The Call: Augie at USF

I think most would agree that the USF/Augie basketball double header doesn’t pack quite the same punch this time around, what with it being the second time at the Stewart Center, but probably moreso because we’re still so early in the season.
All four teams have played one conference game so far (only Augie’s women lost), and will play another game Friday before staging round one of the intra-city rivalry on Saturday at USF.
Augie visits Southwest Minnesota State Friday, while USF hosts Wayne State.

Last year, the Vikings men were a playoff team, while the USF men scratched and clawed their way to an 8-14 conference record, a decent debut showing considering they didn’t have a peritcularly intimidating roster.
And despite that disparity, both meetings were competitive and entertaining. They each finished with identical 70-58 final scores, with the home team winning both. I felt like the one at Augie was closer than the score indicated while the one at USF was a little less so, but others might disagree.

The USF women were similarly mediocre as their men, while the Augie women, of course, went to the Final Four. The Vikings won both meetings easily.

What about this year?
The Viking men are rebuilding, but then again, they were rebuilding last year, too. Augie figured to be strong despite their youth this year, but losing Al Richter (injury), Zach Huisken (quit) and Brennan Olson (injury) left them even younger, as well as thinner, obviously.
Sophomores Dan Jansen and Casey Schilling have both been tremendous so far. They’re already arguably among the top 10 players in the 16-team conference, and when you’ve got that kind of star power, it can take you a long way (as Cam McCaffrey showed last year).
That said, the Vikings are extremely young at guard, with freshmen Matt Brazendale, Ethan Guske and Adam Beyer and sophomore Jamall Taylor, and that group has been, not surprisingly, extremely inconsistent.
When the Vikings frontcourt plays well, I imagine Augie will be awfully tough to beat, because Jansen and Schilling look like they’re going to be able to get theirs night in and night out (though it’s fair to wonder how long they’ll hold up, Jansen because he no longer has Huisken to spell him, Schilling because of his style of play).

As for USF, they were a tough team to watch at times last year. AJ Holland and James Rader were solid players, and Derek Brown really emerged, but they made almost everything they did look extremely difficult. They managed to overcome physical shortcomings with solid defense and simple effort. They controlled Augie from start to finish in the Stewart Center last year, and it wans’t because they necessarily played all that great. They just played really, really hard.

The USF students/fans played a role, too, as it was obvious to everyone in the building that Jansen was rattled, to the point that Billeter had to take him out of the game after he airballed a series of free throws.

I’ll be a little surprised if that kind of thing happens again. But it shouldn’t be as necessary, because I think USF has a better team this year.
Brown is still Brown, while Robert Goffney has taken a big step forward both as a scorer and a leader. Mack Johnson is a smooth shooter, and Mahlon Jones, Charles Ward and Preston Rayburn all have the ability to score. Jordan Stotts and Bryan Kielpinski are strong in the frontcourt, Stotts as a shooter and offensive rebounder and Kielpinski as a big body. It should be fun to watch him go up against Jansen. He’ll be giving up an inch or so, but he won’t back down physically.
Cutler Finneman was a guy they were pretty high on when they recruited him, but he hasn’t impressed me so far.

It’s dicey to read into stats when so few games have been played and almost all of them have been against non-conference foes, but the Cougars average 90 points per game. They’re a completely different team than they were last year.

It’s too early to even really try to determine which team is better, but I know last year Augie was definitively better, and the Cougars still managed a split. With the team’s being more evenly matched this season, I’m guessing we’ll get another split, and hopefully both games will be as competitive as they were last year.

Prediction: Cougars 83, Vikings 79

On the women’s side, I’ve been impressed with the Cougars so far. Laura Johnson is a terrific player — she plays a similar role to USF that Casey Schilling does for the Vikings, in that she basically does everything. She’s averaging 17 points and 8 boards a game, shooting 42 percent on 3s and 95 percent at the line.
But last year, all the Vikings had to do was stop (or slow) Johnson and USF had no one else who could hurt them.
This year, sophomore point guard Taylor Varsho, a transfer from Colorado State, has given them that, averaging over 13 points a game. She hasn’t actually played all that well so far — she’s not shooting well and seems to be trying way too hard to make big plays every time she has the ball — but once she settles in she’s going to make a big impact on both ends of the court.
And while Shaunteva Ashley and Emily Schulte are a handful for anyone, Chrissy Strassburg and a quickly-emerging Marie Malloy are better equipped to handle that matchup than people think.
The big advantage USF has is in the paint. Johnson is a 3-point shooter but she can hurt you with her back to the basket, too, while 6-2 freshman Sam Knecht (8.0 points, 5.6 rebounds) is going to be a handful for the Vikings.

That said, Dave Krauth has not surprisingly found a way to work around his team’s lack of post depth. Rhianna Gullickson has done a nice job, averaging 10 points and six rebounds while playing the most minutes of anyone not named Ashley or Schulte, and senior Katie Meister had a breakout game in the conference-opening loss to Wayne State. I’d keep an eye on Meister. Krauth’s teams have often had an unheralded upperclassman emerge when they need it most. She could be it.

I think on many nights, the Vikings success will be very simply dictated by whether or not they make their outside shots.
Ashley, Schulte and Riley Nordgaard were a combined 5-for-26 against Wayne, and they lost by five. Meister kept them in it, but they don’t have the strength inside to handle that kind of inaccuracy from their guards.

I still think Augie is the better team at this point, but they haven’t always been a great road team.
I’ll give the Cougars the slight edge due to the home court, but nothing would surprise me. As with the men, I expect a close, entertaining game.

Prediction: USF 72, Augie 70

I’ll be hosting a live chat from the games at argusleader.com/mattchat. Women start at 4, men half hour after the conclusion. Tune in if you can’t make it, and if you can, you know, send me jokes from your smartphones.