COLUMBIA — Bob Burchard, the men’s basketball coach at Columbia College, had to smile.
It was the Cougars’ third game of the season. They played College of the Ozarks at home in early November. Their guards frantically shuffled their feet from side to side and applied chest-to-chest defense that gave a new meaning to bump-and-run coverage. The Cougars aren’t the most physically imposing team, so their post players scrapped for every rebound and loose ball. When players from both teams dove for a loose ball, senior forward Mikel Fields leaped over several Bobcats and Cougars as if he were running the 100-meter hurdles, eventually saving the ball from going out of bounds.
This type of cohesiveness is a far cry from what Burchard witnessed during his team’s first scrimmage against outside competition.
After pregame warmups, his team headed for the bench.
On the wrong side of the court. None of his players knew where to go.
“We’ve had to coach literally everything,” Burchard said. “It’s been interesting because you just can’t assume anything.”
Things like this happen when a team only has three returning players. Ten of Columbia’s 13 players are junior college transfers, and eight of those transfers are playing their first year with the team. Only one senior, Fields, has played his whole career as a Cougar. While the abundance of the new recruits have led to some awkward moments, it hasn’t prevented the team from building chemistry.
“We try to eat our meals together,” freshman guard Jake Alexander said. “Usually on the weekends we try to get everybody together to build our camaraderie.”
Burchard says the team meshed early.
“I think it’s pretty evident with this group that they like each other,” Burchard said. “Right off the bat, they seemed to get along pretty well.”
Several of the new junior college transfers have played important roles. Junior Christian Lewis is the team’s best athlete, according to Burchard. The 6-foot-6 forward transferred this year from McCook Community College in Nebraska. His ability is obvious when he plays. He’s usually entangled in wrestlng matches with much bulkier post players, but this doesn’t prevent him from skying above them for rebounds.
Junior guards Terrell Turner and Jason Ellis are both Columbia high school products that attended different junior colleges. Both are now integral parts of the team. At 6-1, Ellis is a fearless, Allen Iverson-esque penetrator who withstands punishment from opposing big men on drives to the hoop. Ellis transferred from Moberly Community College, one of the nation’s best junior college teams.
Turner is the smaller of the two guards at 5-11, but he’s one of team’s best long-range threats. He’s also a valuable perimeter defender, opposing guards start juggling the ball whenever Turner starts to harass them.
“We thought (Turner) had a quickness to him, and he played in a real tough (junior college) league. I think he’s just a tough kid,” Burchard said.
Although the team hasn’t suffered from any egos clashing, the Cougars still need to get to know each other better where it counts — on the court. During the game against College of the Ozarks, the Cougars’ zone defense was exposed by several open three-point shots. It was common in the second half to see a maroon-clad Bobcats guard spot up for a three-point attempt between two Cougars, swiftly firing a jumper out of the reach of defenders’ arms from both sides.
“We’re still a very man-oriented team,” Burchard said.
Burchard says he wants his players to become more “ball-oriented” as a team, which means being aware of where the offensive team wants to go with the ball and being ready to help when opposing teams penetrate. Burchard said this should prevent the Cougars from being hurt on plays away from the ball and from being caught out of position when they play a zone defense.
Burchard also wants his team to improve offensively. The Cougars used a three-guard lineup against College Of The Ozarks, which helped them push the tempo and create fastbreaks. Burchard says he won’t hesitate to use a four-guard lineup to speed the game up even more.
“Right now I think we’re more efficient in the open floor,” Burchard said.
It was a few days after the game against College of the Ozarks, a 74-62 loss, and his team had just finished its second practice of the day.
“I just don’t think we’re far enough along in understanding how we play in the halfcourt,” Burchard said. “We don’t screen very well and we don’t move the ball as well. I think that’s going to come with time.”
Burchard’s assessment was correct. The two-a-day practices paid off, and in about two weeks the team had improved on both sides of the ball. The Cougars played Central Methodist the day after Thanksgiving, winning 74-68. Fields was a human pogo stick in the defensive post, providing help defense with his jumping ability by blocking several would-be layups. The Cougars looked much more comfortable in their halfcourt offense; every guard curled off screens like stock cars speeding through turns. As soon as they received the pass, they were immediately in triple-threat position, with their shoulders lowered like running backs ready to storm through the lane.
Despite the win, the team still has oncourt chemistry issues. Burchard had to make a squad substitution in the second half after the starters gave up a considerable lead, and the starting lineup itself was different from when the team played College of the Ozarks.
Although familiarity issues come with new players having to deal with a new system, Burchard plans to continue to recruit heavily from the junior college ranks. Burchard says the junior colleges in Missouri are usually filled with talent.
“When you’re recruting a junior college player, you’re expecting that guy to make an impact,” Burchard said.