For a couple of weeks, they didn’t even need a bus for road games. A van was more than enough. Heck, an economy-sized SUV might’ve even done the trick.
When they hit the floor for pregame warmups, they didn’t even bother with a team drill, opting instead to have a quick shootaround before the opening tip.
And behind closed doors in practice, with a manager filling in here and an assistant coach stepping in there, they ran through their plays, focusing on execution rather than flow, considering crisp offensive technique versus run and gun.
Battling injuries and academic issues, the Central Carolina Cougars men’s basketball team went from a full roster of recruited players to a scant five guys in uniform on a few nights this month. In a win over Belmont Abbey’s JV team on Jan. 19, the Cougars played the final seconds with just four players on the hardwood after having one foul out.
But they won. And while their record may have dipped below .500 as they begin to recover a roster than will soon stand at a whopping eight players for the remainder of the season, the Cougars aren’t out of the running in the NJCAA Region X Conference just yet.
And that’s because, even with barely the bare minimum needed to play ball, the Cougars continue to do what they’ve always done — run.
“Teams see us come into the gym and think, ‘Oh, all we have to do is run them into the ground,’” says the Cougars third-year coach Doug Connor. “But sometimes that backfires on them because we don’t get tired.”
Hey, when you can’t scrimmage in practice, you have to fill the extra time somehow. And so if you don’t like conditioning drills, don’t play for Central Carolina. “Yeah, we’re doing more running,” Connor says of practice.
But don’t call the Department of Social Services just yet, though. The Cougars do get breaks.
“Having only five or six guys really forces you to coach a lot differently,” Connor says. “Like timeouts. I have to be careful with my timeouts. I need to use them as rest periods.”
Other than that, the rest stops can occasionally come on the floor — and with the clock running.
Consider the victory over Belmont Abbey. Ahead by four points midway through the second half, and with their five players in various stages of foul trouble, the Cougars went to a weave offense. Running the ball through a series of handoffs and short passes, Central Carolina wound the shot clock down to 10 seconds on each possession before engaging their halfcourt offense.
On defense, rather than play their typical man-to-man, the Cougars switched to a packed-in zone, relying on rebounding fundamentals and straight-up defense to try to get the ball back and bleed the clock.
It worked. The Cougars won, 72-64, with four on the floor and one on the bench.
“Sometimes you have to make the game shorter,” Connor says, “and you have to be smart. Once we got about a 4-point lead, we knew we needed to value every possession and use as much of it as we could.”
Then again, that philosophy pretty much goes against everything Cougar basketball is typically about. They are more of the “Seven Seconds or Less” mentality — inbound the ball and go, getting a shot up within the first seven seconds of the shot clock.
And now that they are back to seven players — an eighth will join the team next week after getting clearance for an injury hardship — the Cougars are running again. They fell to Sandhills Community College 112-97 on Wednesday night.
While the loss was still enough to keep Connor up late at night (”We played good, just not good enough to win,” he says.), it bodes well for the rest of the season, which still has a month left before the league tournament.
With eight in uniform, some would call them shorthanded.
The Cougars, though, will think of themselves as deep.
“One thing with five, six, seven or eight guys — there’s never any whining on the bench,” Connor says. “Everybody’s going to get enough minutes.”