No. 2 ISLANDERS (17-14, 14-4) AT
THE OPENING TIP
The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi men's basketball team returns to the Merrell Center for the first time since 2010 when it hits the court on Friday, March 14. The Islanders earned second place in the Southland, and thus have earned a bye to the semifinals of the 2014 Southland Conference Basketball Tournament. A&M-Corpus Christi made it to the second round of the tournament in 2009 and 2010 in addition to winning the championship in 2007 en route to the school's only NCAA Tournament berth.
• Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has now logged 11 more wins this season than it did in 2012-13, the second largest improvement in the country (one behind UW-Milwaukee).
• Junior John Jordan was named First Team All-Southland Conference laurels, becoming the first Islander to pick up first team recognition since Kevin Palmer in 2010.
• The Islanders' seven-game win streak is the longest in the Willis Wilson era and the longest for A&M-Corpus Christi since a 10-game streak in the 2006-07 season. The seven-game winning streak in conference matched that team for the longest conference stretch in program history.
• Junior Hameed Ali has stepped up his game during the Islanders' seven-game win streak, averaging 3.3 assists and 8.7 points. He has posted a 3.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in that span. He led the team with 12 points against Nicholls in the season finale.
• Defense has been paramount during the win streak as well. The Islanders have allowed just one of the seven teams to reach 70 points in regulation, and the opposition is shooting just .401 from the field in that stretch. In the team's first 13 wins, A&M-Corpus Christi had failed to score 70 points just one time, a 58-35 win over Lamar. In each of the last four games, the Islanders have registered wins despite not cracking 70.
• Zane Knowles snared 17 rebounds against HBU on March 1, including 15 on the defensive end. It marked the fourth-most rebounds in a game in school history. The 15 defensive boards are a school record. He added six blocks in the game, the fourth-best mark in Islanders lore.
• The Islanders have also been efficient on the offensive end during the streak, shooting .535 from the field, including two of the best performances in school history. The Islanders shot .660 in the win over Central Arkansas, second best in Islanders lore, and nearly matched that by shooting .649 against Nicholls.
• Senior Joy Williamson has posted at least eight points in each of the last five games, and has done so by attacking the rim. Williamson is 18-for-24 with 32 of his 46 points coming in the paint in that stretch.
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 the on- and off-court leader for one of the most improved teams in the nation. The Houston native picked up First Team All-Southland Conference honors for his efforts this season, his first career conference honor.
He leads the team and is 10th in the league with his 14.9 points per game, while his 5.2 assists are second. Despite his 5-foot-10 frame, he has also pulled in 4.6 boards per game. He has posted 20 points or more on 10 occasions, five assists or more 18 times and at least five rebounds in 15 games this year.
He earned his first career weekly honor on Feb. 17, as he was named Southland Player of the Week. He started the week with a solid 10 points and eight assists with just two turnovers in a win over UCA. He had a tremendous finish against Oral Roberts, scoring or assisting on 25 of the Islanders' final 26 points, scoring 22 in total to go with nine 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 (9th, 377), assists (2nd, 454), minutes (4th, 3,018), free throws (3rd, 363) and steals (7th, 119). He became the ninth player in school history to join the 1,000-point club with a layup in the first half against McNeese and now has 1,015 career points.
As of late, his presence as a distributor has been exceptional. He has averaged 6.2 assists over the last 10 games and has a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio in that time. He had seven games in conference play with at least seven assists.
Jordan broke the school record with 138 assists as a freshman, then bested his own mark with 159 as a sophomore. His 157 dimes this year are second in school history, giving him the top three assist totals in Islanders lore. He is now just 40 assists away from shattering Brian Evans' career record of 493, a mark that he is on pace to pass early next season.
THE UNMASKED MAN
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. He returned to the court on Dec. 5 at Oklahoma, sporting a mask to protect his face. Thomas showed no ill effects from the headgear, posting 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 vs. Sul Ross State on Nov. 16, 2001.
The mask came off in February, and that unleashed an impressive stretch. 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. He followed that with 20 points on 7-for-7 shooting, becoming the second Islanders player (joining Josh Ervin, who did it twice in his Islanders career) to go 7-for-7 or better in a single game. He added a 7-for-9 performance on Thursday, making him 21-for-26 from the field over the three games.
Thomas averaged 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds in conference play, while his 25 blocks in league play were best on the team. He has scored in double figures 11 times, including a double-double at Oral Roberts.
Thomas was a McDonald's All-America nominee and was named City Player of the Year his senior season at Southeast HS.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has now logged 11 more wins this season (17) than it did in 2012-13 (6). That total was the second biggest turnaround in the country through March 10, tied with Manhattan and Toledo, just one victory behind UW-Milwaukee's plus-12.
The Islanders have also had quite a turnaround since the calendar flipped to 2013. A&M-Corpus Christi had more wins (11) in the first two months of 2014 than it did in all of 2013 (8).
The team is also on a seven-game winning streak, the longest in the Willis Wilson era and the longest for A&M-Corpus Christi since a 10-game streak in the 2006-07 season. That year's Islanders squad was perfect from Dec. 29 through Jan. 31, a span of 34 days.
The Islanders' most physically notable player is, without question, senior Zane Knowles. The native of Nassau, Bahamas, stands 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds and has shown he can be a force inside for the Islanders this year.
