CENTRAL ARKANSAS (6-16, 3-8) AT
THE OPENING TIP
The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi men's basketball team returns home after a four-game road trip as it takes on Central Arkansas on Thursday night at the American Bank Center. The game is sponsored by Christus Spohn. The Islanders can clinch a berth to the Southland Tournament with a victory.
• Rashawn Thomas scored 20 points in both games last week, his first two 20-point affairs in his career. At ACU, he joined Josh Ervin as the only two players in school history to go 7-for-7 from the field or better in a game.
• During conference season, the Islanders have posted 42 double-digit scoring efforts across eight players.
• Junior John Jordan narrowly missed becoming the first Islander in program history to post a triple double, going for 20 points, nine assists and eight rebounds at Abilene Christian.
• Over the last three games, the Islanders have gone 44-for-54 (.815) at the free-throw line. Rashawn Thomas has gone 15-for-19 (.789) in that span.
• The Islanders have been beasts in the paint in the conference, averaging 36.7 points in the paint with three games over 40.
• Bench play has also been a significant strength for A&M-Corpus Christi, averaging 32.6 points from the reserves, while the opposition averages just 17.6. The Islanders' second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers in conference play are all yet to start a game.
THE ALL-TIME SERIES
The Islanders have owned the all-time series against the Bears since the two schools entered the Southland Conference in 2006-07. A&M-Corpus Christi is 8-1 all-time against UCA, the only loss coming in the first contest last season in the American Bank Center. The Islanders are 3-1 against the Bears in the ABC. In Willis Wilson's tenure, A&M-Corpus Christi is 3-1 overall against UCA and 1-1 at home.
LAST TIME OUT
Brandon Pye's three with 3.5 seconds left lifted the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi men's basketball team to a 71-69 victory over Abilene Christian on Saturday at Moody Coliseum. John Jordan and Rashawn Thomas each scored 20 points in the victory for the Islanders, who moved into third place in the conference with the win.
Jordan added eight rebounds and nine assists to come tantalizingly close to the first triple-double in Islanders lore. Thomas added six rebounds and two blocks for the Islanders. Julian Edmonson led the way with 18 points for ACU, while Parker Wentz and Austin Cooke each scored 14.
A JAW-DROPPING START
Freshman Rashawn Thomas was one of the most electrifying players for the Islanders over the summer, but the fates turned another direction for Thomas. The Oklahoma City native fractured his jaw on Nov. 7, the day before the Islanders' first game of the year against Huston-Tillotson. He missed the first nine games of the season.
Any doubts about the 6-foot-7 forward being tentative were instantly alleviated. Thomas missed his first two shots at Oklahoma, but converted his first career points at the 8:25 mark. By the time the dust had settled in the game, the freshman had 12 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. He became the first Islander freshman with a double-double in his debut since Corey Lamkin had 16 points and 15 rebounds against Sul Ross State on Nov. 16, 2001.
He had a tremendous pair of games last week. It started with his finest outing of his young career at UIW, going 7-for-10 from the floor for a career-best 21 points to go along with six rebounds, two blocks and two steals. He followed that with 20 points on 7-for-7 shooting, becoming the second Islanders player (Josh Ervin the other) to go 7-for-7 or better in a single game. In league play, Thomas is averaging 12.0 points per game, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
Thomas was a McDonald's All-America nominee and was named City Player of the Year his senior season at Southeast HS.
THE GREAT DISTRIBUTOR
John Jordan is only a junior for the Islanders basketball team, but he's the most experienced player on the roster and one of the front-runners for Southland Conference Player of the Year. The Houston native was named Preseason First Team All-Southland Conference by the league's coaches.
He leads the team and is eighth in the league with his 15.4 points per game, while his 5.0 assists are second. Despite his 5-foot-10 frame, he has also pulled in 4.7 boards per game. He has posted 20 points or more on eight occasions, five assists or more 14 times and at least five rebounds in 13 games this year.
With those numbers, he has represented the best chance to post the first triple-double in program history. But he has never come as close as he did on Saturday at ACU, going for 20 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Had it not been for a slow start, he might have turned the trick – over the game's final 23:45, he scored all of his 20 points with six rebounds and eight assists.
Jordan's place in Islanders lore is also reaching new heights. With his 20 points against New Orleans, he moved into the school's top 10 in points. He is also already in the Islanders career top-10 in rebounds, assists, minutes and steals. He is on pace to become the ninth player in school history to score 1,000 points in his career this season, needing to average 10.5 points in the remaining six regular-season games.
Jordan has done much of his scoring by getting to the free-throw line. On the year, he has gotten to the stripe 10+ times on 11 occasions and has hit at least 10 at the line five times. He is 152-for-218 on free throws this year, both leading the Southland.
Jordan broke the school record with 138 assists as a freshman, then bested his own mark with 159 as a sophomore. With 417 career assists, he is second in school history and closing on Brian Evans' 493.
ON THE LINE
One area that the coaching staff has worked hard to improve upon for the Islanders is the team's free throw shooting. Coach Wilson has put an added emphasis on free throws in practice, doing everything possible to simulate game pressure and tired conditions when the team works on shots from the stripe in practice.
In several of the team's losses, its inability to hit free throws has been crucial. The Islanders missed 17 in an eight-point loss to New Orleans and missed nine in a four-point loss to Sam Houston State.
