Brad Fauber: SU hoops trending in opposite directions

Brad Fauber

The 2014-15 college basketball season is roughly three weeks old and, at this point, Shenandoah’s men’s and women’s hoops teams are trending in very opposite directions.

Both squads opened Old Dominion Athletic Conference play earlier this week, with the results largely mirroring the directions that each program has been heading early in the winter sports season.

Beginning with the good, SU’s women started off ODAC play in dominant fashion, thumping preseason bottom feeder Hollins University, 74-37, on the road Wednesday and continuing what has been an encouraging 5-1 start for the Hornets, the best opening to a season for the program in quite some time.

Shenandoah — which was a 10-win program a season ago — has displayed tremendous balance on the offensive end so far, as four starters are averaging at least nine points per game, a group that includes two freshmen (Kirstyn Arcata and Breya Wallace) in addition to senior forward and leading scorer Holly Chittenden (11.7 points, 9.2 rebounds per game). But it’s been all about defense for the Hornets under first-year head coach Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft.

Smeltzer-Kraft, who served as an assistant under former SU head coach C.K. Calhoun last year, has placed a heavy emphasis on tightening up the Hornets’ half-court man-to-man defense this season, and that focus has reaped great benefits early.

SU’s women are currently tops in the ODAC in scoring defense, allowing just 47.7 points per game, and have held opponents to less than 40 points in three of their first six games. The Hornets are also second in the conference in field-goal percentage defense a year after finishing next to last in that same category, as they are currently holding opponents to a 32.3-percent mark from the field.

Shenandoah’s women face a big test this afternoon with a 2 p.m. conference road game against preseason favorite Lynchburg College, but the hot start should have the Hornets brimming with confidence as they prepare to wrap up their pre-Christmas schedule in the next three days.

SU’s men, on the other hand, are desperately searching for any kind of positive momentum after a disappointing 1-5 start. The Hornets, losers of three straight, opened the season by dropping two games in their own BB&T Tip-Off Classic tournament and most recently lost its ODAC opener on the road at Bridgewater, 73-64.

It hasn’t exactly been the start that head coach Rob Pryor and the Hornets were hoping for as they aimed to build off of last season’s 12-14 campaign.

SU’s men have struggled on both sides of the ball so far, but defense has proved to be the biggest weakness for the Hornets. Shenandoah is allowing 79.8 points per game — the second-worst mark in the conference — and has allowed opponents to score 73 or more points in five of its six games, including a 100-92 loss to Cazenovia College in the season opener on Nov. 15. SU is also last in the conference in field goal percentage defense, allowing opposing teams to make shots at a 49.1-percent clip.

Offensively, Pryor said before the season started that the Hornets’ goal was to have at least four players average anywhere from nine to 13 points per game this winter, and SU isn’t too far off of that pace. Senior guard Jared Carithers (20.8 points per game) has certainly done his part to pick up the slack incurred by the graduation of last season’s conference leading scorer Avery Green, while Hagerstown Community College transfer Malcolm Clark (11.8 points per game) and Jimi Starks (10.3 points per game) are also scoring in double-digits.

The Hornets, though they are in the middle of the pack in the conference with their 72-points-per-game average, have scored fewer than 70 points in four of their first six games.

Shenandoah has another ODAC game at 2 p.m. this afternoon at home against Randolph College and then will have four straight non-conference games before plunging head-on into the thick of the ODAC schedule on Jan. 7.

Pryor has repeatedly referred to the ODAC as one of the best conferences in all of Division III men’s basketball, and if the Hornets don’t figure out a way to turn things around in the next month, they will be in danger of negating the small strides SU made as a program last season.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com