He showed up in a big way in the season opener, scoring 12 points and snaring 18 rebounds for his first career double-double. The 18 rebounds matched the second-highest total in school history, and were the most for an Islander since Corey Lamkin grabbed 18 at Air Force on Jan. 21, 2004. He has seven double-doubles on the season.
His finest performance came at McNeese State, as he went 8-for-9 from the field, scoring 16 points and snaring nine rebounds. He had a quiet offensive day at Nicholls, but grabbed 10 boards in the win, then followed that up with his fifth double-double against Southeastern, posting 11 points and 11 boards.
After combining for just 10 points and one rebound at UIW and ACU, he started a tremendous stretch over the next four games. He posted 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and added nine boards against UCA, then followed that up with his sixth double-double of the year, with 12 points and 11 rebounds against ORU. He made it back-to-back double-doubles at HBU, finishing with 10 and 11.
Then in the second game against the Huskies, he had one of the best two-point games in all of college basketball this season. Knowles snared 17 rebounds (fourth-most in Islanders lore), including 15 on the defensive end (most in school history) and added a career-high six blocks (fourth-most ever) against HBU. He was a crucial part of the Islanders holding the Huskies to just 29.6 percent from the floor. He had an off night with just three boards against McNeese, but bounced back with 11 caroms in the season finale against Nicholls to give him 240 on the year – third highest in school history.
Knowles is second in the conference with his team-leading 7.7 rebounds per game. He is second in the Southland in field goal percentage, shooting .594. In conference games, he has hit 68.8 percent of his shots from the field, the best mark in the Southland.
As a junior in 2012-13, he averaged 5.3 points and 4.0 rebounds. He came to the Islanders after a year at Pearl River (Miss.) Community College and a season at Grambling.
The Islanders were blessed with a spectacular opportunity this summer, taking part in a 10-day tour of Italy that saw the team play four games. The NCAA allows teams to take an international tour every four years. In addition to getting to play against professional teams, the Islanders had the added benefit of 10 extra practice days prior to departing.
The team visited Milan, Varese, Florence and Rome during the journey, which ran from Aug. 20-30. A&M-Corpus Christi posted a 3-1 record against international teams during the foreign tour, its lone loss coming to a team that went 9-for-10 in the fourth quarter from beyond the arc.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
A hallmark of the Islanders' seven game win streak has been the defense they have played. A&M-Corpus Christi has allowed its opposition to reach 70 points in regulation just once in the last seven games, that coming at the hands of a Central Arkansas team that plays at a fast pace.
Opponents have shot just .401 from the field overall in the seven-game streak, and beyond the arc, the opposition is connecting at just a .330 rate. As a result, the Islanders have held each of their last four opponents to 61 points or less, and have surrendered an average of 59.3 in the last seven contests.
In the victory over UCA, the Islanders went 33-for-50 from the field to shoot .660 in the contest. It marked the second-highest field-goal percentage in school history, and the best since going 43-for-64 (.672) against Huston-Tillotson on Feb. 22, 2006. It was the highest field-goal percentage against a Division I program in school history. Last game against Nicholls, the team went 24-for-37 (.649) and missed five of its last nine shots down the stretch.
The Islanders have shot better than 50 percent from the field in five of the last eight games. The Islanders are shooting .503 from the field – the league's best mark in conference play – up from .430 in non-conference affairs.
With that has come an increase in scoring output. A&M-Corpus Christi has topped 70 points in 12 of its 18 conference contests, up from just five in 11 non-conference matchups. The Islanders have registered five wins this season – at Lamar and each of the last four contests – in which they have failed to reach 70 points.
BACK ON TRACK
It was a tough offseason for Hameed Ali. The junior suffered a hip injury, had surgery and was unable to play basketball from April to October. He was unable to play during the team's foreign tour in Italy, though he did get to make the trip with the team, and the staff even considered redshirting him this season.
But the junior who started 29 games a season ago was not to be kept off the court. Ali had two decent performances the first two games of the season, as he got his feel for the game back, then exploded in the Holiday Inn Downtown Marina Tournament. He was named to the all-tournament team after averaging 14.0 points in the three-game affair. A week later, he scored a career-high 21, going 8-for-12 from the field, at UTSA.
He has had several strong performances lately. He had an outstanding night against Central Arkansas, going 5-for-6 from the field and 5-for-6 from the line for 16 points. At HBU, he went 6-for-10 from the field, leading the team with 13 points.
His calling card during his Islanders career has been offensive efficiency, where he has 124 assists to 67 turnovers in the last two years. He usually serves as the team's point guard when John Jordan is on the bench. He has 15 assists to just two turnovers in the last five games.
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 537 points (29.8 per game) to the opponents' 320 (17.8).
The Islanders' second- and third-leading scorers have all come off the bench. Rashawn Thomas leads the way with 11.1 as a reserve, while Joy Williamson (8.7) is close behind. The Islanders have outscored 15 of their 18 conference opponents in bench points.
The Islanders' strong performance in league play can be attributed to a more efficient offense that is seeing a total team effort. In the 18 league games, the team has seen a total of 60 double-digit scoring efforts distributed over eight different players. (See chart below for more information.) Those eight are all averaging over 6.3 points per game.
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 25.9, but that is just 35.8 percent of the offense.