But the results in the last three games have shown significant improvement. The team has shot 44-for-54 (.815) as a whole, with every player at .714 or better. Most impressively, Rashawn Thomas, who entered the stretch having gone just 20-for-39 (.513), has gone 15-for-19 (.789) in the three-game swing. Joy Williamson (7-for-7) has been perfect from the line over the last three.
The Islanders' 8-4 start in league play can be attributed to a more efficient offense that is seeing a total team effort. In the 12 league games, the team has seen a total of 42 double-digit scoring efforts distributed over eight different players. (See chart on page 5 for more information.)
Against Northwestern State, A&M-Corpus Christi put six players in double figures, led by John Jordan's 22. It marked the first time that the team has had six players finish with 10 points or more since Nov. 16, 2006, the season opener of the team's Southland Championship season.
Contrast that to last year in league play, when John Jordan and Will Nelson combined to average 28.4 points – 46.6 percent of the Islanders' offensive production. This year, Jordan and Rashawn Thomas are combining for 27.7, but that is just 37.5 percent of the offense.
The Islanders have prided themselves on their defense all season, but the performance against Lamar goes down as one of the finest in school history. The Cardinals scored 35 points, which marked the fewest by the team in the shot-clock era. Lamar scored 11 points before halftime, shooting 4-for-28. The 11 points scored marked the second fewest posted in a half in LU history and the lowest by the Cardinals since the 1958 season.
The 35 points allowed were the fewest surrendered by an Islanders team in program history, and in fact marked the first time A&M-Corpus Christi has ever held an opponent under 40. The previous low was 42 points against Texas State on Nov. 18, 2007. However, the 11 points allowed in the first half were not a new record for the Islanders. A&M-Corpus Christi surrendered just seven points before halftime to Savannah State on Dec. 29, 2005, but the Tigers went on to score 38 in the second half. In that opening stanza, SSU went 2-for-23, while Lamar logged a 4-for-28 opening half on Feb. 1.
GUESS WHO'S BACK
In addition to the other newcomers, the Islanders have a welcome face back in the fold that was missing last season. Redshirt sophomore Jake Kocher, who sat out 2012-13 after double hip labrum surgery, was back in the lineup in the season opener.
His return to the court was a triumphant one, as Kocher poured in 10 points to go along with a career-high six rebounds and four steals against HTU. In the UTSA contest, he played 25 minutes, totaling 11 points, four rebounds and four steals. He went through a prolonged cold stretch in December, though.
The start of conference play saw Kocher bust out of his slump, going 4-for-7 from the floor for 14 points at UCA, nabbing eight rebounds and posting a career-high five steals. It marked the first five-steal game for the Islanders since Garland Judkins had five swipes against Central Arkansas in 2011.
Over the last seven conference affairs, he has finished in double figures four times and is averaging 8.6 points to go with 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 steals.
He has seen a knack for steals, fast-break points and three-point plays as of late. At Nicholls he had 13 points – 10 in the paint – including a pair of three-point plays after notching steals. He scored a career-high 15 against Southeastern, earning two three-point play opportunities and scoring all six of the Islanders' fast-break points. And against New Orleans he had a career-best six steals – one off Kevin Palmer's school record. He is third in the league with 2.2 steals per game in Southland play.
In 2011-12, Kocher did most of his damage down the stretch, including a career-high 15 points in the season's penultimate game at UT Arlington. He is the city of Austin's all-time leading scorer from his days at St. Michael's Academy.
HOME SWEET HOME
After wrapping up a four-game road swing on Saturday, the Islanders now will finish off the regular season with five of their last six games at the American Bank Center. The team's only contest on the road that remains is a Feb. 22 matchup at Houston Baptist.
The Islanders have actually had a successful go of it on the road, posting a 6-2 mark in away contests so far in league play, the second-best mark in school history. A&M-Corpus Christi will be looking to improve on its home performances. The Islanders are 2-2 in league play at home, and just 1-2 in the American Bank Center.
Among all the impressive stats that the Islanders racked up in the win over Central Arkansas, perhaps none was more telling than the fact that the team piled up 50 points in the paint. Of the 26 field goals the Islanders registered inside the arc, 25 of those came in the paint - the lone exception a long two from Brandon Pye.
Northwestern State provided another stellar inside performance, with nine different players recording points in the paint for a total of 48. Of the 77 points A&M-Corpus Christi scored at McNeese, 42 came in the paint. They added 42 in the paint at Incarnate Word.
The Islanders have had at least 20 points in the paint in each of the last 20 contests and are averaging 36.7 points in the paint in league play. (See chart above for full breakdown.)
With an 8-4 conference record, the Islanders are off to their best start in league play since 2008-09. In the championship season of 2006-07, the team started 11-1 en route to a 14-2 league mark. This marks the best start of the Willis Wilson era, as the team won nine conference games combined his first two years.
The Islanders have seen an improvement on the offensive end with the advent of conference play. A&M-Corpus Christi has topped 70 points in 10 of its 12 conference contests, up from just five in 11 non-conference matchups. Part of the offensive improvement can be attributed to efficiency. The Islanders are shooting .491 from the field – the league's best mark in conference play – up from .430 in non-conference affairs.
Another key for the team has been the contributions from its bench. In league play, A&M-Corpus Christi has seen its bench outscore the opposition in every game but one, totaling 391 points (32.6 per game) to the opponents' 211 (17.6). The Islanders' second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers have all come off the bench. Rashawn Thomas leads the way with 12.0 as a reserve, while Joy Williamson (9.0) and Jake Kocher (8.3) are just behind.