Team Capsule: Missouri State Bears
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by Andrew Force
The entire slew of bears aims to give the Committee no choice now. An automatic bid is the goal. For Blake Ahearn and company, the goal is all about staying on target.
In the last three seasons of college hoop, no man has been more on target from the free-throw line than Ahearn.
During his freshman year, Ahearn dropped 97.5%. As a sophomore the precision hardly changed as Blake buried 94.7% of his tries. With an equally impressive junior year (93.6%) he set himself up with a rare opportunity.
If the extended trend continues, Blake Ahearn will become the first major-college player to lead the nation in any category four straight seasons. It would be a remarkable feat to be sure. Barring a tremendous run of misfortune the career mark is his already. The lead over the career leaders J.J. Redick (Duke) and Gary Buchanan (Nova) is substantial.
But Blake Ahearn, America's deadliest dead-eye, has been M.I.A. several times already this season: opponents are realizing there are ways to prevent the perfect weapon from firing. The solution to derailing the nation's best shooter sounds simpler than it is: do not let Blake Ahearn shoot.
There are several ways to accomplish this task, but the end result is the same. Ahearn misses 100% of the shots he doesn't take. Some teams face-guard him as Creighton tried in late December. In the second half, he hardly touched the ball. The Bluejays handed Mo. State their third loss in the 2006 portion of the season. Ahearn, though relatively quiet in the second half against CU, still managed a team-high 21.
Saint Louis University was another story.
Growing up in the shadow of the Arch, he got few looks from his hometown school. SLU never offered and Ahearn accepted the Missouri State scholarship.
The marketing major knows how easy it is to sell "Hometown boy makes good." And he has been making good shots ever since he left the Lou. SLU makes pretty shooters look sloppy on a regular basis. The typical SLU game this season has been littered with turnovers and peppered with challenged shots.
Ahearn played 29 minutes without a single point against Saint Louis University. To his credit he pulled down three rebounds, doled out four assists, and blocked a shot. The problem was not errant shots against the Billikens, though.
With gnat-like Dwayne Polk in his jersey, Ahearn was simply unable to get shots off. For a player who averages nine shots a game throughout his illustrious career, 0-4 from the field is a staggering statistic. Blake missed the only three he took and stunningly rimmed out his lone free throw, the front end of a 1-and-1.
Polk is labeled in the SLU media guide a generous 5'9". With his crouched stance in place, the nightlong view was of Ahearn's upper body and the Scottrade Center's ceiling. But Polk played much larger than his stature on that night.
SLU Head Coach Brad Soderberg gushed over Polk's performance on Ahearn. "I want to single out Dwayne Polk," said the SLU head man. "We told him you are going to one-arms length away from him [Ahearn] for the entire game. I said if you find yourself at any time where you can't reach out and touch his jersey, you are too far away. And he did that."
Bradley University tried to rotate defenders on the fluid guard. Will Franklin overplayed the passing lanes which unfortunately allowed backdoor cuts. J.J. Tauai, one of the best man defenders in the league chased lots. Being a strong, agile forward, Tauai is able to get to the spot late because he can elevate quickly and still deny the shot.
Bradley pointman Michael Ruffin used his active hands against Ahearn. Of the three, Ruffin was the most effective. As evidenced by Polk and Ruffin's success, the shorter and quicker guards tend to give Blake the Bomber the most trouble.
Before the game Bradley Coach Jim Les acknowledged the value of Ahearn. "If you look at their games, the times they have struggled are when his [Ahearn's] numbers are low."
Being the best shooter in the conference and amongst the greatest nationwide, Ahearn must be constantly looking for his shot. As defenses gameplan heavily on him, he needs to spend his energies moving to get free. There are two critical times when Ahearn can look to exploit defenses: offensive rebounds and fastbreaks are excellent times for three point shots, because the team defenses are in disarray.
The key for the Bears is maximizing the number of those opportunities throughout the game.
Blake Ahearn is not going to take ill-advised shots. He realizes his team has more weapons than in years past. Regardless, in the deepest Valley in years, Blake must assert his dominance.
There are many ways to slay a dragon and barely one way to stop Blake Ahearn. But with Ahearn, the closer you are to his body the further you are from his fire.