January 9, 2019 11:09:19 AM
Brian Merkel has had plenty of moments for reflection in his first season as men's basketball coach at the Mississippi University for Women.
Losses usually result in plenty of contemplative moments for coaches.
But while Merkel acknowledges The W's 1-12 record isn't where he would like it to be, he has a lot of other areas to point to to show the Owls are making progress in their first intercollegiate season.
"Any time you're not winning a lot of games it is hard as a coach because you think, 'What am I doing wrong and how can I get these guys to be more successful?' " Merkel said Tuesday. "Looking at the schedule, I knew we had some tough teams to play and we have had a lot of close games -- one- or two-possession games down the stretch -- and some of the games that we lost by 15 or 20 points were more competitive (than the final score).
"More than anything, we have a group of guys that has all bought into each other, and they have been fun to coach. We had our first practice back Monday and everybody was excited to be back and enthusiastic on the floor and had a lot of energy. When your record is what it is and you see guys practicing that way you know you're doing the right things."
The W will have another day of practice before it kicks off the second half of its schedule at 6 p.m. Thursday against Campbellsville University Somerset at Pohl Gymnasium. The W will travel to Kentucky for a rematch at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Merkel said he is preaching it is a "new year" and a "new season" for the Owls after they lost their last seven games of 2018. The W defeated Howard Payne 66-64 in overtime on Nov. 25 at the Millsaps Thanksgiving Classic for the program's first victory.
Several factors have prevented The W from having more success. The Owls are shooting 37.6 percent from the field and are allowing opponents to shoot 46.8 percent from the field. The W also has committed 230 turnovers. Merkel said addressing "small things" like closing out harder or getting into the gaps sooner has been and will continue to be a focus.
"We haven't had a lot of issues scoring," Merkel said. "We're tightening things up on the defensive end where we can get big stops and turn the corner there.
"It's not that we're not capable. It's simple things like that that we have watched on film and that we're trying to improve in those areas."
Merkel also wants the Owls to attack more on offense. Senior D.J. Clark leads the Owls in scoring at 12.8 points per game. Former Starkville High School and East Mississippi Community College standout Keith Harris (10.6) and Tavonta Jones (10.2) are the other double-figure scorers. Former Starkville High and EMCC standout Josh Skinner (7.0 ppg.) and former Victory Christian Academy standout Quin Williams (4.3 ppg.) also have been key contributors.
The W enters the second half of the season with 15 active players. Ill'yan Scott, who was one of the team's leading scorers (11.4 ppg.) in five games, is no longer with the team.
"The main thing on the offensive end is just not settling for early jump shots," Merkel said. "The strength of our team and the guards is attacking the basket. What we talk about all of the time is early in the shot clock to move the ball side to side so we can attack the basket.
"I think our offense has picked up. The main thing is the guys have gotten used to playing with each other. They are settling into their roles, which has helped us in terms of scoring."
Merkel said Williams has a "high basketball IQ" and continues to work hard and to be coachable. He said Harris and Skinner work well together from their years being on the same team. Merkel said he hopes Harris continues to use his explosiveness and that Skinner continues to be a steady presence the Owls can rely on.
As for the turnovers, Merkel said the Owls have to balance their aggressiveness and limit careless mistakes that keep them having productive possessions. He feels the first half of the season included plenty of lessons to be learned that his players are primed to capitalize on in the second half.
"It has been a process, for sure," Merkel said. "The record isn't where I want it to be, but I am not as concerned about that as the culture and type of guys we have in our program. I think if you ask people around our campus with the record aside it has been a success. We have really good guys. They did a great job academically. It has been a great group that gets along well, and we don't have problems with the team.
"On the floor, we're getting better. We have played a tough schedule. A lot of the teams we have played are having success in their respective conferences or leagues and we're trying to get better every day. I think it has been a success so far. The way we practice and are coming together as a team, I wouldn't be surprised if we started winning games down the stretch, but it is not going to be easy."
Merkel said playing hard for 40 minutes regardless of the score will be a key to realizing that goal. Through all of the moments of reflection, Merkel said he will continue to preach that mentality to the Owls.
"We're going to play hard for 40 minutes," Merkel said. "Off the floor, we're going to do things the right way. I think that is a constant every day. We want to be on time, go to class, and make sure the student-athlete term is used that way where the student part is first."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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