Austin College Kangaroos in the last game of the regular season, it was one part of a much larger comeback.

The Pirates opened February with three consecutive road losses, falling to 7-5 in conference play.

Southwestern responded as it had to adversity all season long, with a few tweaks on the margins and a renewed commitment to its ethos. Execution and balance drive the Pirates to their height of their powers, with each player able to contribute in multiple facets of the game.

It's why, in the closing minutes against Austin College, the Pirates were able to hang close despite leading scorer Brandon Alexander's struggles until, when the team needed it most, Brandon came through down the stretch.

To say the 2018-19 Pirates have been a whole greater than the sum of its parts might ring true but shouldn't detract from the quality of those pieces.

In earning a share of the 2019 Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) regular season title, the Pirates are certainly worthy of individual accolades. The following is the case for each. (NOTE: The actual award-winners have yet to be named). 

Brandon Alexander | F | Player of the Year, All-Conference

To close your eyes and picture a key Southwestern possession is to visualize a whirling smorgasbord of movement. Multiple players are responsible for reads and reactions in what seems an egalitarian system.

Inevitably, though, the ball seems to find the hands of Brandon Alexander.

In conference play, where the strength of schedule equalizes and comparisons are more apt, Alexander was the SCAC's second-leading scorer at 20.0 points per game while averaging a team-high 6.4 rebounds per game on the conference's highest-scoring team at 81.4 points per game.

The misconception of an equal-opportunity offense is there is no central hub. Though the Pirates' offense is capable in multiple hands, it flows because Alexander.

The Pirates' forward is a threat from the moment he crosses half court, hitting the second-most 3-pointers in conference play (45) and the fifth-highest percentage (37.5). Volume and accuracy only partially explain the threat he poses to defenses. Factor in the versatility of his shot—the ability to hit from a standstill, sprinting in transition, curling off a screen, or pulling off the dribble—and his individual offense is a constant stress on defenses.

That versatility also plugs into almost any action, opening up an entire playbook of possibilities for head coach Janson Hightower and assistant Zac Graham.

At 6-foot-5, Alexander is too large for most guards to deal with in the post and too skilled for frontcourt players to track. The Pirates utilize this versatility by bringing their star forward in and out of a defense's focus (moving him on and off the ball) but never far from their minds, stretching attention spans to their limits.

A quick release and clear-free conscience punishes the smallest moment of inattention. Overreact, and Alexander and the offense have multiple tools to counter.

The Pirates find order in a balanced system but Alexander provides the gravity and freedom to set it in motion.

Jake Holmes | C | All-Conference

Basketball might be a second sport for the former Jake Holmes, a former baseball player, but on the court he reads it as if it were second nature. 

Holmes' modest box score stats deserve closer inspection. His 9.7 points per game in conference play comes on an efficient 61.5 percent shooting; scoring off cuts and a nice face-up game attacking other bigs off the dribble. 

He averages 1.4 assists per game but facilitates from the elbows, holding the ball in a secure place while the Pirates' wings move through off-ball screens and then quickly flowing into a dribble handoff or pick and roll when the first actions are unsuccessful. 

Between his ability to pass, score, and screen, Holmes keeps the offense moving. 

Defensively, a steal per game from the center spot shows quicker than expected feet and hands, making up for a lack of top end height with physical play. 

Joel Martinez | G | All-Conference

Even the best scripted, most perfectly executed plays can be accounted for to a certain degree; especially amongst teams familiar with each other. Coaches pour through countless hours of game film searching for the patterns of an opponent's schemes to prepare their team to disrupt them.

On both sides of the ball, Martinez empowers the Pirates' system by occasionally stepping outside of it.

His conference averages of 8.4 points and 2.8 assists per game bely the impact Martinez had on a night-to-night basis. The 6-foot-3 guard from El Paso provides the Pirates with the unscripted play.

Martinez plays with off-the-dribble creativity and a certain flair for passing. He isn't the leading scorer or playmaker but his points and assists might be among the most memorable. And defensively, he's as much playmaker as positional defender, breaking the scheme to jump into a passing lane for a steal and dunk, as he did against Austin College, or delivering two blocks from the guard position, as he did against Texas Lutheran.

When the Pirates stagnated at the beginning of February, the staff inserted Martinez into the starting lineup, breathing new life into Southwestern and helping to deliver the No. 1 seed.

Ryan Wheeler | G | All-Conference

Wheeler is one of three Pirates to finish the conference portion of the season averaging double figure at 10/2 points per game. Among the top three Southwestern scorers, he's has the highest field goal percentage at 48.3 percent. 

A tough-minded guard, Wheeler's game exists somewhere between Alexander's shooting and Martinez's off-the-bounce creativity. A slashing guard who can stick the outside jumper, Wheeler can initiate the offense or work as a secondary creator once the wheels are already in motion. 

Andrew Puhl | F | All-Conference

If there were an award for most improved in conference, Puhl would be at or near the top of the list. The Pirates' forward went from a minimal spot in the rotation last season to vital starter this one.

When the Pirates struggled early on the boards and defensive end, the coaching staff put Puhl into the starting lineup, producing an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double in the conference opener against JWU (Denver) and another 10-rebound performance against Colorado College.

Puhl combined the frantic energy of a player working his way in from the fringes of the rotation and improved skill work to provide the Pirates with controlled energy on both ends, averaging 10.4 points and 5.9 rebounds with 1.1 steals per game in conference play.

In times of peril, it was often Puhl tipping out a rebound to keep possessions alive or drawing a charge on defense to end one. His ability to shoot on the move forced defenses to close out on him, where he showed some ability to put the ball on the floor against closeouts or use his body to attack smaller players by dribbling into the post, keeping the Pirates' offense moving when operating in a secondary capacity.