No longer out of contention, Mac sets sights on playoffs

By William Kennedy

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A week of strong play by Macalester men’s basketball has given the team some hope of making the playoffs. That may not sound like much, but after hovering near the bottom of the MIAC all season, Mac will take it.

With five games remaining, the Scots (6-9) are separated from the sixth and final playoff spot by one-and-a-half games. “Our chances would be very good if we lost [just] one,” Coach Kurt Kietzer said. After that, he said, the Scots will have to rely on some good luck to avoid an early start to off-season training.

Pressure will be on the Scots to win for the rest of the season, but that pressure may be what the team needs to make a playoff push. In its last several games, the team has thrived in high stress situations, trouncing Concordia and knocking off St. Mary’s and St. Olaf in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion.

“[We’ve] stepped it up a little bit,” veteran forward Brendan Bosman ’06 said. “We understand our backs are against the ropes.”

With little margin for error, the Scots are nevertheless much better off than they were just 10 days ago. After getting out to a very poor start, which included separate three and four game losing streaks, the Scots hit a low on Jan. 25, when they were blown out 43-86 by first place St. Thomas. With only three wins and nine losses at that point, the Scots’ future looked bleak at best.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Mac’s center and leading scorer Tom Conboy ’08 said. “There were points in the year when [the playoffs] looked like an impossibility.”

Certainly in the early going, the Scots did not look like a playoff-bound team, struggling consistently with turnovers and poor field goal shooting percentage.

Injuries and inexperience further hampered the Scots as the team was forced to compensate for the loss of starting guards Lars Johnson ’07 (mononucleosis) and Brad Liddell ’07 (hamstring).

“Especially with injuries, we’re a relatively young team, and relatively inexperienced,” coach Kietzer said. “Having players take on their first varsity experience and having other players take on roles they’re not used to has obviously been an adjustment.”

It appears the Scots have made that adjustment just in time to give themselves a shot at making the playoffs. Johnson returned, turnovers are down, and the team is playing some of its best basketball of the year.

As a team that has consistently relied on its post players for most of its points—Bosman and Conboy are the team’s two leading scorers and among its best three-point shooters percentage wise—the Scots are starting to get some serious production from guards, especially young players like Nate Assel ’09 and Brian Ranwick ’08. Better perimeter shooting has made the Scots less of a one-dimensional offense and taken some of the burden from the team’s big men.

“Guys are getting more experience,” Conboy said. “We’re just learning how to win now.”

Against St. Mary’s, Johnson hit six of seven three-pointers on the way to a career high 21 points as the Scots won 66-56. Two days later, the Scots tied St. Olaf in regulation, partly on the strength of three pointers from four different players as time ran out. The Scots finished off the Oles in the overtime 70-65.

To cap off their first three-game win streak of the year, the Scots beat Concordia on Wednesday, 73-58.

Mac will need to keep up its newfound momentum over the next five games, a stretch that includes three of the league’s top four teams, if they are to have any hope of an extended season. That will not be easy, Kietzer said, “but it’s certainly within reach.”