The next opponent for the Dukes would be familiar if this was a football game. Not because the gridiron Dukes have played them – though they are both in I-AA – but because the Mountaineers were media darlings for a time following their defeat of FBS Michigan a few years ago.
It was a great sports moment and a great underdog story, but that time has passed. And their basketball team is nowhere near as good.
The basketball version of the Appalachian State Mountaineers visits the Palumbo Center this Thursday as a team that is 0 – 8 against Division I competition and 0-6 on the road. Their three wins have all come against lower division schools – two DII and one NAIA, to be precise. They have another game against questionable competition – NAIA Bluefield College visits Boone tonight – bef0re traveling to the AJ Palumbo Center.
They’ve had this sort of record before during the early going. The Mountaineers had a long OOC losing streak last year before finishing a game out of .500. It’s been a middling team the last several years, with their last noteworthy season coming four years ago when they won a couple of games in the College Insider Tournament.
Head coach Jason Capel is in his fourth season at the helm of the program following the brief second-go-round of Buzz Peterson, the most successful coach in the modern history of the program.
Peterson was the coach leading up to the school’s second NCAA tournament appeareance and won 3 conference regular season titles in a row. On the merit of that coaching performance, he left for Tulsa, where he won the NIT in his first year. He moved up further, falling on his face at Tennessee, never getting the Vols more than 5 games over .500 or in a tournament better than the NIT. He ultimately came back to App State for one year, leading the program deep into the CIT, before he left yet again. Capel was an assistant on that staff.
App State’s performance against the weak schools isn’t the result of skill; it’s often been the result of brute forcing over a weaker opponent, a point that coach Capel recognized in a recent feature on the school’s athletic site. “The last game, I think aginast North Greenville, we won, but you didn’t feel good about the way that you won. We wanted to come out and win the right way, and defend, we didn’t want to come out and win because we were bigger, faster, and stronger, and get into bad habits.”
Thursday’s matchup is the back end of a home-and-home. The Dukes won the first game 73-72 after some late-game dramatics. In that game, now-graduated Nate Healy and now-junior Tab Hamilton took center stage for the Mountaineers. Hamilton has proven to be a consistent contributor. He leads the team in several categories – notably three point shooting. He recently dropped 33 points on Presbyterian.
The team lacks interior presence and was pushed around by the Blue Hose. Those sort of defensive lapses must drive coach Capel crazy. ”People are going to make shots. But can you defend? Can you box out? Can you do the little things that it takes to win?” said Capel earlier this season.
Michael Obacha and Rantavious Gilbert are the two main players in the paint for the Mountaineers, though neither have been productive offensively. Obacha has been an effective rebounder, averaging nearly 10 per game. Gilbert went off in their last game (against one of the lower division teams), scoring 22 points. The problem? Those 22 points were three more than he’s scored in his previous 14 appearances combined.
Appalachian State does have some good players – Tab among them – but that lack of an inside game is why they seem to be struggling. ”I think we’re a very talented team, once we can put everyone together as one cohesive unit.”
Putting them together has also proven difficult, as the team is towards the bottom of Division I in assists. Coach Capel noted issues with sharing the ball as far back as the team’s Black & Gold scrimmage.
This team lacks the size – and some of the skill – that they had when Duquesne last played them. Conversely, the Dukes have some more height and some more talent. They’re a team that’s awful on the road and doesn’t have a win against anyone in Division I. If the Dukes can keep a lid on the three point balls, they’ll be all set.