ISLANDERS (18-15) AT
THE OPENING TIP
Fresh off its first win in a postseason tournament in program history, the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi men's basketball team will take on the University of the Pacific on Saturday, March 22, in Stockton, Calif., in the second round of the College Insider Tournament. The Islanders (18-15) will play their 34th game of the season, a new high in A&M-Corpus Christi lore. Rashawn Thomas scored 22 points to lead five players in double figures for the Islanders in an 82-71 win over Northern Colorado in the opening round.
• Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has now logged 12 more wins this season than it did in 2012-13, tied for the second-largest improvement in the country (one behind UW-Milwaukee).
• Junior John Jordan was named First Team All-Southland Conference, becoming the first Islander to pick up first team recognition since Kevin Palmer in 2010. Jordan is in the school's career top 10 in points (9th, 1,042), assists (2nd, 466), rebounds (9th, 386), steals (6th, 119), minutes (4th, 3,092) and free-throws made (2nd, 373).
• Defense has been paramount to the team's success. The Islanders have allowed just two of the last nine teams to reach 70 points in regulation, and the opposition is shooting just .414 from the field in that stretch, .336 beyond the arc.
• Junior Hameed Ali has stepped up his game during the Islanders' last nine games, averaging 3.3 assists and 9.2 points. He has posted a 4.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in that span. He has led the team in scoring twice in the last three games.
• The Islanders' seven-game win streak to end the regular season was 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.
• Freshman Rashawn Thomas had a monster game at Northern Colorado, going for 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field. He added three steals, two assists and one block to lead the Islanders to the win.
• The Islanders have also been efficient on the offensive end as of late, shooting over 50 percent in six of the last nine games, 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.
• 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. His 252 rebounds this season are the second most in school history, behind only Demond Watt's 275 in 2010-11.
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 5.3 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 20 times and at least five rebounds in 16 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 assists (2nd, 466), rebounds (9th, 386), steals (6th, 119), minutes (4th, 3,092) and free-throws made (2nd, 373). 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 1,042 career points.
As of late, his presence as a distributor has been exceptional. He has averaged 6.4 assists over the last 10 games and has a 1.7 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. He broke the record for the third time this year as a junior, posting 169 to this point in the year. He is now just 28 assists away from shattering Brian Evans' career record of 493, a mark that he is on pace to pass early next season.
ABOUT THE CIT
Founded in 2009, the College Insider Tournament is run by CollegeInsider.com, providing 32 teams from non-BCS conferences with an additional avenue to earn spots in the postseason. Since its inception, 23 conferences have been represented in the CIT, including Southland squads McNeese State (2012) and Oral Roberts (2013). The Islanders will be joined in this year's tournament by fellow Southland institution Sam Houston State.
All 31 games will be played on campus sites. In an effort to minimize travel and limit class time missed, the CIT does not determine future opponents until after the results of the previous round, ensuring geographic stability. Should the Islanders advance, they would not know their opponent until after Saturday's game.
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 2001.
The mask came off in February, and that unleashed an impressive stretch. It started at UIW, as he went 7-for-10 from the floor for a career-best 21 points. He followed that with 20 points on 7-for-7 shooting at ACU, 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 vs. UCA, making him 21-for-26 from the field over the three games.
His last outing may be his finest, though, as he was 9-for-11 for 22 points to go with three steals, two assists and a block at Northern Colorado. 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 13 times.
Thomas was a McDonald's All-America nominee and was named City Player of the Year his senior season at Southeast HS.
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.
The Hayward, Calif., native will be returning to his home state for the first time in his collegiate career, and he will be doing that amidst one of the best stretches of his career. Since being shut out at Abilene Christian, he has averaged 10.4 points in the last eight games, posting 26 assists to just four turnovers (6.5:1 ratio).
He has made significant progress as a distributor, serving as the team's point guard when John Jordan is on the bench. He has moved into seventh on the Islanders' all-time list with his 182 dimes, and he is also in the top 10 in minutes, logging 2,264 minutes in his three years.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has now logged 12 more wins this season (18) than it did in 2012-13 (6). That total is tied for the second biggest turnaround in the country, one behind UW-Milwaukee's plus-13 and tied with several teams at plus-12.
The Islanders have also had quite a turnaround since the calendar flipped to 2014. A&M-Corpus Christi has as many wins (15) in the calendar year 2013 as it did in the first 2 1/2 seasons of Willis Wilson's tenure.
The team recently wrapped 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 has posted 10 boards or more in two of the last three games. He now has 252 on the year, second highest in school history, while his 173 caroms on the defensive end are the most in Islanders lore.
Knowles is second in the conference with his team-leading 7.6 rebounds per game. He is fourth in the Southland in field goal percentage, shooting .580. In conference games, he hit 68.8 percent of his shots from the field, the best mark in the Southland.
That is a significant improvement from the prior year. 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.
Another key for the team has been contributions from its bench. In league play, the Islanders bench outscored the opposition significantly, totaling 537 points (29.8/game) to the opponents' 320 (17.8).
Particular among the bench players is the Islanders' "turn-up squad" of Rashawn Thomas, Joy Williamson and Jake Kocher. The trio normally comes off the bench as a unit at or around the under-16 timeout of the first half and often ratchets up the defensive pressure along with an increased efficiency on the offensive end.
Thomas has averaged 11.0 points in 24 career games, all off the bench, while Williamson has scored 7.8 on the season, mostly coming off the bench himself. The bench scored 40 points to UNC's 20 on Wednesday.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
A hallmark of the Islanders' success over the last nine games has been the defense they have played. A&M-Corpus Christi has allowed its opposition to reach 70 points in regulation just twice in that period.
Opponents have shot just .433 from the field overall in the last 10 games, and beyond the arc, the opposition is connecting at just a .333 rate. As a result, the Islanders have held the opposition to just 63.7 points in the last 10.